Jancee Dunn is a journalist, contributing editor at O, The Oprah Magazine, and author of How Not to Hate Your Husband After Kids. She recently sat down with her husband Tom Vanderbilt, author of You May Also Like: Taste in an Age of Endless Choice, for a candid chat on why, exactly, Tom (and many of his fellow young dads) are so “blithely unhelpful” after kids, and how couples can better prepare for changes.
This conversation has been edited and condensed. To view the full conversation, click the video below.
Tom: I’m implicated massively in this question, of course, but why did you choose to write this book?
Jancee: On the playground, I had noticed when I was chatting with moms that there was a lot of anger about their husbands. And [you and I had] been fighting a lot—and you know, who wants to live that way?
Tom: [To give some background,] we’d been together for awhile as a couple, then suddenly into that happily, settled domestic life comes [our daughter] Sylvie, and basically, throws everything out the window.
There was no plan. I mean we researched the exact car seat to buy, the exact stroller, birthing classes, these sorts of things, but never once did we say qualitatively how our life is going to be different. What sorts of arrangements do we need to make around the house so that it can continue to function as a happy household. Instead we just opened the door and a cyclone roared in.
Jancee: I really thought that things would just evolve organically like they always had. I thought, “Oh, we can adjust, it’s just one kid. I have so many friends who have two kids, three kids. We can do this,” because we had adjusted through everything else. But it didn’t turn out that way.
Tom: What’s interesting is that things just changed on their own. I used to do all the cooking, for example, then our child was born, I got very busy at work, and suddenly you were cooking all the time and I was traveling and working. These very traditional gender roles just came out of nowhere.
Jancee: Basically, I pretty much did everything. There’s a scene in the book where I’m an octopus in the kitchen: simultaneously checking homework, cooking dinner, looking at a recipe, packing the kid’s lunch for tomorrow, and you get up and weave your way into the kitchen, and I’m thinking, “Oh good, he’s going to help me unload the dishwasher,” but you were going to get wine. And you said, “There’s no wine left,” and then you went back and were just in your own bubble.
[So] here’s my question to you: you knew I was angry, but [did you just] figure, “I could upset the status quo, but it’s kind of working for me so I can deal with her anger and her glaring because it’s better than having to do the laundry.” What were the workings of your mind at that point? I really would like to know. Maybe you didn’t know I was angry.
“I thought, ‘Oh, we can adjust, it’s just one kid. I have so many friends who have two kids, three kids. We can do this,’ because we had adjusted through everything else. But it didn’t turn out that way.”
Tom: I’m sure I underestimated the extent of the anger. But just so we don’t get too much into our own navel-gazing, to bring this back to the people you were also talking to, the mothers—do you think there’s an asymmetry in how people are dealing with these things; are mothers talking about these things more than fathers?
Jancee: I don’t want to reach for the easy Mars-Venus stereotypes, but I do feel that in general maybe there is a little bit of asymmetry, as you put it. Then again we had more of the work to do. This was working women and stay-at-home mothers. Often my stay-at-home mother friends would say, “I am never am off the clock, because my husband wants to collapse all weekend and relax, so I do everything.” And I would say, “Even union rules, you get a break, a half hour lunch period or something.” But they had this tacit agreement where they wouldn’t ever be off the clock. And that just didn’t seem fair.
To get back to what you’re saying, there were definitely some martyr tendencies going on with me about how, “I do everything!” It became this narrative that I fell into, and I did become blinded to all the good that was happening around us, and the fact that you’re a good father, that you weren’t this ogre. You just maybe didn’t understand I’d been doing all the work.
Tom: Well, yeah, and I feel like, from my point of view, I would be out on a Saturday morning with my cycling buddies, going on these 5 or 6 hour adventures that had been pre-arranged yet sometimes ran a little bit late.
Jancee: But explain to the people when you took up long distance cycling.
Tom: Pretty much around the time my daughter was born, which, as—
Jancee: Right when she shot out.
Tom: —noted anthropologist, Alan Fisher, has pointed out, I was perhaps trying to restore lost testosterone that had, as a result of the—
Jancee: Yes, it drops 1/3 roughly when a baby’s born for a man.
Tom: —and perhaps trying to self-consciously prolong my own life, as a slightly older father, to be around when the child gets—
Jancee: So, it was noble?
Tom: So I would be coming back home and every married father on that ride would be looking at their watch and say, “Oh boy, we’re really going to hear it.” And that, to me, just seems so retro and annoying, because I never got the sense it went the other way, that a group of mothers would be out doing whatever and looking [at their watches], “Oh boy, we’re really going to hear it.”
Jancee: Annoying meaning that you were a part of this kind of throwback? That you felt, “Oh no, my wife’s going to be there with the frying pan.”
Tom: Yeah, like we’re these guys at the country club drinking our martinis. I just wondered if it was really as one-sided, this implied dynamic that was out there.
Jancee: Well, I’m just speaking for me and not all women, but I would never have taken up long distance cycling. Part of that is the martyr complex that I mentioned, like everything’s going to fall apart if I go cycling. But it just wouldn’t have occurred to me. Imagine a group of moms going cycling for 6 hours… it just, I don’t know, I guess I wasn’t feeling entitled enough to do that.
Tom: I suppose if I were more highly attuned to that dynamic I would have stepped in and said, “You know, you should really do that,” but instead I just let entropy take over and say, “Well, there’s this gap here and you know, I guess I’ll just go cycling.”
Jancee: And I can’t really text you when you’re cycling so I think that’s probably a bonus for you, right? It’s not like you’re going to reach for your phone while you’re heading up to Piermont.
