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How Latino Families Are Shifting the Balance of Gender Roles

Both Ivonne Salazar and her husband, Benjamin Flores, grew up in traditional Latino families—she is Ecuadorian, and he is Dominican—in which their moms did everything. And while his mom stayed at home and hers worked a 9-to-5 job, both women tackled mounds of laundry, hosted regular family gatherings, and made nightly meals from scratch. “My mom rarely resorted to takeout!” Salazar says.

Now that Salazar and Flores are raising two sons, ages 5 and 1, in West Orange, New Jersey, they’re trying to do things differently. They both get the boys ready in the morning. Then Salazar packs the kids’ lunch, drops them off at day care, and heads to her job as a fund-raising director. Flores has a long commute to his job as an operations manager. By the time he gets home at 7:30 p.m., Salazar has picked up the kids, fed them dinner, given them a bath, and readied them for bed. “By the end of the day, I’ve already done so much that sometimes it’s hard to even things out,” she says.

Salazar isn’t alone. Parents Latina recently surveyed 501 Latina mothers. Of those, 63 percent said they handled more than half the share of diaper changes, school drop-offs, and other parenting duties. And 75 percent said they did more than half the cooking, cleaning, and other household chores. A number of moms weren’t happy about the split—23 percent wished that their partners took a more active role in parenting, and 33 percent wanted them to share more equally in housework.

“The expectation on Latina moms is that we take care of everything—it’s ingrained in us,” says Susana Marquez, a Guatemalan-Salvadoran mom of one and licensed marriage and family therapist in Long Beach, California. “A lot of my millennial clients are questioning the traditional roles they grew up with, saying, ‘I don’t want to parent this way.’ ”

That trend isn’t far off from what moms across America are reporting. There’s a growing national conversation about the need to equalize the “mental load” of parenting—the sheer amount of energy, not to mention stress and worry, involved in raising a family. But the situation is especially complex for Latinas, as gender stereotypes remain entrenched in many Latino communities.

“There are elements of our culture that are beautiful, like the central role mothers play, and also things that have to change,” says Betsy Aimee Cardenas, a Guatemalan-Mexican mom of a 5-year-old son and a 13-year-old stepdaughter, and co-founder of a creative agency in Los Angeles. “My generation has the opportunity to parent more equally. But that means we have to build an archetype of a modern partnership for ourselves.”

That’s an undertaking, Latina moms are finding, that takes a lot of work.

In Mami’s Footsteps

When trying to shift the balance, many moms must first confront the precedent set by previous generations who embodied the “perfect mami” ideal. “I’m almost competing against the image of my mother,” Cardenas says. “She didn’t have to do it all, but she did.”

Salazar feels the pressure as well, even though her mother raised her and her younger sister to have more freedom and not feel tethered to the kitchen. “A lot of it is internal—am I good enough, am I doing enough for my kids?” Salazar says. “My goal is to have an equal marriage, but I’m struggling like a lot of my Latina friends with what we saw growing up. I feel as though I have to be the matriarch, to make sure everyone feels loved, supported, cared for.”

What Dads Do Most

It’s an especially tall order when you add the pressure to meet American motherhood standards: to be the mom who has bedtime down to a science and plans Pinterest-perfect parties while juggling a demanding career. “During the day when I’m at the office, the kids are always on my mind,” Salazar says. “And, at home, work will creep into my life. The two are constantly blending.”

Even if male partners are doing more than men in previous generations, the Parents Latina survey found that their involvement leans more heavily toward stereotypically male tasks, such as yard work, taking out the trash, and paying the bills. Among households where both parents work full-time, 40 percent of moms said their partner expects them to fulfill all or most parenting duties, and 48 percent said their partner expects them to tackle all or most chores. “For the men, if it’s not broken, why fix it? Mom has got it under control, why should he step in?” Marquez says. “Meanwhile moms are screaming, ‘Why aren’t you helping me?’ ”

young girl holding parents hands illustration

Illustration by Bijou Karman

The Meddling Familia

A lot of the pressure to live up to traditional gender norms is coming from outside the home. “We’re caught between two worlds,” says Griselda Rodriguez-Solomon, Ph.D., a Dominican-American mom of one and a sociologist who teaches gender studies at City University of New York. “U.S. culture says that gender norms are antiquated and we should be on par with men. But most of our Latino culture and our relatives are telling us that a woman’s main role is as a homemaker.”

