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Bintel BriefMy husband is scrolling Instagram when he should be playing with our kids

Bintel says: Is this 2022 or 1952 — or Anatevka? Time for Dad to do his share

The Forward has been solving reader dilemmas about daily life since 1906 in “A Bintel Brief,” Yiddish for a bundle of letters. Send your quandaries (or your reactions to our advice!) to [email protected] or @bintelbrief on Twitter, and check out the Bintel podcast.

Dear Bintel,

How do I explain to my husband that he doesn’t have time to chill on the couch and scroll Instagram after work anymore?

We have two young children. He doesn’t come home until almost 7 p.m. most nights, sometimes later. By then, we’ve already eaten dinner and it’s time to clean the kitchen and send them to bed. My husband wants to spend 7 to 8 p.m. zoning out, which is impractical for me — and also kind of heartbreaking.

We both work, so that hour is the only time to play with our kids. If he doesn’t want to do that, fine, can he clean the kitchen? Or if he doesn’t want to clean, can he play with our kids while I clean? It’s worse than that old song “Cat’s in the Cradle” because presumably that dad was at least at work. Also, his commute is a half-hour on public transit each way — he can scroll then!

When I talk to him about it, his response is, “I just want to relax after work; that’s reasonable.” But it’s not, because we have young children.

Signed,
No Chill in California


Dear No Chill,

My heart hurts for those kids, but my head is exploding for you! You and your hubby both bring home paychecks, but he gets to relax after work while you do everything else? Remind me what year we’re living in — 2022 … or 1952? Or are we back in Anatevka, in “Fiddler on the Roof,” where Tevye proclaims his right “as master of the house, to have the final word at home?”

What I really feel like saying is, “Your husband is a jerk, lady, let me smack him for ya.” Unfortunately, your problem is not unusual. In two-thirds of U.S. families, both parents work, but women still shoulder more of the unpaid household labor. I bet most men — including your husband — agree on principle that women and men should be equal partners in childrearing and maintaining a household. Yet the reality is that most women — like you — do most of the cooking, childcare and icky chores like scrubbing toilets and changing sheets.

I consulted Emily Goodman, who writes a newsletter called Caregiving Crisis about the toll this imbalance takes on women and the economy. She pointed out the assumptions underlying your situation: “The wife does everything, the man’s time is more valuable than the wife’s, and he gets to choose when he does things (or doesn’t), because the woman is the default doer. He doesn’t have to delegate, or even show up for the kids. She’ll do it all, so why should he care.”

So how do you make things more equitable and bring about shalom bayit — peace in the home — while helping your husband become a better father?

Schedule a formal sit-down on a weekend when grandparents or a sitter can watch the kids for an hour — or park them in front of a show they love. By making a big deal of setting up the conversation, you’re signaling that it’s important. If he mocks it or blows it off, call him on it: “Look, the way our household is operating right now is not working for me. If you care about me, this marriage and our future as a family, you’ll take this seriously.”

Then lay out your case: You both have jobs, and it’s simply unfair that he gets to relax while you do everything else. (If he can’t acknowledge that, you’re in trouble.) Reiterate your proposal: He entertains the kids for an hour each night while you clean up. Or you could alternate: He washes dishes while you manage the kids Monday, then you switch off Tuesday.

This isn’t just about making things equitable. It’s also about him developing a relationship with his children — for their sake and his. “Research shows men are happier when they engage in caregiving and are more equal members of the household,” Goodman said, citing the book “Equal Partners” by Kate Mangino.

You mentioned the classic Harry Chapin song “Cat’s in the Cradle.” Why not sing a few lines to him?

When you coming home, Dad?
I don’t know when.
We’ll get together then.
You know we’ll have a good time then.

Remind him how the song ends. The son grows up, has no time for his father, and the dad realizes “he’d grown up just like me.”

Which leads me to wonder: Might your husband be repeating a childhood where his father never played with him? If so, that must have hurt — but he can be a different kind of dad. On the other hand, if his father was always up for Legos or a bedtime story, he should do the same.

Either way, make him dig into this troubling reluctance to engage with his children. If he never helped out with younger siblings while growing up, never babysat or worked as a camp counselor, he might need help learning to engage with little ones. The same gender roles that relegate women to caregiving also provide fewer opportunities for men to be nurturers. If your kids are bored and cranky when he’s trying to read them a story, he might feel like he’s no good at it. Coach him. Brainstorm ideas for playtime. Bedtime routines can be challenging!

Then make a schedule (actually, he should make the schedule). If he doesn’t follow through, don’t fix the mess. Just say, “It’s your turn, sweetheart,” and go out for a walk — even if the baby’s pouring apple juice on the floor and the 4-year-old’s throwing puzzle pieces at the dog.

If your meeting with hubby is unproductive, ask a family member whom he respects, preferably a hands-on dad type, to arbitrate. Otherwise you may have to seek counseling. This problem is bigger than getting the kids ready for bed. Before you know it, you’ll be singlehandedly managing all the homework, playdates, soccer games and bar mitzvah prep too.

Goodman also recommends the book “Fair Play” by Eve Rodsky, a lawyer and economist who developed a system of cards to divide household tasks between couples. Get the cards as a Hanukkah gift for the both of you, and watch the “Fair Play film together.

By the way, once the kids are asleep and the dishes done, there’s no reason he can’t resume his mindless scrolling. But you deserve chill time, too. Goodman recommends joining a book club or taking an art class. “Carve out space for yourself,” she said, “so that your husband sees your time is valuable.”

Signed,
Bintel

Engage

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