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Breadwinner? Homemaker? Make peace with gender roles that work for your marriage

As a couple therapist and professor who trains graduate students to do couple therapy, I have up close access to lots of marriages, and lately, I have been talking with my students, colleagues, and clients about a tender and complicated trend.


The trend is this: a couple comes to therapy for “stated reason A,” but it soon becomes clear that something else is going on.

The couple’s so-called communication problem is actually a clash between their expectations and their reality with respect to gender roles.

For heterosexual couples, this typically means that she is doing far more bread-winning and he is doing far more caretaking than either of them had planned. If this sounds familiar, here are some ways that you can make peace with your modern family!

1. Create YOUR story

From our first days on this planet, we internalize tons of messages about what we should think and feel and do based on whether we inhabit a boy body or a girl body.

When the realities of our lives are aligned with the gendered messages we are being given, everything is groovy. But all too often the messages end up feeling like prisons, restricting and limiting our potential. One of the secrets to a happy romantic relationship is being aware of (and able to talk about) all of the cultural messages about gender that you and your partner have internalized. Talking about gender is so important that I devoted an entire lesson to it in my new book, Loving Bravely: 20 Lessons of Self-Discovery to Help You Get the Love You Want (New Harbinger, 2017).

When it comes to gender and marriage, the messages are loud! Our culture has lots to say about what “good wives” should do and what “good husbands” should do…especially about balancing work and family!

Although we have done a decent job shattering the glass ceiling for women, we continue to do a fairly lousy job supporting men as caretakers. This is particularly problematic as some have observed that today’s job market plays to women’s strengths and more households than ever have a female breadwinner.

In order to stay happy and healthy as you (by choice or by necessity) shake up traditional notions of breadwinning and caregiving, you must create a couple story—one that you both can get on board with and one that answers the following questions.

  • In what ways does your division of labor serve your needs—financially, emotionally, intellectually, physically, spiritually?
  • How is your division of labor a source of pride?
  • What are the benefits of your division of labor?
  • What does your division of labor allow you to witness in each other?

Creating a shared story about your choices keeps you connected with each other and reminds you that even if you occupy different realms, you are on the same team.

2. Shift your paradigm

When you boil it all down, every household has two basic needs:

  • The need to bring income into the household
  • The need to convert income into resources in the form of goods and services (groceries, dental care, new snow boots, etc).

Simple enough. But we as a culture do weird stuff with these two basic needs. We have decided that the first need is the responsibility of men and the second need is the responsibility of women. And, because we live in a patriarchy, we label the first need as higher value and the second need as lower value.

In order to live comfortably outside of traditional gender notions, ask yourself these questions:

  • How much less stress would you and your partner feel if you treated these roles as different, interrelated, and of equal value?
  • How much more compassion could you offer each other if you felt and expressed empathy for the challenges (and opportunities) inherent in both roles?

3. Be flexible

When her career takes off and his career does not, leaving her to occupy the traditionally masculine provider realm, she risks harboring feelings of disappointment and resentment.

The degree to which men and women can move beyond rigid and limited gender roles is the degree to which they can flexibly adapt to the ever-changing demands of life.

Even if you and your partner entered into your marriage agreeing to a particular division of labor, life (and the economy) may not cooperate! Resilience is about doing what needs to be done. Prevent disappointment and resentment by broadening your definition of what it means to be a provider, looking together for all of the other ways in which he provides for you—emotionally, sexually, spiritually, etc.

4. Build a loving fence

For some couples, the discomfort they feel about their division of labor is amplified by a chorus of friends and extended family (“When is he going back to work?” “Are you OK with him being home?”).

Marriages need boundaries.

When the boundary between your marriage and your tribe is healthy, you and your partner are able to feel connected to your network but also protected from input that feels undermining. Try being direct with your extended family—“I know that our marriage looks different than yours, but we could really use your support. This isn’t always easy for us either.”

Marriage is such a moving target! What worked for one generation does not work for another, and what works in one part of the world does not work in another. Factors ranging from economic to psychological lead couples to gender-bend when it comes to balancing the needs of work and family.

If you both commit to being aware, compassionate, and collaborative, you can create a modern family that ends up enriching the lives of everyone involved!

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Going back to work after having a baby is hard. Regaining your footing in a world where working mothers are so often penalized is tough, and (just like most things during the postpartum period) it takes time.