“I interviewed one psychologist who said that they were so caught up in raising their kids, she didn’t notice for three days that [her husband] had shaved his mustache off. They didn’t look at each other.”
Tom: I can, it’s just sometimes a little bit late, and then you see the “Where the f are you?!” texts, and unfortunately you still have an hour to go. But again, just to over-generalize, I don’t think I was having conversations with male friends about how our wives were handling domestic situations. It’s still a more traditional activity for you to have those conversations.
Jancee: Yes. And one reason I did want to write the book is because I really wanted to do something about it, [to figure out] how do we get out of this?
Tom: So we went to a marriage therapist for a five-hour session, and some people might think it extreme just because you’re having this rough patch. But I found having someone from the outside look at your situation, having this honest, bracing feedback… he could pry you open like a sardine can. Within five minutes, he knew what was going on.
Jancee: I was curious, because you never get an outside party forensically examining your relationship. And it was granular stuff, the really mundane day-to-day stuff.
Tom: As he put it, couples aren’t arguing about world peace. We’re arguing about the unloaded dishwasher.
Jancee: I couldn’t believe how much even one kid consumes you. I can remember when people would say, “I haven’t left my house in a couple days,” I would think, “Really? One baby, come on!” But I interviewed one psychologist who said that they were so caught up in raising their kids, she didn’t notice for three days that [her husband] had shaved his mustache off. They didn’t look at each other.
Tom: There is actually some social science here, right? Where people have analyzed time use studies, and even when women are working full-time, the lion’s share of the [childcare] and the other sorts of work is done by women.
Jancee: Yes, I interviewed this sociologist at the University of Michigan, Pamela Smock, and she broke up all of the invisible work that women do. One of the categories is kin work: that’s cards for the grandparents, arranging FaceTime with Nana, [managing] the email chain for Thanksgiving… and I realized I do it all the time, I do all that stuff. Then there’s average daily transport time; women do 11 minutes more of it per day, schlepping the kids around.
Tom: Mom’s taxi.
Jancee: There’s invisible work like does the cat need kidney medication? And emotional work, like making sure that your tween is still talking to her friends in the cafeteria.
Tom: And what are men doing? Is there a sort of work that we do?
Jancee: When I posed that question to Pamela Smock, she said, “They often pick tasks that have a leisure component,” like driving to the store—that way you’re at least playing some music. Or raking the leaves, so you’re outside.
“There are studies about millennial parents, the men are all excited to change those diapers, and then they check in with them six months [later] and it’s like they slide back into the mid-century.”
But things are changing. When I was on the subway the other day, I saw something for the first time. It was a crowded F train, and a guy got on and he had a Babybjorn with a fussy infant inside; and he was doing the thing where he was jiggling up and down trying to get the infant to calm down, and the guy was just sweating and we’ve all known that, we’ve all been there. And another guy who was sitting down said, “Oh hey man, you want to have a seat?” And the guy said, “Oh yeah, thank you so much,” and he got up and gave the guy his seat, and I thought, “That’s significant, I’ve never seen that before.” A guy giving another dude his seat—it was great. You could see all the women who were watching like, “Hmm, look at that.”
Tom: Since this whole household chore thing seems to be a major point of contention, have you come across any strategies to [resolve] these issues?
Jancee: Expert after expert said, “Sit down and have a family meeting,” which is not that fun, but they [all] would say, “You have to very clearly parcel this out because the arguments arise from ambiguity.”
A very common argument among parents is who deserves something more, like who deserves to sleep in while someone else is up with the kid. And that’s where you end up fighting about nothing. If it’s clearly laid out, it solves a lot of problems.
I was amazed at how angry I would get when I was doing [chores], like emptying the diaper genie. Another social psychologist said to me, “Often women assume that they’re being screwed over when the man isn’t leaping up to help.” When that isn’t necessarily the case; it’s [just] the story that you make up in your head.
I would often make up a story for you when you were sitting on the couch playing computer chess with some guy from the Philippines, you’d [be thinking], “Oh, I’m really screwing her over. I’m hanging out on the couch while she’s doing all the work. Ha ha!” But that wasn’t really what was going through your head at the time. That was something I had to train myself not to do. Because you truly didn’t see that I needed help—I don’t know why, but you really didn’t.
Tom: Do you think there is universality to some of these [experiences]?
Jancee: Yes! It was incredible, so many women that I interviewed married evolved guys, great guys, guys that you would want to marry, and there was this stunned feeling among all those women: what happened? Why are we back in the ’50s?
There are studies about millennial parents, the men are all excited to change those diapers, and then they check in with them six months [later] and it’s like they slide back into the mid-century. We’re only a few generations out from that so I guess it’s going to take a while.
Tom: Are there any stats on divorce?
Jancee: I told you not to ask me about stats.
Tom: I’m just wondering about the precedence of divorce rates once children arrive. Is there a point at which most divorces occur? A divorce curve?
Jancee: I can answer this. They’ve held steady, but after 50 they have spiked. Two-thirds of the time, women initiate the divorces.
Tom: The classic thing of staying together for the children.
Jancee: Yes. But it isn’t the man running off with his secretary anymore. It’s the woman saying, “Mm, I don’t feel like doing all the work anymore.” You know? “I’m heading out.”
Tom: Is that a warning?
Jancee: [laughs] No, no. I do feel like we’re on much more solid footing. All these techniques that I was trying out on you—most of which you didn’t even know I was trying out—by and large they really did work.