Ending the Gendered Division of Labor in the Home

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Photo by Getty Images/lolostock.

One key way to ensure that women aren’t continuing to shoulder an unfair burden of household and childcare tasks is to model a gender-neutral division of labor in the home. This sounds simpler than it is.

In an informal survey I conducted in 2017 of a diverse group of 200 parents, two things stood out: one, women are still definitely doing more home and childcare than men, particularly when it comes to the under-the-radar tasks that keep home and family life running (recent data from Pew supports this as well); and two, people who plan to be parents are often not thinking and talking through how they will run their households once they have kids. A whopping 68 percent of respondents answered the question “Before having children, did you discuss division of labor with your co-parent?” with “Not at all” or “Not really.” While of course, the division of labor in a home is something that evolves over time, I believe the fact that so many people don’t discuss it before children enter the picture is a big part of why it often ends up being unequal. Creating equality requires intention and effort.

In my own case, about a week before my first child was born, my husband casually said to me: “Oh yeah, I guess we didn’t really talk about this, but I assume you’re okay with staying home with the baby for a while?” He was joking, but there was a kernel of truth to that joke that, honestly, made me want to slap him. We hadn’t talked about it, and I felt like I had no idea what life would look like after the baby was born, which resulted in some tough times that probably could have been avoided. I don’t expect every couple to have the time or inclination to go full nerd on a spreadsheet capturing every detail of their home life, but understanding what’s involved in managing a household and figuring out how that labor will be divided is fundamental to righting some of the imbalances inherent to motherhood in America today.

No matter what your living situation, whether you’re the only adult in the house or not, it’s also critical to avoid gender- stereotypical chores wherever possible. Kids are born a particular sex, but they learn gender roles and they learn them early. In their influential 1987 article “Doing Gender,” Candace West and Don Zimmerman note: “What is produced and reproduced [by housework] is not merely the activity and artifact of domestic life, but the material embodiment of wifely and husbandly roles, and derivatively, of womanly and manly conduct.”

In a 2011 study of boys growing up in single-mother households, researchers Clara Berridge (University of California at Berkeley) and Jennifer Romich (University of Washington) found that the mothers, who taught and expected their sons to participate fully in household chores, felt strongly that they were both preparing their children to be self-sufficient—a skill necessary for boys and girls—and that, in teaching their sons in particular to play a meaningful role in the household, they were preparing them to be good husbands and fathers. That finding dovetails with Vânia Penha-Lopes’s 2006 analysis of black men’s recollections of the housework they performed as boys; they felt that “having done housework early on better prepared them for adult life.” A 1999 study by Constance Gager, Teresa Cooney, and Kathleen Thiede Call about professional husbands and wives sharing housework also established that having done a type of housework as a child was related to a greater likelihood of doing that task as an adult.

I see this play out in my own house every day—my husband’s mother insisted that he do his own laundry starting around age ten, and he has always insisted on doing it himself in our partnership. When we have talked about divvying up household chores, he always, always calls dibs on laundry as something that he doesn’t mind doing and feels he can keep on top of easily. Cooking, however, which was always the domain of women in his household, is much  harder for  him to wrap his head around—not because he doesn’t want to or because he insists on being passively bad at it so that I will take it on (what Arlie Hochschild calls “disaffiliation”), but because he sees it as much harder and more complex than it is, simply because he never learned to do it.

To ensure my own kids don’t fall into this trap, we’ve undertaken the occasional family cooking lesson, where I teach both the kids and my husband some basics. Because there was a period of about two years where I also had to travel for work quite a bit while my husband manned the home front, my boys have grown up in a house where it is every bit as normal for dad to make a meal as mom, every bit as normal for dad to pick them up after school, get them dressed in the morning, make their lunches, give them a bath, and so forth. We didn’t plan it that way, and it was a hard time on us financially, but I’m extremely glad my children are growing up in a household where domestic tasks are not particularly gendered.

