Butt out when Dad’s in charge and let him do it his way

When dads are in charge of the kids and home then mums need to butt out and let them do it their way, suggests Helen O’Callaghan.  

MAKE sure they do their homework when they get in from school. Give them vegetables for dinner. And remember, bedtime’s at 8pm.

For the many women who micromanage their husband whenever he’s looking after the children — pin to-do lists on cupboard doors and stick prepared meals in the fridge — a new book has a radical message: Butt out when Dad’s in charge and let him do it his way.

Anne-Marie Slaughter, author of Unfinished Business: Women Men Work Family, is well familiar with the tensions between career and motherhood, home and male input on the domestic front.

For two years until February 2011, she was director of policy planning at the US State Department in Washington reporting directly to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. She was the first woman to hold that job. Her husband, Andy, a professor of politics and international affairs, was back in Princeton with the couple’s two sons, “doing his level best as the home parent”.

For years before her Washington sojourn, Slaughter got upset with her husband about why everything domestic seemed to be her responsibility.

“Although he did lots of stuff, it was almost always when I told him what needed to be done — he never seemed to feel the urgency of getting it done himself.” But Slaughter also had to admit she wasn’t really willing to let him take responsibility.

Like almost every woman she knew, she thought she was better than her husband “in the entire domestic realm from kids to kitchen”. She assumed he wouldn’t be able to take care of the kids or run a household as well as she could because he’s a man.

“That’s sexism, plain and simple. If a man were to assume I can’t really practice law or business or any other profession as well as he can because I’m a woman, I’d hit the roof.”

Slaughter’s premise is that if women truly want equal partners in the home, we can’t ask our men to be ‘equal’ on our terms. “Andy’s view of how to run a household definitely differs from mine. But why is my way the right way?”

She cites the example of the first woman prime minister of Norway, Gro Harlem Brundtland. When she was initially invited into government in the early ’70s, she was a 35-year-old mum of four kids under 13. Ahead of his time, her husband said take the job, he’d take care of the children — but not with her telling him what to do.

He introduced innovations in their home that she’d never have thought of. He took the drudgery out of ironing by letting the kids to it in pairs, each with their own ironing board so they could talk together as they did it.

He put up a sign in their home: ‘A house must be clean enough to be healthy and dirty enough to be happy’. He did it his way — and his wife found his way was actually quite good.

In Ireland, there’s a sense that men are taking on a greater role as dads, but this bigger input isn’t showing up in statistics, says Orla O’Connor, director of the National Women’s Council of Ireland.

“There’s no statistical difference between men’s employment pre and post-children, whereas there’s a vast difference in women’s employment. [Especially after a second baby], you see a big change in women’s work — either going part-time or not going back at all,”she says.

But we could see the beginnings of a change next next September, when new dads will be entitled to two weeks paid paternity leave.

Both parents are currently entitled to 18 weeks unpaid parental leave for children aged up to eight. Uptake by dads is low. “Women feel they’re responsible for all the organising of house and childcare. And at weekends, it’s very much about the housework for them, whereas for men it’s much more about sporting activities.”


Stella O’Malley, psychotherapist and author of Cotton Wool Kids, believes the rise of girl power has led to a feminisation of our culture and a belief that women’s way is the right way. This, she says, isn’t necessarily in anyone’s best interests. “I think it causes a lot of stress in families,” she says.

Married to Henry and with two children, Roisín, seven, and Muiris, six, she sees huge differences in how they approach housework and parenting. “He leaves the guilt behind. Even when I’m not there, I’m there. I always know where they are and what they’re meant to be doing. I think I’m much more involved in the children’s emotional life, I anticipate their worries. I feel like I’m the project manager. If Henry’s at work and nobody phones to say there’s a problem, he presumes there isn’t one. Whereas I anticipate problems.”

O’Malley avoids asking her husband to clean or tidy up because “he’s totally abysmal at it”. She’s honest about her own domestic shortcomings. “I’m a crap shopper and a crap cook. Henry does the shopping.

He does all the cooking and he’s brilliant at it. I owe him. A lot of women give out that if the man cooks it’s a complete mess. And it is. But because I can’t cook, I’m fine with that. I clean up the mess. Henry really cares about food and he gets it right. I think [with different tasks] it’s about who cares the most.”

O’Malley says she’s “deadly serious and very micromanaging” on the detail around what really matters to her. “I often give Henry very detailed instructions about how to help the kids with their reading or their music practice. If I don’t, it will be done in a very vague manner.”

In her book, Slaughter, who went on to quit her high-flying job to look after her rebel teenage son, calls on women to be honest about why they want to control the domestic and parenting domain.

