“In my world of crashing work deadlines, , teacher phone calls, late Girl Scout forms, forgotten water bills, kids’ stomachaches, and empty cupboards, all I could think was this: Man, all he has to do every day is go to work.
“But today, this Thanksgiving takes the lopsided division of labor in our house to a whole new level. As Tom walks out the door, I am both livid and, deep in my bones, flattened by a crushing disappointment. When we got married, we promised to be partners. But … our division of labor had become laughably, ridiculously, irrationally, frustratingly unfair.”
We’re continuing our discussion of Bridget Schulte’s new book, Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time. Catch up on previous posts in this series here. Now, I do not wish to start a gender equality war. Many of these statements I acknowledge are generalizations. I encourage you to read the book to learn of the research studies and statistics Schulte cites. (Seriously, maybe 1/5 of the book is footnotes!)
“Before I stepped away from the spinning top of my life and began researching this book, I was simply too busy to think much about it. But I always had company. Grousing about how little husbands do at home is a regular and tiresomely predictable social exchange. ‘When I work at home, I do all the kid and household stuff,’ one friend told me ‘When he works at home, he doesn’t even think to.’ ‘We get the balance okay, they he’ll go through an intense period at work, or travel, and I pick up the slack,’ said another. ‘And we never seem to recalibrate.’ There is a reason that time studies have found that married women in the United States sill do about 70 to 80 percent of the housework, though most of them work for pay, and that once a woman has children, her share of housework increases three times as much as her husband’s.”
You probably would like to know what that reason is. Before we get to that…
“International surveys have found that majorities of men and women in most Westernized countries say marriages in which both partners share work, child care, and household duties are the most satisfying. Research has found that when men and women share the housework, they have more sex, and that the more equitably they share duties, the happier they both are. Still, the gaping domestic divide, what social scientists call ‘the gendered division of labor,’ persists… and no one is very happy about it.”
Mr. B knows that if one of us feels something is wrong with our relationship, no matter how much he insists that person is wrong and all is fine, there’s still something wrong because one partner feels there is. I should state that this post is not a reflection of our relationship at all.
There are powerful cultural expectations of who we are and how we’re supposed to act. Are we the self-sacrificing ideal mother? the ideal worker? “Both men and women instinctively know that he would be far more punished in the workplace for flexible work than she would. And for so many people living on the edges of their budgets, the fear of taking a big financial hit stops all conversation right there.”
With help, Schulte found the path she wanted. There are often no role models. “For both men and women to have time for work, love, and play, … the way most people work, their relationships and their attitudes… would have to change.” “What if not just women, but both men and women, worked smart, more flexible schedules? What if the workplace itself was more fluid than the rigid and narrow ladder to success? What if a performance-based instead of an hour-measuring work culture could more easily absorb both men and women taking time to care for children or families or have lives? … And what if both men and women became responsible for raising children and managing the home, sharing work, love and play? Could everyone then live whole lives?”
“Sharing fairly also meant clearing mental clutter…” There are certain tasks you simply don’t have to think about, like what to have for dinner, if the other person has it handled. Sharing equitably gives you a strong relationship, date nights, and is good for work too.
Subtly, we slide into traditional gender roles. Often gender inequality isn’t noticed until that first baby is born…when couples come to see that the balance of labor, power, and time has shifted. “That one event, as I had discovered in all the time-use research around the world, changes a woman’s life profoundly and, until very recently, a man’s life hardly at all.” One expert is asking couples “at the moment they are most exhausted, to think differently. To ignore all their neighbors, colleagues, family members, and these cultural norms. To start to imagine their own way.”
Men and women not only do different things with their time but experience time itself differently. In our particular case, Mr. B works maybe 80 hours a week. He can fall asleep within 10 seconds because he’s not getting enough at night. He is a very involved father, though during the week, he has only a few minutes of family time to try to get the most of those family connections. He is under intense pressure to close deals and always be on his toes. He’s a working father and that’s what he’s supposed to be doing. Home is a refuge, a break from the constant stress. Granted, Mr. B does his share of childcare and house work, yet he seems to have a choice about it. I know I don’t ask for much help because of how hard he works. For me (sometimes), and Schulte would say for most women, “home, no matter how filled with love and happiness, is just another workplace.” During dinner, Mr. B is proud of himself for being there at all and I am jumping up to get one thing or another out of the oven, grab someone a glass of water, and generally feeling exhausted from all the “mental labor of keeping in mind at all times all the moving parts of kids, house, errands, and family calendar.” I remember those work days sans kids and I miss them. It was way easier than being a stay-at-home mother.
I think most people have it in the back of their mind that mothers are “supposed to” fill out the permission slips, make school lunches, plan the activities and summer camps, plan “extravaganza” birthday parties, go to the dentist and those parent/teacher conferences, take care of sick kids, and figure out what this “new math” is all about. I certainly did. And I enjoy doing it. I actively chose this life. I’m available to volunteer in many capacities. I’m flexible if my daughter gets sick. Yet… I don’t often ask for help because I think I’m supposed to be able to handle all this all the time. I make frozen chicken fingers for my daughter for dinner and think how I should be doing much more. I constantly feel that I’m forgetting to do something.
On the home front, it was gradual that I assumed most responsibilities. I pay all the bills, handle donations and taxes, and balance the budget because I’m good at that and I weirdly enjoy it. We used to discuss it every Sunday, but now we don’t. I take care of the car registrations because otherwise, his expires. I shop for groceries and make our dinners. I straighten and do laundry and straighten some more. I’m often juggling many tasks at once: listening to my daughter tell me something while folding laundry while texting a babysitter to see if I can attend that board meeting after all while boiling spaghetti. I enjoy doing these things too. Part of it’s my personality. And yet, I don’t ask for help because I think I’m supposed to be able to do this. (I draw the line at growing organic veggies in our back yard or homeschooling my daughter.) And I do forget things. This year, our property tax bill didn’t come in the mail and so it didn’t get paid until two months later, when I realized it when preparing our taxes. Don’t even get me started on late fees…
For families where both parents work full-time, you have to challenge the expectations and figure out what works best for you. You have to communicate openly and honestly. You have to agree on common standards and priorities. These few chapters of Schulte’s book discuss “perfect motherhood” myths and how intense and perfectionistic we’ve gotten in the last 50 years. Even stay-at-home dads feel unaccepted in most settings.
So to get to the reason. Why are we spending our precious time trying to be self-sacrificing ideal mothers? Guilt (for so many things…). Fear of the future. Safety of the world around us. Social pressure.
I loved reading that women are not naturally or instinctively “wired” to be the primary caretaker. Men, too, instinctively bond with and nurture babies. Both have innate nurturing instincts that await “activation.” Our lives are shaped by life experiences. We no longer live with extended family or in large support networks, for the most part. Social programming and expectations take care of the rest.
I just have to mention that there’s a fascinating part of the book that details what relationship equity looks like in Denmark, where equality is governmentally supported and is culturally the norm. It is actually amazing.
Share your thoughts on this! I have several women friends who chose to work and have kids. And I know a few stay-at-home dads. What do you think?