Shortening The Second Shift

By Julie Shields, Author of How to Avoid the Mommy Trap

Do you work outside of the home, squeezing telephone calls about ballet class, soccer practice and the like between board meetings, only to come home to make dinner, give the kids a bath or oversee their homework, and put them to bed too? Every so often, do you flare up at your husband, exclaiming that you just can't do it all anymore? And does he help out for a while until you both slip back into the old patterns?

If this sounds all too familiar, you're not alone. Many women unexpectedly find themselves with too much to do after they give birth. In a landmark study, sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild documented "the second shift," the extra month of twenty-four hour days working Moms put in each year at home in comparison to their husband.

Even if you started out this way, you don't have to remain overburdened for the next eighteen years. Numerous effective methods can get Dad involved in those daily hair brushing/put your coat on NOW/let's look at that homework struggles, as well as the household management and grunt work. There are also surefire ways to split the responsibilities in situations such as what to do when your nanny needs to travel overseas, your son develops an ear infection and has to stay home, or even determining who will switch to a part-time work schedule or work flexibly.

The first step towards doing less and your husband doing more: decide to change the status quo. Sometimes, simply asking in the right way can bring about all kinds of great results. At others, a little harmless guile may do the trick. Though it's a start, remember that mere delegation will not relieve your mental overload. As long as you remain responsible for seeing that something gets done, you'll still be over-stretched. Follow the simple guide below and you will find yourself refreshed, relaxed, and supported.

  • Assume Nothing
    Remember the injunction of Felix Unger? ("When you assume . . .") Working Moms who assume only women can nurture, or that taking care of the home is a woman's job, end up with too many obligations. Dads can perform every child and house-related task except lactating - and here they can come close by feeding a late night bottle of expressed milk while Mom catches up on lost sleep. Assume nothing and watch the anxiety drift away.

  • Outwait Him
    We all have chores we don't mind doing and others we hate. Pick three you're not terribly invested in and just DON'T DO THEM. Maybe your husband hates to see dishes pile up in the sink but couldn't find his way to the washing machine if his life depended on it. Leave the dishes for him, then, and take your own sudsy bubble bath instead. The best part of this strategy: you don't have to say a word.

  • Get Out of Dodge
    It's excruciatingly difficult to watch a man bumbling along, especially when you know precisely what ill is about to occur. So don't look. Instead of sitting on the couch critiquing your husband, go to the local coffeehouse and catch up on your reading. He'll learn how to tend the children and keep the house reasonably neat (or at least intact). You won't see things that would only upset you, and you'll enjoy some personal time. Best of all, the kids will love Dad's more relaxed caregiving.

  • Take Back The Night
    Pick a night, starting with one night a month if you're really in dire straits and DON'T COME HOME. Let him take over the evening routine while you linger over dinner with an old friend, find a movie buddy, take an art class if you've always wanted to, work out; whatever. Think about what you miss most in your always-on-the-go lifestyle and grab it, if only for a few hours. Knowing that you have a "mini-vacation" coming up will make you a better, more patient worker and Mom.

    Do's & Don'ts
    Do use later births or new tasks that arise as opportunities for redistributing responsibility.

    Do hire help with laundry and housework whenever possible.

    Do sit down calmly with your husband and list all household and child duties, highlighting indifferent colors what each spouse does or is supposed to do. Renegotiate (sweetly and firmly), casting off discrete tasks.

    Do set aside time each week for uninterrupted conversation with your spouse about your relationship, work requirements, and the family.

    Do praise and appreciate your husband's efforts, even if they don't meet up to your standards. While you're at it, lower or suspend your standards. The goal here is for him to do more, not to do things exactly as you would (and for you to demonstrate competence rather than serve as the ideal 1950's homemaker).

    Do create a fun ritual with the whole family, whether it's grocery shopping or a trip to the library. Having adult company and participating in activities together can make all the difference.

    Don't assume you're stuck if you started out with unrealistic expectations of your ability to do it all.

    Don't "gatekeep." Gatekeepers dole out access for fathers to their children, giving countless instructions for even the shortest walk around the block.

    Don't attempt serious discourse with your husband in the morning before work, as he walks in the door, late at night, or at other inopportune moments.

    Don't ever take on a task solely because you believe it's the Mom's job.

    Don't criticize the way he diapers, cooks, cleans, or in any other way attempts to make your life easier. He won't try again if you do.

    Don't play martyr. You'll end up resentful, your kids won't benefit, and your husband will feel left out as well as confused.

    The Bottom Line
    We live in a transitional world. While many of us grew up expecting to work and have children at the same time, we don't have role models for doing so. As a result, we unthinkingly revert back to a "traditional" gender-based division of household labor when we become parents. To break out of this situation, we must intentionally (and consistently) create customized roles that comport with our new realities and desires. And we cannot discover our preferences if we remain mired in the expectations of the past.

    Clear and firm, yet loving, requests will accomplish far more with Dads than the more usual "screaming doormat" route. Just as important, Working Moms must relinquish some of their dominance over family life if they want to do less. At first, letting to will feel unnatural, almost non-maternal (the old expectations). But once Dads start parenting rather than baby-sitting, every family member will benefit, and sooner than you think.

    And Don't Forget To
    Consider Dad's employer's paternity, family, and sick leave policies, as well as his flexible working opportunities.

    Ask Moms whose husbands help out at home for tips.

    Julie Shields is the author How to Avoid the Mommy Trap. Julie Shields has a bachelor's degree from Johns Hopkins and a law degree from Duke. She practices trademark law for the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (PTO). At the PTO she advocated successfully for more flexible part-time work schedules. Julie is spearheading a federal employee union's effort to improve parental leave options. Visit her web site at