Maybe he's not actually a good dad...
Why we need to stop making excuses for men, and the woman whose husband thinks she needs to make chores fun
If you have to reassure people that your male partner is “actually a really good dad,” odds are good he’s not.
I’ve noticed this weird new trend in feminist and pseudo-feminist spaces. It goes like this:
The speaker/writer correctly identifies the numerous problems of the standard heterosexual marriage. They talk about how household chore inequity reduces women’s life prospects, destroys their health, traps them, and erodes their potential. They get it, or they seem to.
And then they make a weird pivot: “But my husband means well! He’s actually a really good dad! Most of our husbands are really loving partners doing their best!”
No the fuck they are not.
Words mean things.
What would we call a mother who didn’t know how to care for her children? Who didn’t know their teachers or friends? Who regularly ignored their needs, or put them in danger, or embraced stupid and ill-informed parenting practices? What would we say about a mother who was never home to put them to bed (or who was home, but too busy playing video games to participate)? If a mother spent her weekends playing while her partner tended to the children who desperately missed her, would that be ok? If she couldn’t ever manage to feed her kids on time, or at all, or in healthy ways, would we accept that?
I’m quite certain we would have no difficulty calling her a bad mother, because we never have any reservations about calling women bad mothers—even when they’re doing everything they’re supposed to. To be a mother is to be wrong. Breastfeed? You’re making people uncomfortable, you crazy lactivist. Formula feed? You prioritize your own convenience over your child. No matter how you give birth, it’s wrong. Parent gently and you’re too permissive. Parent with strong boundaries and you’re ignoring your kids needs.
Why is it that we are loath to call any man anywhere who has ever managed to get his sperm into someone else’s egg a bad father? But every mother will eventually hear that she is a bad mother?
It’s because judgments about who is an acceptable parent are about social control. Mom-guilt is a tool for shaming and oppressing women, for preventing them from coming together to demand better circumstances, to push back on abusive mothering norms.
Part of pushing back against mom-shaming requires us also to demand that men heed the call of parenting and live up to their duties. It requires us to fairly assess their parenting.
Perhaps the most important step in feminist consciousness-raising is taking action.
It’s not enough to understand that patriarchal norms harm women. That won’t break the generational cycle of patriarchal abuse.
It’s not enough to identify the ways your marriage reinforces patriarchal norms, because that won’t protect your kids from internalizing those norms.
And it’s sure as hell not enough to know that your husband is exploiting you, but conclude that it is ok for him to do so.
Men can do better. They are not incompetent. They choose not to do better, and one of the reasons they are able to make that choice is that an entire society lets them off the hook.
When we say that chore inequity and marital abuse is real, and acknowledge that man is participating in these things, but then assert that he’s actually a really good husband or father, the message is clear: women’s suffering doesn’t matter. Children’s well-being isn’t important. The most important thing is never, ever holding men accountable.
That’s a nope.
You can’t be a good father and mistreat your child’s mother. And yes, mistreatment includes making her work longer and harder at home so you don’t have to.
You can’t be a good father and not know how to care for your children, alone, without supervision, to the highest possible standard.
Let’s not delude ourselves into calling bad fathers anything but what they are. And let’s stop encouraging our friends to do it.
A Couple Quick Announcements Before We Get to Feminist Advice Friday
I’m working on compiling the data from the State of Postpartum survey, and hope to deliver it to paid subscribers on Sunday, June 19. I’m also in the process of moving (I feel like I’ve been saying this for years now), so I may fall behind. If that happens, I’ll get the data out next week.
Free subscribers will get the data two weeks later. So even if you can’t afford to become paid right now, consider becoming a subscriber so you can get faster access to the data!
Next week’s newsletter is for paid subscribers only, and will include a comprehensive guide to assessing how bad the inequality in your house is. If you want the guide, consider going paid.
Feminist Advice Friday: Help! My husband thinks I should make chores fun for him.
A reader asks…
My husband and I have an unequal household. We split childcare equally, but nothing else. Apart from working together on laundry, there is no chore that he will consistently do.
We share a home with my parents. My dad does most of the daily labour aside from me. He does the dishes diligently, garbage, and all the yard work as well as a few other things. When my parents go away to visit my siblings, we obviously have to figure out how to take care of everything he usually does. That means my husband loads the dishwasher and I put things away. That’s my husband’s preference on how we split it. The problem is, he never actually gets all the dishes clean. So I end up either having a disgusting kitchen, or doing his share of the work myself. We’ve tried the Fair Play method which ended up with me doing a lot of work to set it up and get us started, and him still neglecting the chores he agreed to do. I don’t know when the bathroom was last cleaned, but I refuse to do what he agreed is his responsibility.
