I originally posted this 2019-05-12 on my personal site, before I'd set up automatic crossposting. On yesterday's post about childcare Gunnar_Zarncke suggested I post it here.
It's pretty common for a male-female couple to be intellectually in agreement to split the work of parenting equally, but then for the mother to end up doing a lot more. There's a lot in our society that pushes towards mothers having primary responsibility for kids, and it can be a very easy rut to fall into even if it's not what you want.
Pregnancy and birth are very asymmetric, and then breastfeeding continues the pattern: nursing isn't going to be equitable. This means night feedings, more ability to calm the baby, and even just her smelling more familiar to them. While this asymmetry isn't permanent, it pushes you towards starting with an unequal division.
Then with parental leave it's very common for the mother to take more time off work than the father. Many jobs give more leave to birth parents, and someone who has just given birth often needs substantial recovery time. Fathers commonly earn more than mothers and so if leave is unpaid many couples can afford more if the mother takes it than if the father does.
If you're the dad, what can you do? I see two main aspects: sharing the work, and sharing the parenting.
From a work perspective, in as much as you want to be trying to make things fair you should be making up for the things you can't do by taking on more of the remaining work: non-feeding care, diapers, cooking, etc. Sleeping elsewhere sometimes so you have more energy and be more alert the next day can work well, as can taking the baby early in the morning so the mother can sleep in.
The other aspect is you want to be dividing the parenting, not just the work. This is because you really need to avoid a situation where the mother has a much better understanding of the baby than you do. For example, you can get into a cycle where you can't calm the baby as well, they spend more time with their mother, you get less experience and practice with them, and your relative abilities with the baby get farther and farther apart.
Having time when you're watching the baby solo is pretty valuable: you get practice much faster and your kid can't just insist on their preferred parent. My work gives (a very generous by US standards) twelve weeks of leave, which I took each time as two weeks at birth and ten after Julia went back to work. Having that time with the kids was great, both because I like them a lot but also because all that solo time set me on good footing for equal parenting later.
We've also found it useful to think through all the different aspects of parenting, both ones that take time and ones that take mental effort, and think about who's been doing them: when you go out who remembers to bring diapers, spare clothes, food? Who keeps track of medical appointments? Who does their baths? Who gets up in the night if they're crying? Who puts them to bed? Who arranges childcare? Splitting each individual task 50-50 loses a lot to coordination costs (more), but you can still split the tasks overall.
One pitfall here is that people will often assume that the mother is in charge of things related to the kids, and so judge her if they're not done well. If I were charge of the kids having clothes that are the right size and I didn't do a good job, other people wouldn't know that this was my responsibility.
While it doesn't cover everything, we've also found time tracking to be useful in checking that we're approximately balancing overall work (example). We'll take a representative couple weeks, see how our time shakes out, and compare.
One frame that can be useful is, if the mother had to suddenly take a 3-week trip, would you be ok with the kids on your own? If not, why not? Can you get to where you would be ok?
Another frame I've found useful is one I'm hesitant to describe: since people often get advice that's the opposite of what they should hear, consider that this might not be right for you. I've found trying to do substantially more of the parenting work to be a useful approach. This doesn't mean that I actually end up doing substantially more than my share, but if I were shooting for 50% I would likely fall short.
Overall, this is hard both because parenting is a lot of work but also because there's not much of an equal parenting script to go on. Chances are both parents grew up in households where the mother was responsible for more of the childcare, and models of balanced parenting are hard to find. Our division isn't perfect, but I hope thinking about some of this helps you end up being more the kind of parent and spouse you want to be.
I make twice as much money as my wife, which means that she was able to stay at home for six years, we were able to pay our bills and even save some money. If we tried it the other way round, perhaps we would be able to pay our bills, but would have zero financial slack, which sounds like a problem waiting to happen. Working part-time... well, for my wife it took a phone call to her current job and they agreed... but for me, it is an unachievable dream that I actually tried long before having kids. The employers want to see passion and dedication to the job, and nothing kills this signal faster than saying "I would like to work part-time". (Even when I filter job offers by "also allows part-time", at interview I am inevitably told that this option is only for women returning from their maternal leave... and in a year they are expected to switch to full-time anyway.) So, this removes the option of "everyone does 50% of everything".
To avoid the situation "father completely clueless when left with kids alone", our arrangement (pre-Covid) was that my wife leaves me alone with kids on Saturday. Of course that is far from 50% share, but it achieves the goal of kids knowing that both parents are there for everything.
It's pretty common for a male-female couple to be intellectually on board with the idea of splitting the work of parenting equally
Which implies that would be the one true thing to do. It sure is the thing society seems to tell everybody. I think it does serve as a kind of default solution or fairness standard. But each individual solution may differ a lot. 50/50 often just isn't the most effective solution either. The 'classical' model of bread-winner and child-care-taker may still work well for some (and I have talked to couples where a woman is the bread-winner). A wide spectrum of models has become available and that comes with its own strengths and weaknesses. Mostly it means a lot of talking or negotiation.
As a specific example of a model that is neither classic nor 50/50 take our model: My now ex-wife and I split parenting time about 60/40 and parenting effort maybe 75/25. The kids stay a lot of time at my place these days but the youngest is 10 now and rules are more relaxed here. Remote work is really a big plus. It is great to stay in contact with them every day - even if they just drop by to say hello or wave at colleagues while I'm in a video call. The main effort of parenting is really with their mother: Taking care of homework, shuttling to courses, doctors appointments, and whatnot. A full-time mom who is also a qualified science teacher worked really well during lockdown. My kids benefited from it school-wise - and liked it much better. And it is efficient with four kids. I am super grateful for her work and I believe our parenting agreement is equitable.
Another data point that I found interesting is The Couple That Pays Each Other to Put Kids to Bed.
Sorry, yes, I wasn't trying to say that splitting things 50/50 is the only acceptable way to do things. I meant more like, there are a lot of people who, intellectually, want to be splitting things 50/50, but don't end up doing anything close to that.
EDIT: rephrased the introduction to remove "on board"
Yeah, it is a complex topic. It is related to the general pattern that if one party has even slightly higher standards they can end up being responsible for it almost always. Simply because they start to reach their mental threshold before the other party does or by mechanisms of practicing it more and getting better at it. For example, cleaning the kitchen. I have no aversion to it and consider it relaxing to do but I'm also fine with more stuff lying around. But my ex-wife and also my oldest son prefer it more orderly. If we don't come to some agreement you can guess what happens. It can easily feel unfair that they 'have to' do it always. And such things can evolve dynamically with a growing family or otherwise changing circumstances.