Darcy Lockman: ‘Maternal instinct is a lie. If women do certain things better, it’s because we’ve done them so many times’

In ‘All the Rage: Mothers, Fathers, and the Myth of Equal Partnership’, the U.S. psychologist takes on the unequal division of household chores. A word of warning for women readers: this book might make you mad

The writer Darcy Lockman.
The writer Darcy Lockman.

“All the women who have read the book tell me they got angry while reading it, and I understand: I get angry when I talk about it.” So begins our chat with Darcy Lockman, who brings together data, research and testimonials that reflect the disproportionate number of parental duties that fall on women in All the Rage: Mothers, Fathers, and the Myth of Equal Partnership. It was the birth of the psychologist’s first child that led her to realize that, though she never would have guessed it, inequality among couples is on the rise. “I was living like a second-class citizen in my own home. I tried to communicate my unhappiness to George, but he could only hear it as criticism, and then I never got through,” she writes.

The data that backs up the existence of such inequalities is quite devastating: once they have children, women add 22 hours of childcare to their week, while men add only 14. But men are compensated for their labor by taking away five hours of their household chores, while women stay constant with their 15 hours of work on the home. The latest data on daily time usage that was compiled by Pew Research and the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics found that women who work outside the home take on 65% percent of childcare responsibilities. Their male partners? 35%. In the wait for our partners to become capable of equally sharing such responsibilities, Lockman explains in her book, we are witnessing what political scientists have labelled “rising and unfulfilled expectations,” a factor that has historically given rise to revolutions, but that has yet to prompt women into civil revolt. Is it possible to change things? Why is it that the feminist promise of a true domestic partnership is almost never fulfilled? We talked about all of this with the author herself.

Question. What does it mean for women’s health to have to be constantly communicating to their husband about household chores?

Answer. It depends on how we feel about it. If we don’t really care about unequal distribution, it has no impact, but if we do care and don’t want things to be like that, it makes us angry. When we constantly repeat our needs to our partners and do not get the desired response, that anger increases. It is terrible to feel like we are with someone who refuses to listen to our needs, in addition to the impression that we are in a position where our demands are not being met. It is something that really ends up leaving its mark on our mental health.

Q. You point out the importance of leaving the “nagging wife” stereotype behind, but isn’t it curious that there’s never been a corresponding image of the “nagging husband”?

A. The problem is that when he complains, it’s perceived as his needs not being met, and in Western culture, we see people who express what they need and the person who complains through a negative lens. Instead of focusing on how one person in the couple is not helping, which is the reason why the wife complains, we claim that the problem lies with the person who is expressing their needs. The fact that there is no corresponding stereotype of a nagging husband is truly sexist, but you know why it doesn’t exist? Because men have nothing to complain about. It’s a way of reinforcing this idea that women have to take care of everything. What we have to do is internalize the idea that we don’t have to feel bad about expressing our displeasure. If we go to the bank to take money out and they tell us that we can’t do it, we’ll complain, right? We would talk about contractual agreements that allow us to push back to get our needs met, and yet, in romantic relationships, women are expected to put aside their needs. That’s not the way things are supposed to be.

Q. Do you think that talking about social sexism can make the conversation around domestic work less personal?

A. I hope so. I hope that couples read the book and understand where they fit into it. Because we are not conscious of our context, and we end up in a mess that wouldn’t be such a mess if both parties understood that society pushes us into positions of inequality, not because men are lazier, but because that is what we have internalized. I think it is important to understand that your partner is not the enemy: we have simply internalized the idea that men are more valuable, as are their time and their needs. These ideas end up being reflected in our relationships.

Q. Even couples who believe in equality see their dynamics change after having a baby. Why is that?

A. We all have values, and even if progressive spouses value their partner and don’t start out thinking that women should do everything, they must be aware that our values don’t always determine our behavior, no matter how much we think they do. We could assume that a husband will realize that his wife is taking care of all the housework, and will realize that it is important to re-distribute tasks, but contrary to assumptions, he will often think that the best strategy is for her to continue doing everything, based on the fact that “she does it better.” We justify our behaviors when they don’t align with our values.

Q. Do you think that if a couple reads your book before becoming parents, they will act differently once the baby comes?

A. If both of you take it seriously, and begin negotiations before the child arrives, because its arrival is going to involve a brutal amount of work, I think so. When you live with your partner and haven’t had children yet, the responsibilities are not so overwhelming. The man usually doesn’t even realize that his wife is already doing more work around the house, because she is not overwhelmed and exhausted yet. But when the baby arrives and we find ourselves with this unequal division of power, women get exhausted. We are not aware that the groundwork was already laid out for the man to be somewhat absent from household chores. If you are aware of these things, you know that to change them, that you have to be negotiating, constantly.

