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Parenting

Keeping the Patriarchy Out of Your Parenting Partnership

Discover how you can reframe the impact of the patriarchy on your family.

Key points

  • Our society predisposes parents to undervalue the work of mothering and overvalue work traditionally done by men outside the home.
  • What is fundamentally a systemic problem can become the cause of personal/marital conflict.
  • Defining the patriarchy as the root problem can open doors to fresh solutions for new parents.

In 2022, work outside the home still holds greater value in our patriarchal society than does all the necessary labor that happens within the home. In her latest book, Essential Labor, Angela Garbes observes that “mothering is some of the only truly essential work humans do. Without people to care for our children, we are lost.” Mothering here refers to the work done by all who caretake as parents, irrespective of gender identity.

The devaluing of mothering—and concomitant overvaluing of work outside the home traditionally done exclusively by men—affects how both partners in a heterosexual couple relate to each other’s work, which work is visible to and appreciated by them, and which remains invisible and impossible to quantify. I see this dynamic all the time in my clinical practice.

Creating a Parenting Plan

Consider a couple I’ll call Joaquín and Allie. They had numerous talks about parenting roles and responsibilities before their daughter hit the scene. Neither had a job with paid family leave, so they decided to divide and conquer. Allie would take on most of the parenting for the first year, staying home with Eliana and pulling back on her freelance work. Joaquín wanted to be an involved dad but agreed to carry the lion’s share of financial responsibility. It seemed like a solid plan, and both felt better prepared for parenthood because of it.

Fast forward 10 months into Eliana’s life. When I met Joaquín and Allie, both were feeling lonely, unsatisfied with their roles, and confused. They had created a bulletproof parenting plan.

Elena Kalinicheva/Shutterstock
Why didn't their plan work?
Source: Elena Kalinicheva/Shutterstock

What Went Wrong

Allie said she resented not having time for herself. She knew caring for Eliana would be a full-time job, but she’d expected at least some breaks. Also, although she loved being a mother, she didn’t get recognition for all the work that went into it. As a result, her identity felt incomplete.

Joaquín understood why Allie was upset but resented her resentment. “When I offer to help,” he said, “you say that it’s easier to do it yourself, that telling me what you need me to do just makes more work for you. I’m stuck.” He also felt stressed about being the breadwinner. He had grown up believing that responsibility fell on him as a man, but now he wasn’t sure he could—or even wanted—to live up to those societal expectations. Because he felt ashamed of these feelings, he didn’t tell Allie, which kept him in his own bunker.

Joaquín and Allie’s challenges are far from unique in our society. My work with this couple focused on understanding some of the underlying societal issues that were impacting their family so they could begin to address them. In the process, I drew on principles from feminist therapy, narrative therapy, and other approaches that consider societal as well as individual perspectives.

Reframing the Problem

After Joaquín and Allie had both aired their feelings, we explored the role of the patriarchy in their partnership. We discussed how the dual responsibilities of paying for life and caring for life are too much for two people to manage alone, yet our society demands this of parents daily. This is a systemic issue, whereby parents have been left to handle everything related to parenting, but without childcare and other built-in supports to ensure their success.

Joaquín and Allie saw how they were at each other’s throats because they both felt like they were failing within the confines of the larger system. What was fundamentally a systemic problem had become the cause of personal/marital conflict.

I suggested they start by reframing their issues as systemic rather than an “each other” problem. This led them to see that even though they had carefully planned how to care for their daughter, they nevertheless faced the lack of support offered to them by society, as well as the pressure to conform to expected roles. Even though both were eager to be parents, mothering was often treated as invisible work.

Reframing the problem allowed them to see themselves as on the same team. Instead of Joaquín vs. Allie, it became Joaquín and Allie vs. the patriarchal culture.

Defining the patriarchy as their root problem opened doors to new solutions for Joaquín and Allie. For example, once they understood how their respective resentments grew out of cultural expectations they each held, they were able to communicate with each other in a more blame-free manner. They were also able to move beyond those expectations to create win–wins, in which the value of mothering emerged from the shadows of parenthood and became a shared and fully equitable experience.

Have a Conversation

As new parents, I suggest you and your partner have a similar conversation. You may not be able to smash the patriarchy, but you can create a mini union of power that propels you forward as parents. See it as an important step of the much longer conversation on your parenting journey.

Here are some topics you can explore together:

  1. Explore the impact of the patriarchy on how you each feel about your family roles.
  2. How do you each experience mothering? Talk about the specific actions you consider to be mothering, and the time and value you give to each.
  3. Check whether you two are on the same side with respect to equity in your relationship. Tease out any areas where you may hold different views (e.g., about the value of mothering, gender-role expectations, whether the breadwinner should be decided by gender). Discuss these issues in light of the influence of the patriarchy and see if you can find common ground.
  4. Consider whether you want to make any changes in your respective roles or divide the roles so they feel more equitable.
  5. Do either of you want to make any adjustments in how you mother?
  6. How would more systemic support (e.g., child care, paid family leave) benefit your partner team?

References

Brown, L. S. (2018). Feminist therapy. American Psychological Association. https://doi.org/10.1037/0000092-000

Dickerson, V. (2103). Patriarchy, power, and privilege: A narrative/poststructural view of work with couples. Family Process, 52(1), 102-114. https://doi.org/10.1111/famp.12018

Garbes, A. (2022). Essential labor: Mothering as social change. Harper Wave.

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