Families: The Parenting Trap

By Alison DeNisco, published on July 3, 2012 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

Mothers- and fathers-to-be often have similar ideas about how much responsibility each will take on when the baby arrives. But postpartum reality quickly veers away from the parents' egalitarian expectations, reports a study in the Journal of Family Psychology. Mothers indicated that fathers were doing less work than they had expected, while fathers acknowledged that mothers were doing more.

One explanation? First-time parents idealize how much work fathers will actually do, notes Kent State sociologist Kristin Mickelson, a coauthor of the study. After a baby arrives, both parents often revert to traditional gender roles. Another possibility may be maternal gatekeeping, whereby mothers resist letting their partners help with the baby, out of fear of losing their singular identity in the family.

Whatever the root cause, the mismatch between mothers' expectations and postpartum reality predicted depression and relationship dissatisfaction. Dads' mismatched expectations mostly led them to complain that they wanted more playtime with their infants.

Feeling good in the new role of parent is not just about who does what. "Being able to empathize and to validate a partner's feelings is as important as what one is actually doing in terms of childcare labor," says Inna Khazan, a clinical psychologist who teaches at Harvard Medical School.