On the Chore Balance

So, the oft-told story is that once upon a time, like in the 1950s, women stayed at home with the kids and men went to work and won the bread.

Then came the feminist revolution and suddenly women were going into the workforce in massive numbers.

BUT, back on the home front, women were working a second shift, doing all the cooking and cleaning and parenting, while the men presumably sat around with their feet up on the coffee table drinking beers.

Today, despite the gains women have made, we are still stuck with that second shift. Even if we are working just as much as our spouses.

It’s a well-worn narrative. And yet it’s never sat too well with me.

Sure, there are times when I feel like I’m doing more than Dave. There are times when I get frustrated by the seemingly never-ending work of cooking, cleaning, bill paying, errand running, and oh yeah, wedding planning. And because we don’t keep time logs of exactly how much time we spend doing household chores, how much time we’re working, and how much time we’re relaxing, it’s easy for both of us to feel that the other is slacking.

(Case in point: one time I accused Dave of not having cooked once in the past week and he reminded me that he had grilled chicken for us two nights ago, a fact that I had edited out of my memory, because in my mind grilling isn’t cooking.)

If I’m being honest, I have to admit that Dave pulls his weight. He cleans, he cooks, he washes dishes way more than I do, he always takes out the trash, he deals with our landlord, he took our car to get it smog tested, he does the grocery shopping, etc., etc.

And while Dave is great, I don’t think he’s particularly exceptional. I look at the husbands and boyfriends of my female friends, and the vast, vast majority are extremely involved in the household: cooking, cleaning, parenting, dog walking.

This pattern doesn’t appear to be limited to my friends and specific peer group either: according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, women employed full time with children under 18, only worked twenty minutes more than men (counting both paid and unpaid work.) Some second shift.

And yet, as Bean Mom notes in her beautifully written rant, the narrative hasn’t changed. Men are still largely viewed as lazy douchebags who simply won’t step up to the plate.

And that’s not just unfair, it’s deeply problematic.

As Ruth Davis Konigsberg points out in Time Magazine, men are now facing more pressure to balance their families and their careers, even possibly more pressure than women:

In a July report called, tellingly, The New Male Mystique, the Families and Work Institute surveyed 1,298 men and concluded that long hours and increasing job demands are conflicting with more exacting parenting norms. The institute had launched the survey to follow up on its 2008 finding that 60% of fathers said they were having a hard time managing the responsibilities of work and family, compared with only 47% of mothers in dual-earner couples. “Men are feeling enormous pressure to be breadwinners and involved fathers,” says Ellen Galinsky, the institute’s director. “Women expect more of men, and men expect more of themselves.”

Konigsberg notes that men are increasingly expected (and choose) to play very active roles as fathers, but that workplaces are generally much less accommodating of fathers than they are of mothers. While women may be cut some slack following the birth of a child, men get no such rope. That in turn means that men can’t help out at home as much as they want to which leads to guilt and pressure (on the part of men) and resentment and pressure (on the part of women.)

Clearly, it’s time that both men and women started developing more of a work and family balance. But for men, it will likely be an uphill battle, until we rid ourselves of the old trope that men simply don’t help around the house.

7 responses to “On the Chore Balance

  1. as someone who spent 4 years living with a guy who was a lazy douchebag, i have a strong conviction that plenty of those guys are still out there. i know some guys who are willing to do their share of household chores, but i don’t think there are enough of them to go around yet. i think workplaces need to allow men more slack but i also think that it starts in childhood – that parents need set a good example for their children as to men’s role in the home, ie teaching their sons the value of cooking and cleaning just as much as their daughters. also this book seems like an interesting read on the division of labor topic. http://www.eastsidebride.com/2011/06/reviewish-spousonomics.html

  2. I agree that we should teach our sons the value of cooking and cleaning and set a good example. And I don’t doubt that there are douchebag men out there, just as there are douchebag women. But the evidence seems to suggest more and more that there isn’t a real “second shift” women are doing. And we should applaud that.

  3. One of the article said something about the mental time involved. To me that is something that is hard to put a number on and explain how much energy it takes. Eg I don’t mind cooking dinner, what I hate is trying to think of what to cook that is quick, healthy and cheap. If I left it to my husband we either wouldn’t eat, we’d eat take-out all the time or mac-and-cheese, none of which really fit the criteria. So I kind of feel like I do more of the thinking in our relationship. I plan all our holidays and book everything. I look after all the kids’ medical stuff, renewal of passports etc. I remember people’s birthdays etc etc. I keep track of all our finances.

    I guess the question is, am I doing this because I am a woman, or because I am me (ie uptight and an over-thinker)? Did my early socialisation lead me to be like this because my mum was like this? Is it even relevant, since my mum was a single parent, therefore there was no real division of labour in our house anyway!!??

    But I do see my husband’s mum doing literally everything in their house, including all of the thinking, worrying and caring. So did my husband wind up being not so great at the ‘thinking’ because of his socialisation or because his genetics (ie males in his family are missing the critical gene to actually manage their own lives)?

    But to give him his due, if I tell him what to cook, he cooks it. If I ask him to go renew the car insurance, he does it. Unfortunately, I’ve tested him and if I wait for him to think of doing something himself (ie make a doctor’s appointment for his own pressing health issues) it basically never happens….am I encouraging his dependence on me? Probably, but I don’t want to see what happens if I stop doing the thinking for all of us (as long as he at least does what he is asked).

  4. Alex, yeah, I find that the planning, thinking, and organizing of our social calendar is all done by me as well. If I left it to Dave, we would never go to the dentist nor the doctor and none of the nieces and nephews ever get birthday presents. And I agree with you that expending all that mental energy is EXHAUSTING. One time I made Dave plan what we were having for dinner for two straight weeks and it was such a great mental vacation.

    I find that it’s much harder to get Dave into the mode of planning our lives. But at least we split the actual work.

  5. I don’t have a subscription to Time anymore so can’t read the whole article, but I’m interested in how they’ve defined work. For instance, my husband doesn’t consider it work when I take the kids to the playground even though as a stay at home mom, I consider it part of the job description. I tell him I just have a better job than him. I think it would be easier to quantify the work when both parents have jobs, but when one works and one stays home, things get fuzzier.

  6. This is a good point. The BLS has respondents fill out time diaries, and things are considered household work if the participant enters it in as household work. But the TIme mag article points out that women are often more likely to mix leisure and say childcare. For example, you might arrange a play date with a friend and it is half leisure because you’re spending time with your friend, but it’s half work because you also have to break up fights between your friend’s kid and your kid. It’s probably not as relaxing as just getting a mani-pedi with said friend and no kids.

    So you might be right that it’s easier to quantify if both have jobs. On the other hand, lots of people shop for shoes at work, and that’s not exactly work ….

  7. Ruchi I read that article too and there were issues which were not even raised. It is not just about cooking, cleaning and parenting only. For the longest time women have also been kin keepers and been responsible for social and family relationship maintenance. Sadly to say women are doing more elder care and health care related stuff at home than men. That takes up huge amounts of time and sacrifice. As the nation gets older, this work will become more a woman’s issue. Those facts were not even discussed. It is very limited in its scope.

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