Parenting by Tally

Conversation overheard yesterday at school pick up:

Mom #1: Why does everything fall to me?
Mom #2:That’s ’cause you’re the mother. We always have to pick up the slack.
Mom #1: I know. [sigh]

Countless mothers and fathers probably exchange analogous conversations every day. Parenting is relentlessly laborious. Bogged down in each drudgerous moment, we readily fixate on the inequities we suffer. As catharsis, conversations like the one between Mom #1 and Mom #2 are beneficial and part of the shared of experience parenting. But efforts to enumerate “the slack”, to tally up the inequities, is a project doomed to failure.

Joules points out that despite superficial appearances of equal distribution of labor (and, as she indicates in the comments, what she expects of a relationship), when she tallies up domestic work, she does more than her husband. Joules’s “mom inch” is no doubt endemic—just ask moms. I would guess that fewer but still not insignificant numbers of fathers suffer from the corresponding “dad inch.” Speaking from experience and “data”[1] (i.e., tallies recorded day in, day out on a calendar),[2] the “dad inch” has plagued our house. What do we gain by trying to count up the inches, feet, miles? Not only is parenting not a race, the labor involved in parenting is not numerically comparable. I supposed we could come up with complicated algorithms to calculate the physical work each person expends, but that doesn’t really get us very far.[3]

Ledgers of parenting credits and debits.

Ledgers of parenting credits and debits.

Such a reductive approach ignores the different conditions in which we work. Does somebody get more credit for the same amount of work if it happens at a less convenient time (say, the middle of the night or the crack of dawn) or in harsher conditions (say in the snow or rain)? How do we account for travel time or making arrangements? How about preparation and clean up? What about work that everybody despises? What about emotionally difficult work? Or dirty work or gross work? What about acute, unpredicted work that prevents somebody from doing something else? Do we need to take into account lossed work or pleasure? And do we get credit for work that satiates our own obsessions?

Seriously, work is not work is not work. It is folly to try to tally the “mom inches” or the “dad inches.”

While evaluating labor distribution is common, parental tallying doesn’t stop there. Ariel is frustrated that despite all he does for his daughter, which he tallies for us, she continues to like her mom the best.[4] Again, I sympathize with Ariel here—I have watched #1 and #2 fight for who “gets to sit next” to the Mother at the dinner table, listened to them jump at the chance to run errands with the Mother rather than loiter around the house with me, watched them run to the Mother when they need to be comforted or just when they want to prattle on about their day. But what is gained by tallying up these “rejections”?[5]

As with tallying up parental labor, so to tallying up affection is fraught with difficulty. Simply summing up the discrete events ignores fundamental differences. Is wanting to be brought “to the potty” the same as wanting “to be carried”? Is wanting to sit next to somebody at dinner the same as wanting to fly like a superhero? Getting dressed the same as playing in the bath? Such tallying also ignores the conditions that might prompt a child to turn to one parent or another at different times and for different needs. Rather than lamenting slights could we rejoice in affections. How many expressions of love and caring do we miss while we are tallying the slights [see fn#2 below]?

Tallying up parental labor or offspring affection seems to depend on a sort of egotism, a worry that the world (or your family) are not sufficiently rewarding your effort. That is absolutely true. With all due respect and in all seriousness: The world and your family do not and never will bestow on you the rewards and accolades that your efforts merit.[6] To borrow from King Lear:

O, let’s stop trying to reduce parenting to a ledger of credits and debits,
for that way madness lies (or rather anger and frustration and discontent).

  1. “Data” is in scare quotes because the tallies recorded are anything but given. Like all tallies, they reflect unacknowledged biases and value judgements. They suffer from limited purview and scope. They efface various evaluative metrics and slide silently between incompatible metrics. Such “data” are little more than anecdote gussied up as numbers and masquerading as “data.” At best, this “data” merely confirms what we already know. More often, armed with this “data” we become righteous in our knowledge.  ↩

  2. “Day in, day out” only hints at the minutia I have in my darker moods recorded. I am not proud of these moments or the obsessions they produce. E.g.,

    March 16 [of some previous year]
    7:15 Got #1 & #2 up and ready for school
    7:35 Made breakfast for #1 and #2
    8:05 Took #1 & #2 to school (the Mother leaves for work)
    8:40 Arrived at work
    15:15 Retrieved #1 & #2 from school
    15:45 Finished working on closet door
    17:30 Made tomorrow’s lunches for #1 & #2
    17:45 Made dinner and cleaned up afterwards
    (18:00 the Mother arrived home from work)
    18:45 Bathed #1 & #2
    19:30 Reviewed homework with #1
    20:00 Got #1 & #2 ready for and in bed
    20:30 Read to #1 & #2
    21:30 Painted door in basement
    22:30 Returned to office to work

    Clearly I was doing the lion’s share of the domestic labor. Oh wait, maybe I wasn’t. Not only could I not record what the Mother was doing while I was occupied (she might have been browsing the internet or slaving away at some invisible-to-me task such as paying bills), I didn’t even bother trying. And I didn’t bother thinking about the type of labor the Mother was sparing me, until those isolated instances when I had to rant and rave about some horrible burden I was now forced to bear.[2a] I was too busy recording my labor in an effort to compile the “data” that demonstrated what I already knew.  ↩