Q. You point out that women feel much more pressure to be good parents than men, who are praised the moment they provide the slightest amount of help. Why is this the case?

A. Mothers are expected to put their needs to the side for their children, and since we don’t expect that of fathers, when they put forth the minimum effort, they are applauded. It’s like when you start picking up garbage from the street: people will say you’re so good, because it’s not something that you’re expected to do.

Q. How can a couple embrace domestic equality?

A. It requires a lot of work within the couple, since each of them has to reflect on the role sexism plays in their life. Each person can decide whether or not they want things to be this way. Although we cannot individually change society, we can choose to make our relationship different. Society is not the way we want it to be, and I fear that is not going to change anytime soon. In the United States, middle-class women did not enter the workforce en masse until World War II, and when they did, it was because the men were at war. My point is that change didn’t come because women wanted to work, but because there was a moment of crisis that changed behavior. The coronavirus did something similar. People were forced to work from home, and it was the families in which the men telecommuted while their wives continued going to the office in which the distribution of the household chores evened out. In the United States, this happened to 10% of families and caused a shift that was not the result of a desire to change, but of an external crisis. It would appear that this is how social change happens. We cannot individually control when these changes occur; the only thing we can do is to try to improve the situation in our homes.

Q. Is the maternal instinct a lie?

A. Yes. What are instincts? Behaviors that we act out without having learned them. But one does learn how to be a father and how to be a mother. How do you put a diaper on? By learning how to do it. It’s not an instinct! How do you make sure that the baby isn’t in danger? That’s not something instinctive either: we know what is dangerous in our environment thanks to various lessons. The older our brain, the smaller the role that instincts play in our lives. What we call instinct is really a lesson, and the problem of calling it instinct is that the idea can take hold that only women have them, validating the way that men go out to have a good time while women stay home and take care of the kids.

Q. Another case of strategic incompetence?

A. It’s very easy to say that someone is better than you at something so that you don’t have to do anything, but in reality, the things that women are better at are the things we have learned to do. If we do it better, it’s because we’ve done it so many times. Those phrases are used to justify not taking on responsibilities.

Q. Marital happiness is impacted when women feel that the division of labor is unfair. Are we doomed to be unhappy in our relationships?

A. No! In fact, studies suggest that the only couples whose marital happiness is not diminished by parenthood are those who claim to share responsibilities equally. It is less important that the division is truly equal: the important thing is that they both feel like it is. If you know beforehand that the key your happiness as a couple lies in this equality, you will anticipate the work that is involved in parenting before the baby arrives, and thus prevent it from sabotaging the relationship.

Q. Women tend to set anger aside in favor of gratitude when faced with certain domestic inequalities. But isn’t anger the driving force behind many changes?

A. Gratitude helps us to be less angry. It’s true that we tend to rationalize our anger. This happens, for example, when we realize that our husband doesn’t help out much at home and we tell ourselves the classic: “Our mother had it worse.” Gratitude is important, but I think that we also have to feel anger. It’s vital to appreciate what he does do around the house, but also to recognize when we need him to do more.

Q. Why are women comfortable paying less attention to their own needs?

A. Little boys are brought up to embrace individualism, while women are trained to be communal. Men think about their own priorities and us women, in how everyone else is feeling. When a man-woman couple is formed, neither party understands that the other has been brought up so differently, because it is something that is taught to us since birth. When I began to live with my husband, I began noticing some strange things, and I couldn’t even identify why I found them so strange, until I realized that he always thought about his needs, and placed them before anything else. Mind you, my husband is wonderful, but when you live with a man, you realize how differently they experience the world. I don’t think they are aware of what things are like for us, because we tend to focus on society’s most powerful members: men. The bottom line is that they have been raised to think about themselves and we haven’t. We have to be flexible when it comes to both ways of thinking, but I think that there are moments in which it’s good for each of us to put our needs first, and others in which we have to think about other people. We are polarized by our education.

Q. Maybe we are so accustomed to inequality that sometimes we don’t even recognize it?

A. If we were always conscious of it, we’d go crazy. There are studies that show that in couples who claim that the division of chores in their home is equal, women actually do two-thirds of the work. If both partners feel that the division is fair, that’s fine, but the truth is that women are still doing much more.

Q. Even if there’s no easy answer, how can we try to get to domestic parity?

A. It’s important to be aware that this inequality can exist, even if we think it doesn’t. And when it is the case, a couple can act as a team to address what is coming their way. Life and relationships are hard enough; we don’t want this issue, which despite being tricky and delicate, is something that we can address and control, to be what separates us. If we share the work, come to an agreement on being aware of how important it is and how essential it is to be open to listening to each other in a collaborative manner, we can get close to that balanced distribution.

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