In many cases, it is the extended family who intentionally or unintentionally enforces this unequal dynamic between men and women. “Latino family members will definitely put in their two cents!” Marquez says. “A lot of moms tell me, ‘My mother-in-law thinks I should stay home.’ Fathers-in-law also give their sons flack: ‘Why are you cooking or at home when she’s out working?’ ”

Cardenas and her husband, Joshua, who is Mexican, have worked hard to have a balanced partnership. They learned from their own parents, who had careers and divided parenting duties. But Cardenas’s mom expressed surprise the first time she left her then infant son home alone with Joshua. “She said, ‘But who’s watching the baby if you go out?’ ” Cardenas recalls. “I said, ‘His father!’ ” Her mother’s response: “Your husband is too hands-on.”

Cardenas’s mother eventually saw the benefits of Joshua’s being an involved father—especially when her grandson was diagnosed with autism and began speech therapy. “Joshua took him to all those appointments because I had to work, but also because he wanted to be there,” Cardenas says. “Sometimes women will talk about their husbands ‘helping’ with the kids. They’re not helping—they’re coparenting!”

Talking It Out

That shift in thinking is subtle but crucial as women start opening the lines of communication. Marquez recommends first giving your partner a heads-up that you’d like to make changes. Then you can express how you’ve been feeling and come up with practical solutions. “It’s a delicate matter, so you don’t want to start unloading,” she says. “You can tell him, ‘When the kids go to bed, let’s chat.’ ” He might put off the conversation or get defensive. Consider backup, such as a therapist or a church counselor, to mediate. “Say something like, ‘I feel as if I’m not being heard. Why don’t we talk to someone else so it’s not coming across like I’m attacking you?’ ” Marquez suggests. “One therapy session can tell you a lot. Your partner may not want to keep going, but the seed of change will be planted.”

If you are able to share the load more fairly, be prepared for family backlash. “You’re going against everything you’ve been taught,” Marquez says. “Relatives might give you some grief. But the more comfortable you can be with your choices, the more comfortable everyone else will become as well.”

Touch base with your partner regularly too. Cardenas and her husband are constantly “negotiating,” as Cardenas calls it, to divide responsibilities. They keep track of even seemingly minor details, like who’s picking up a gift for a birthday party. “It’s never perfectly 50/50, but the balance shifts back and forth,” Cardenas says. “I hate washing dishes. Joshua finds it kind of relaxing. I say, play to your strengths.”

Even if your parenting styles differ. “Fathers are totally capable of giving kids a bath or putting them to bed; it just may not be the way you do it,” Salazar says. “I’ve learned that that’s okay.”

Including kids is key, too, in creating a new way forward for the next generation. Salazar makes a game out of laundry for her 5-year-old son and involves him in meal prep. Now when he sees her sweeping, he runs to get a dustpan. “I don’t want the hard work of running a household to be invisible to my boys,” Salazar says. “I would love my sons to see chores not as a negative, but as a way to care for your family so that one day, when they are in their own relationships, they will be equal partners.”

How to Shift the Balance

Ready to change things up, but not sure how to talk to your partner? Here’s how to get the ball rolling.

Pick the right time.

Ask a family member to take the kids for an hour or two so you can get some “alone time” with your partner. “There’s never an ideal moment,” marriage and family therapist Susana Marquez says. “But you want to carve out a time so you’re both focused.”

Think visually.

Kids get chore charts, so why not grown-ups? A tangible solution, such as a shared calendar, might help your partner see from your POV.

Be assertive, not aggressive.

Explain that you’ve been struggling and want to discuss a better division of labor. “Don’t blame or shame,” Marquez says. “Use ‘I’ statements to clearly express your needs—‘I feel this way’—so that you’re heard.”

Compromise.

Don’t reject a cultural tradition outright. Brainstorm ways to adapt it. For example, instead of a big family gathering where all the cooking falls on you, try a potluck.