    [2a] E.g., I hate with a deep and visceral passion the phone—calling somebody, receiving calls, making appointments, following up, hearing it ring, knowing it’s there, listening to messages on the machine or even seeing the little red light pulsating at me like some demonic eye, anything. Thank god the Mother takes care this labor. I don’t know when, or where, or how, and I don’t care. I owe her an enormous debt just for shielding me from the phone. Just yesterday I had to phone AT&T about a bill. I was stewing about it for an hour while I retrieved #1 and #2 and brought them home. I was short-tempered while looked again at the bill and collected my thoughts and prepared to dial. I girded for the worst as I dialed the phone. I hated every second of my otherwise pleasant 5-minute conversation with a very helpful person on the other end of the line. 5 minutes. Problem solved. Despite this productive and efficient encounter, I hate the phone. Again. I am eternally indebted to the Mother for sparing me such torture.  ↩

  3. The equation for calculating work is pretty easy: Work = Force x distance. The challenge comes in measuring all the forces exerted and all the distances through which that force is exerted. While perhaps possible, the mechanics of such a project are daunting to say the least.  ↩

  4. Ariel’s letter is clearly, at least in part, meant to be humorous (a point I should have made initially). His letter has been reposted at that grand re-poster of content, Huff Post, which is not, as a rule, humorous.  ↩

  5. And according to whom are these choices (if we can ascribe such intentionality to them) slights or rejections?  ↩

  6. If it‘s any consolation, our partners (and probably children) are suffering the same injustice.  ↩


7 thoughts on “Parenting by Tally

  1. Exactly right, keeping score is not only inaccurate in the end, it only serves to add unnecessary tension in a relationship.

    If it’s any consolation to the dads (or mom’s feeling that way), sometimes we “favourites” grow just a tiny bit tired of being favourite. We still get yelled at, taken forgranted and thrown up on. Being favourite often results in even less personal time, or time to focus on specific tasks because like all favourite things, they’re in demand! Being favourite means you’re the one who ends up being called in the middle of the night even if daddy is willing to get up; you’re the one who gets to wipe the poopy bottom during potty training and a whole list of more favourite things to do. After awhile that “No, Mommy Do!” or “I want Mommy!” isn’t music to our ears either, but for different reasons. Being favourite has a price tag, well worth paying though. But I’ll just as gladly accept 2nd place because at least I’m in the race.

    • Dear Riselikeair,
      I couldn’t agree more with this statement: “Exactly right, keeping score is not only inaccurate in the end, it only serves to add unnecessary tension in a relationship.”

      And frankly, I would take “help me fly like a superhero” or “carry me” any day over “wipe my bum” or even “get me dressed.” But maybe that’s just me.

      Anyway, thanks for reading and commenting.

    • Well stated! I’m the favorite in our house and after a few years of it my husband is more than happy to relenquish the task and let me do whatever it was he was trying to help with. It definitely doesn’t make the morning go any more smoothly.

  2. Hey there, I appreciate your thoughts here and you are right about tallying things up. It is hard though when one is an involved parent and is consistently rejected. I’d also like to point out that much of my piece was meant to be humorous and was not an actual complaint.

    • Thanks for taking the time to read and comment. You are right. It is hard to be an involved parent and to feel rejected. Being the parent people seem to fight not to have to sit next to or the parent nobody runs to the door to greet when I come home, or the parent … I get it.

      I also understand that your piece was at least in part humorous (I should have made that clear — sorry). I intended your post as well as Joules’s as an opportunity to reflect on a subject and to offer reasons for moving beyond the comparison morass that afflicts so many of us.

      Thanks again for reading and the thoughtful and civil comments.

  3. Thank you so much for taking the time to stop by the Dad’s Roundtable and read my article on The Mom Inch. I appreciate how much thought you put into it and your points brought up in this post.

    I did want to clarify that the idea behind my article wasn’t that we should be tallying up every thing we do vs our spouses… I was just pointing out that as much as we try to make things fair and ‘even’ in parenting…it’s just not possible. SOMEONE ends up pushing though and giving just a little bit more. As I point out in my piece — perhaps my personal Mom Inch is due to my own expectations on how things ‘should’ be done. You may find the ‘thoughts behind the article’ interesting:

    Thanks again and I loved reading your post!

  4. Thanks for taking the time to read and comment on my post. And thanks for the link. I enjoyed the original post, the comments, and the link to the thoughts behind the original post.

    I see and sympathize with your point about the inherent inequity in the division of labor in any relationship — I’ve been there (see the fragment from my neurotic cataloging of my labor). In my post I was trying to suggest that perhaps we parents are better served not by looking for and cataloging those inequities but by recognizing how our partners could compile a similar list of inequities.

    I guess what I’m trying to say is: 1) in many cases either parent can make a persuasive case for going that extra “inch,” depending on how we count those inches; 2) focusing on the inches blinds us to the many ways that the other person shields us from tasks and burdens that we might really despise (my example is anything to do with the phone). I was trying to shift our focus to what we appreciate about our partners’ contributions.

    Again, thanks for taking the time to read and comment. I appreciate both your thoughtful input and civility.

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