The challenges we face as working women returning from a maternity leave can be so different from those we faced before, it can feel like we're starting over from scratch. But mothers will not be deterred, even if our return to the working world doesn't go exactly as planned.

We are resilient, as Serena Williams proved at Wimbledon this weekend.

She lost to Angelique Kerber in the final, just 10 months after welcoming daughter Alexis Olympia and recovering from a physically and emotionally traumatic birth experience.

Williams didn't get her eighth Wimbledon title this weekend, but when we consider all the challenges she (and all new moms) faced in resuming her career, her presence was still a huge achievement.

"It was such an amazing tournament for me, I was really happy to get this far!" Williams explained in an emotional post-match interview.

"For all the moms out there, I was playing for you today. And I tried. I look forward to continuing to be back out here and doing what I do best."

The loss at Wimbledon isn't what she wanted, of course, but Williams says it does not mean there won't be wins in her near future.

"These two weeks have showed me I can really compete and be a contender to win grand slams. This is literally just the beginning. I took a giant step at Wimbledon but my journey has just began."

When asked what she hopes other new moms take away from her journey, Williams noted her postpartum recovery was really difficult, and hopes that other moms who face challenges early in motherhood know that they don't have to give up on whatever dreams they have for themselves, whether it involves working or not.

"Honestly, I feel like if I can do it, they can do it. I'm just that person, that vessel that's saying, 'You can be whatever you want to be.' If you want to go back to workand to me, after becoming a mom, I feel like there's no pressure to do that because having a child is a completely full-time job," she said.

"But to those that do want to go back, you can do it, you can really do it."

Thank you, Serena. You may not have won, but this was still a victory.

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Since baby Crew became the newest member of Chip and Joanna Gaines' family three weeks ago, his proud parents have been keeping the world updated, sharing sweet snaps of their youngest and even giving us a glimpse into his nursery.

Now, Chip Gaines is showing off a pic that proves there is nothing cuter than a floppy, sleepy baby.

"My heart is full..." the proud father of five captioned the photo he posted on his Instagram and Twitter accounts.

Earlier this week Crew's mama shared how she gets him so sleepy in the first place, posting an Instagram Story showing how she walks around the family's gardens on their Waco, Texas farm to lull her newborn boy to sleep.



The couple are clearly enjoying every single moment of Crew's babyhood. As recently as 7 days ago Chip was still sporting his hospital bracelet. Joanna says with each child he's worn his maternity ward ID until it finally wears off. We can't blame Chip for wanting to make the newborn phase last as long as possible.

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It was a changing table must-have a generation ago, but these days, many parents are forgoing baby powder, and now, the leading manufacturer of the sweet smelling powder was dealt a big financial blow.

Johnson & Johnson was just ordered to pay almost $4.7 billion to 22 women who sued, alleging baby powder caused their ovarian cancer.

A St. Louis jury says the women are right, but what does The American Academy of Pediatrics say about baby powder?

It was classified "a hazard" before many of today's parents were even born

The organization has actually been recommending against baby powder for years, but not due to cancer risks, but inhalation risks.

Way back in 1981 the AAP declared baby powder "a hazard," issuing a report pointing out the frequency of babies aspirating the powder, which can be dangerous and even fatal in the most severe cases.

That warning didn't stop all parents from using the powder though, as its continued presence on store shelves to this day indicates.

In 1998 Dr. Hugh MacDonald, then the director of neonatology at Santa Monica Hospital and a member of the American Academy of Pediatrics Committee on Fetus and Newborn, told the Los Angeles Times "Most pediatricians recommend that it not be used," adding that the consensus at the time was that "anybody using talcum powder be aware that it could cause inhalation of the talc, resulting in a pneumonic reaction."

Recent updates

A 2015 update to the AAP's Healthy Children website suggests the organization was even very recently still more concerned about the risk of aspiration than cancer risks like those alleged in the lawsuit. It suggests that parents who choose to use baby powder "pour it out carefully and keep the powder away from baby's face [as] published reports indicate that talc or cornstarch in baby powder can injure a baby's lungs."

In a 2017 interview with USA Today, Dr. David Soma, a pediatrician with the Mayo Clinic Children's Hospital, explained that baby powder use had decreased a lot over the previous five to eight years, but he didn't believe it was going to disappear from baby shower gift baskets any time soon.

