Monday, February 21, 2011

Division of Labor

When Elana, my eldest daughter, was only a few weeks old, my husband would come home from a long day at the office and I would eagerly greet him at the door cradling our infant daughter in my arms.  As a brand new father, Ted was still in the honeymoon stage and enthusiastic to help with the cooking and chores.  However, after a quick "Hello" and a kiss all I really wanted to do was hand him the baby. I remember remarking, "I will lick the toilet bowl clean with my own tongue if you just hold the damn baby!" 

Four years later we have settled, however disjointedly, into our new roles as parents.  A few weeks ago Ted arrived home edgy.  (I have to admit that I have a hard time relating. To me his work involves listening to whatever talk radio he wants during his commute, having adult conversation that were not centered around preschool nor playground politics, and lunch meetings that don't serve PB&J.   To Ted my day probably revolves around three-martini playdates, long luxurious mid-day naps, and well behaved toddlers that clean up after themselves.)  However, in any case Ted came home frustrated- Maybe a deal went sour, or Red Robin ran out of Buffalo Dipping sauce.  When he arrived, the kids were taking a bath and I was relieved to see the extra pair of hands.  “Oh, good, you’re home.  Now I can clean up the kitchen.”  Ted reluctantly took over bath duty with a loud sigh.  After wiping the floor and putting a load of dirty towels in the laundry, I hear Ted calling for help.  It seems that he is having difficulty getting both girls out of the bath simultaneously.  After chastising him for his ineptitude, he responds “Well, it feels like I have two jobs!” Dude!  

Do I need to list for him the number of jobs I have each day (mother, nurse, scheduler, cook, chauffeur, housekeeper, sibling wartime referee)?  Maybe he was channeling the olden days, when girls in pressed dresses with bows in their pageboy haircuts greet the daddy at the door?  He enters the house loosening his tie and hanging his hat on the coat rack.  The wife mixes him his favorite cocktail as he settles into his La-Z-Boy with his remote and slippers.  After a lovely meal of meatloaf, mashed potatoes, canned green beans, and red Jello salad, everyone relaxes in the family room reading quietly to themselves while listening to Buddy Holly on the turn table. 
Obviously we can’t regress this far (mainly because I have no idea where to find a turn table, and my children can't read).  In the past 50 years women have progressed to claim 46% of the workforce, with almost 16% of Fortune 500 companies having female CEOs.  We have earned the right to vote and wear pantsuits to the office.  In addition, nearly 3% of stay-at-home parents are now dads.  It seems as though the women have stepped up their game, but the men are still playing in the first quarter.

As cultural values, gender norms and families evolve, there is no longer a clear delineation between who does what chores. Each family must negotiate their own system. A recent nationwide poll of gender roles and housework among a sample of 2,500 Americans found that women felt that they bore most of the burden for maintaining a household. 91% of the respondents believed that women have taken on a far greater role in providing for the family financially while 68% believe that women are expected to do most of the chores around the house. Men and women disagreed about how chores were being split: 69% of women believe they do most of the housework, whereas 53% of the men said that household chores are evenly divided ( Even with more mothers working outside the home, women continue to feel responsible for most of the household labor. 
Who does what?

Most Grocery Shopping
Prepare dinner 4-6 times/week
Never prepare dinner
How are chores divided?
Answered Yes to “Are chores shared?”
Answered Yes to “Does one person do all the housework?”

I did some research for an article I wrote for a local parenting magazine on how three different couples, with three very different lifestyles, split the household chores, including childcare.  (The names have been changed to protect the identity of the lazy husbands.)

Meet Laura and David.  David works long hours as an investment banker and Laura stays home with their two delightful daughters, ages 4 and 2 years, in addition to actively volunteering with Girls on the Run.  Since David is often away on business trips, Laura is delegated with most of the household duties including: laundry, cooking, grocery shopping, childcare, light housework, master calendar, major projects, garbage, as well as the finances and general paperwork.  David is responsible for the more manual work, such as mowing the lawn, tending the garden, and putting together "some assembly required" toys.   Laura estimates that she spends around 25-30 hours a week on her chores and David estimates around 10 hours/week for his.  Both feel that the split is equitable, at least in the grand scheme of things.  

Laura enjoys her time at home with the girls and feels that she would be dissatisfied emotionally if she spent her days in the office instead. While Laura’s volunteer work allows her to access her creative and intellectual needs somewhat, she still feels that something is missing. 

Next we will look at Melissa and Brian.  They met in a hospital in Australia where Brian was doing his residency as a heart surgeon and Melissa was a nurse. Around four years ago, they relocated to San Francisco, had a daughter (now three-and-a-half years old) and a son (now two). Melissa traded her scrubs for a double stroller and long nights of interrupted sleep.  She is in charge of 99% of the housework, while Brian, often coming home late from the lab or the operating room, takes on about 1% of the work (typically tasks that require climbing a ladder or heavy lifting). 

Although Melissa is responsible for almost all of the household duties, she is generally satisfied emotionally, but is feeling less intellectual fulfillment as the kids get older. With her youngest nearly in preschool, she’s finding herself less needed and with more time to consider other possibilities.  

Finally I looked at Lori and her husband Adam.  They both work full time and split household and child-rearing duties as evenly as possible (nearly 50/50). Adam drops their three-and-a-half year old at preschool each morning before embarking on his 45-minute commute. Lori leaves work slightly earlier to cross the Bay Bridge and be on time to do pick-ups. Adam is in charge of the mornings and packs lunch. Lori makes dinner and does baths in the evenings. On weekends they spend most of the time together as a family, both attending classes and sharing in the chores. 

Lori wishes that she could work less than full-time to spend more time with her family.  While her job provides her with intellectual and creative stimulation, she is somewhat dissatisfied with the quality of time spent with her husband and daughter as weekends get filled up with chores like grocery shopping and laundry.  

What does this say about mothers?  Has the advances in gender and relationship equality enhanced our satisfaction levels, or made women feel less appreciated and less content in either role as a stay-at-home-mom or a working mother?

San Francisco-based couples counselor Brook M. Stone, LCSW, (and my aunt) believes that our current role of motherhood is highly demanding. Expectations to parent perfectly lead to over-parenting and over-managing of children, as well as an overall over-extension of mothers. Brook strongly emphasizes that, in general, the more women can exercise all parts of their brainsnot just the maternal but also the creative and intellectualthe happier they are. But for many women, balancing the sometimes dueling roles of “mother” and “creative intellectual” depends on your partner. Spending more time being creative and intellectual means that partners need to be willing to participate more, take on more responsibilities around the house and actively work together to create time and space for mothers to explore. This kind of participation may look and feel very different than the traditional role of bread-winning “father” that many of us grew up with.
For us, when Ted is home on the weekends, we end up splitting chores a bit too evenly: we trade off sleeping in on Saturday and Sunday, who puts which girl to bed, who empties the dishwasher, ect.  In fact I'm sure that our lovely neighbors have heard me call out on many occasions, "Ted, I changed Maisy's poopy diaper on Saturday, it's your turn today!"  Things could be much worse.


  1. I *love* studies reporting how men think they are doing 50% of the household chores. I think women still bear much of the mental burden of household management, even if their husbands (like my darling) are doing the laundry. Meal-planning, purchasing and planning gifts for birthday parties, noticing when the kids need new clothes...someone has to plan these things and the majority of the time in hetero couples, the mothers just assume this role.

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