She recalls the first time one of her sons woke up in the night and called for Daddy instead of Mommy. Her first reaction was deep dismay. “I’m his mother. Kids are supposed to call for their mother.”

But she felt envy too — and realised mothers get a rush from being needed. Yet, she says, if women are to reach the top of their careers, they have to accept the trade-offs. To do that, we must let men be equal caregivers and that means relinquishing being the centre of our children’s universe.

O’Malley points out that being a mother brings a huge amount of status. “I remember with my firstborn, a man saying women just have this innate ability to handle the baby’s crying. I said no, we don’t have an extra gene, we learn it...That idea [that childcare is innate to women] is exactly what has painted women into the corner we’re in.” When she was writing her book and needed her husband to take over childcare on particular days O’Malley “made a very specific deal with my brain”.

Henry told her ‘I’m going to do this but you back off’. “He said ‘if you want me to do it, I’ll do it, but don’t ask me to do it your way’.

The children would come back late and have had Chinese for dinner. He’d bring them home looking sloppier than I’d have them. I could have said ‘you didn’t have them out looking like that did you?’ But I buttoned my lip because I needed to get my work done and it was his party.”

And, says O’Malley, the children are always happy when they’re with their dad. “In some respects, you have to let men do it their way, which can be a lot more relaxed and real.”

Laura Haugh, mum-in-residence at MummyPages.ie, says she and her husband, Ross, went to parenting courses together because she didn’t think they were on the same page around the rearing of their two children, James, six, and Lucy, four.

“By listening to him in group sessions, hearing him talk about how he interacted with the children, gave me a whole new confidence that he understood away more than I’d thought.

“I assumed because I was tuning in more to the children’s needs that he wasn’t because his style is different. But he was— he was just doing it differently.

He has more of an authoritative style. I assumed that was wrong. It’s different to mine. But who’s to say that a family doesn’t need two slightly different ways of managing.”

As Slaughter puts it, women are bringing home the bacon — and frying it up. And at the same time, they’re managing a calendar on the fridge that looks like an air traffic control chart. Such women are superwomen.

But, says Slaughter, it’s time for women to step off their self-created pedestals. “When we’re feeling overwhelmed, we need to let go and ask for help. It often takes more strength to acknowledge [our] weakness than to pretend infinite competence.”

CASE STUDY: Stephen and Caithriona King and family


Based near Tuam, Caithriona King and husband Stephen Canavan have four children — Shane, 9, Aoife, 7, Emily, 6 and Darragh, 2. Stephen is a farmer, Caithriona a milliner. She had a full-time permanent government job until January 2014.

“I was doing millinery on the side. That’s my love. I was working fulltime and had three children. Something had to give. I was doing 13-hour shifts, leaving the house at 6.50am and not back until 9pm — that was Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Of course, you’re cranky with the kids.

“When we had Darragh, I thought: how can I possibly go back to work? I’m going to give this millinery my whole heart. Now I’m here for the children when they come home from school. The work-life balance is kind of working out.

“On the parenting front, Stephen and I sing off the same hymn sheet. I’d be more into the smaller things, like have they the right coloured socks going to school?

I’d be more particular about ensuring they’re well presented going to school, that they have clean faces and their hair is tied up. Stephen would ask whether they brushed their teeth — but if they didn’t answer, I’d follow up and they’d do it.

“The night before, I get the girls to have their camogie gear ready. Stephen mightn’t even know it was camogie that day. I tend to be more prepared, he’d be more last minute.

“I do the bulk of the housework. He empties the dishwasher. If I’m working in the studio all day, he’d do the dinner. The dishes would be for me to do.

“Stephen is self-employed and puts in a huge amount of work at certain times of the year. When he has cows calving and ewes lambing, he could be up all night. I don’t expect as much then. He brings Shane to football training — in March and April, I pick up the slack. When times are quiet, Stephen does as much as he can [with the kids and house].

“I let Stephen do it his way — ‘whatever works for you, go with it’. So long as the kids are happy and content and he is too, that’s what matters.”

AND FINALLY ... What women say to men about housework:

  • You didn’t use the good scissors to cut that?
  • That’s not for the recycling bin.
  • It’s not enough to fold the clothes — you need to put them away too.
  • Please don’t stack the dirty dishes — put them into the dishwasher.
  • You need to put the tin foil under the wire rack in the grill pan, not over it.
  • You are using too much oil in the frying pan.
  • Washing up includes pots and pans.
  • Pick up the towels off the floor.
  • Why do I always have to remember the day the bins need to be left out?
  • Don’t just pull up the blankets — tuck them in at the sides too.
  • Never use wire wool on the non-stick frying pan and good pots.
  • Did you put the conditioner into the washing machine?
  • Do I have to ask you to do everything?


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