"There are a lot of things that are used out of a matter of tradition, or the fact it seems to work for specific children," he said. "I'm not sure if it will get phased out or not, until we know more about the details of other powders and creams and what works best for skin conditions—I think it will stick around for a while."

Talc-based baby powder is the kind alleged to have caused ovarian cancer in the lawsuit (which Johnson & Johnson plans to appeal), but corn starch varieties of baby powder are also available and not linked to increased cancer risks as alleged in the case.


Bottom line: If you are going to use baby powder on your baby's bottom, make sure they're not getting a cloud of baby powder in their face, and if you're concerned, talk to your health care provider about alternative methods and products to use on your baby's delicate skin.

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In the days since a The New York Times report revealed a resolution meant to encourage breastfeeding was blocked by U.S. delegates at the World Health Assembly, breastfeeding advocates, political pundits, parents, doctors—and just about everyone else—have been talking about breastfeeding, and whether or not America and other countries are doing enough to support it.

The presidents of the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American College of Obstetricians say the controversy at the World Health Assembly reveals that mothers need more support when it comes to breastfeeding, while others, including The Council on Foreign Relations, suggest the national conversation needs more nuance, and less focus on the "breast is best" rhetoric.

The one thing everyone agrees on is that parents need more support when it comes to infant feeding, and in that respect, the controversy over the World Health Assembly resolution may be a good thing.

In their joint letter to the editor published in the New York Times this week, the presidents of the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American College of Obstetricians, Dr. Colleen Kraft and Dr. Lisa Hollier urge "the United States and every country to protect, promote and support breast-feeding for the health of all women, children and families."

The doctors go on to describe how breastfeeding "provides protection against newborn, infant and child infections, allergies, asthma, inflammatory bowel disease and sudden infant death syndrome," and note the health benefits to mothers, including reduced risks for "breast cancer, ovarian cancer, diabetes, hypertension and heart disease.

"Helping mothers to breastfeed takes a multifaceted approach, including advancing public policies like paid family leave, access to quality child care, break time and a location other than a bathroom for expressing milk," say Kraft and Hollier.

Certainly such policies would support breastfeeding mothers (and all mothers) in America, but some critics say framing the discussion around domestic policy is a mistake, because the World Health Assembly resolution is a global matter and women and babies in other parts of the world face very different feeding challenges than we do here at home.

In an op-ed published by CNN, Gayle Tzemach Lemmon, an adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations suggests the laudable goal of breastfeeding promotion can backfire when mothers in conflict-riddled areas can't access formula due to well-meaning policy. Lemmon points to a 2017 statement by Doctors Without Borders calling for fewer barriers to formula distribution in war-torn areas.

"International organizations like UNICEF and the World Health Organization (WHO) promote breastfeeding ... and provide infant formula, but only by prescription. We believe that distributing infant formula in a conflict situation like Iraq is the only way to avoid children having to be hospitalized for malnutrition," Manuel Lannaud, the head of Doctors Without Borders Iraq mission wrote.

The various viewpoints presented this week prove that infant feeding is not a black and white issue, and policy debates should not be framed as formula versus breast milk—there is more nuance than that.

A recent study in the Journal of Pediatrics found opting to supplement with formula after first breastfeeding improves outcomes for infants and results in higher rates of breastfeeding afterward, and while the benefits of breastfeeding are numerous, they are sometimes overstated. Another recent study published in the journal PLOS Medicine found breastfeeding has no impact on a child's overall neurocognitive function by the time they are 16. Basically, parents should not be shamed for supplementing or choosing to use formula.

This, according to Department of Health and Human Services says national spokesperson Caitlin Oakley is why the HHS opposed the original draft of the breastfeeding resolution at the World Health Assembly (although critics and the initial NYT report suggest the United States delegation were acting in the interests of infant formula manufacturers).

"Many women are not able to breastfeed for a variety of reasons, these women should not be stigmatized; they should be equally supported with information and access to alternatives for the health of themselves and their babies," Oakley said in a statement.

That's true, but so is everything the presidents of the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American College of Obstetricians presented in their op-ed, and that's why the U.S. should support breastfeeding policy.

Here's another truth: This is an issue with many perspectives and many voices. And we need to hear them all, because all parents need support in feeding their babies, whether it's with a breast, a bottle or both—and we're not getting it yet.

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