He absolutely will not do a chore on a weekday, except load the dishwasher when my dad isn’t here to do it. He won’t wipe a counter, sweep a floor, rinse a cup…nothing. Even if I ask. Even if I beg. The only way for me to get him to lift a finger is to get mad at him. So my only option is to be constantly mad at him. That’s not good for me either.
My question is not “how do I get my husband to contribute to chores?” My question is, what advice would you give him to help motivate himself? He has several mental health challenges, including self-diagnosing as ADHD but never seeking medical help for it. I do have ADHD (or as close to a diagnosis as an adult woman will get - “you have ADHD traits but it’s probably just your depression. You can try a stimulant anyway.” I somehow find coping mechanisms and figure out a way to still function as an adult (as well as taking meds for it), but my undiagnosed husband just uses it as an excuse. Every “solution” he comes up with is more work for me, the classic “make a list” but with a twist - he wants them to be written as fun “side quests.” When I pointed out that it was more work for me, I was met with “you’re being really aggressive and I can make the side quests if you want.” I’m paraphrasing but you get the point.
I’ve been having this conversation with him since we got married 7 years ago. I can’t keep doing it. I can’t motivate him and he won’t motivate himself. What can be done?
A recurring theme I see with these questions is that they all basically boil down to the same question:
I know it’s bad, but is it really that bad? Do I maybe just deserve inequality? Is there a magic code for making him care and do better?
Yes, it is that bad. No, you do not deserve inequality because equity is the bare fucking minimum, not some spectacular marital achievement, and no, after years of begging and watching you suffer, there is no magic formula that will fix this.
There’s a lot to unpack here. This is a really big suitcase, and it’s full of fuck. Every time I think I know where to begin, I dig around in the suitcase full of fuck and find something else about your letter to talk about.
There are three distinct issues here: your husband’s ADHD; his insistence that you owe him fun chores; and the usual male laziness.
Let’s start with the untreated ADHD. I have a simple rule for this: You do not get accommodations for the negative effects your neurodivergence has on your partner if you refuse to get treatment. You don’t get to ask them to do more household labor because you had ADHD. If you’re unwilling to take your ADHD seriously, they don’t have to, either. You may find some help and comfort from this column I wrote a few weeks ago about living with a depressed partner. A lot of the principles are the same. So I think you can comfortably disabuse yourself of the notion that this has anything at all to do with your husband’s ADHD, and turn your attention to the real issue.
That is that your husband is shockingly entitled.
For him to tell you that the chores must be fun side quests is just…wow. This means not only that he sees chores as your domain, but that he thinks you owe him fun. You’re not entitled to fun, I guess, but your special snowflake husband is.
Of course he accuses you of being really aggressive when you decline to put in even more work for his lazy, entitled ass. He’s gaslighting you. Male aggression is a classic, reliable tool for silencing women. He is the one being aggressive. He is the one stealing your time and your life, and he’s been doing this for 7 god damn years.
Seven years of trying to convince this man to change.
What in the fucking hell?
He’s got a great thing going, where he gets free labor, so why would he change?
There is zero incentive. He doesn’t care about you enough to care about your exhaustion. Sit with that for a moment. Your suffering should be incentive enough. The fact that it is not speaks volumes.
So we need to give him an incentive. I want you to start documenting all of the work you do. Not just the physical work, but the planning. And I want you to document all of the relaxation that he gets as a direct result of that work. Do it for a couple of weeks.
Then present him with this information. Tell him it is not aggression to demand that he do his fair share, that doing his fair share is now the bare minimum in your marriage, that it is not your job to make things fun for him, and that he is going to start doing his fair share, and you will not accept any more gaslighting.
Be prepared for him to fight and pout.
Do not take the bait. Don’t escalate. Remain calm.
Because you’re going to plan for this. You’re going to be ready to leave his sorry ass for a solid couple of days.
When he begins to pout, tell him that his pouting indicates he thinks he is entitled to your free labor, and he is not. Tell him if it continues, you will leave, because you will not spend the rest of your life as his servant.
Then hold the boundary.
Another thing you can do is make him confront his own messes. Get a bin into which you put everything he leaves out, and every mess he creates. That includes dirty dishes, food, etc. Then put it somewhere where he is forced to deal with it. Fill it every day until he starts cleaning up his own messes. He can’t get angry with you for not cleaning up his shit. Well, he can and he will because he’s that kind of dude, but he’ll also secretly know that it makes no sense.
Make it miserable for him to continue being this way. Make this into a fight.
This is worth blowing up your marriage over. He will never, ever change until he knows he has no choice. Your job is to make the cost of not changing much larger than the benefits he gets from exploiting you.
You deserve an equal marriage. You matter. Your time matters. This man is holding you back and stealing your life. I think when you frame it to yourself in that way, you will be better prepared to treat this with the gravity it deserves, and to confront him.
I am sorry you are in this position, but it is 100% his fault. Don’t let him convince you otherwise. Time for him to grow the fuck up or get the fuck out.