This sort of role swap is becoming increasingly common, not only as more women take on the breadwinner role in their families, but also as more couples—both heterosexual and homosexual—take a “seesaw” approach to marriage, where the adults trade off being more career- or home-focused for periods of time. Another way to ensure that kids aren’t just seeing one type of person doing domestic labor, according to feminist philosopher Petra Bueskens, is to arrange what she calls “strategic absences,” or periods of time when the mother is not available. This is easier to do if the mother has work that requires travel, but can be planned as well. Bueskens found that what she called “revolving mothers” were able  to subvert—intentionally or not—the gendered dynamics of childcare, leisure, and work in the home.

Scholar Andrea O’Reilly has contributed some interesting research in this realm as well. At the 2018 Matricentric Feminism Conference in Florence, Italy, she presented her research on the subject of “wife work,” noting that after having studied several women who had dropped out of academia despite being on a path toward success, she had found that husbands had at least as much, if not more, to do with those dropout rates as children. “Any of the women who had children had all chalked up the loss of their academic careers to children,” O’Reilly said. “But when I asked for details, for examples of the sorts of tasks or responsibilities that had interfered with their research, it turned out that what they were really talking about was not mothering work, but wife work: taking charge of the design of their homes, performing various chores for their spouse, which ran the gamut from picking up dry cleaning, or adding a stop on the grocery run for a particular food item he liked to remembering his family members’ birthdays to maintaining the social calendar of both the couple and the family to the emotional labor of supporting his needs and his career.”

In other words, when we begin to unpack the impacts of the gendered division of labor in nuclear American families on women, if those women are in heteronormative marriages, we have to look not only at the expectations put on them as mothers but also as wives.

Policy Fix: New and Improved Home Economics

A 1980s study by time-use study expert John Robinson proclaimed that working mothers were spending far less time with their children than previous generations of mothers. The media exploded with headlines reinforcing the long-held belief that mothers in the workplace would result in the total destruction of the American family. Far less reported, of course, was the correction Robinson made shortly after publishing his findings. He had miscalculated.

The damage was done, and the race for working mothers to spend increasingly more time with their children—usually at the expense of sleep, exercise, and personal hygiene—was on. Today’s working mothers spend about as much time with their children as stay-at-home moms did in the 1960s. Married women in the United States do 70 to 80 percent of the housework, and the amount of housework they do tends to triple once they have children, irrespective of whether or not they work. In other words, the “second shift” that sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild laid out in her book of the same name back in 1989 is still something most working mothers have to contend with.

The issue of women continuing to take on more of the household and childcare duties on average has been exacerbated for the middle class by the rise, from the 1990s to today, of what feminist scholar Sharon Hays calls “intensive mothering” in her 1998 book The Cultural Contradictions of Motherhood.

In a nutshell, intensive mothering is the notion that mothers should spend every resource they have, including energy, time, and money, on ensuring the success and happiness of their children.

One way to engender a cultural shift on the home front may, paradoxically, be to go back to an early twentieth-century policy: mandated home economics classes. Once vilified, rightly, by feminists for targeting women only and promoting a sexist view of household gender roles, home economics classes have all but disappeared from American schools. But what if such classes could teach both boys and girls not only basic housekeeping skills like cooking and cleaning, but also get them thinking about what’s required to run a home and who does that labor?

In Japan, sociology researcher Masako Ishii-Kuntz has high hopes for the power of holistic home economics classes—courses that teach real, practical family planning and encourage balanced gender roles—to shift culture. It’s a required class there, co-ed, for elementary through high school students. And because Ishii-Kuntz trains many of the nation’s home economics teachers, the role of fathers and the importance of their involvement is a module in the courses. She’s now trying to convince the Ministry of Education to make home economics part of the school entrance exams that Japanese students take whenever they’re moving from one stage of school to the next. “If it’s not on the exams, it’s too easy for the students to tune out,” she says. “If we make sure they’re paying attention, they’re engaged in these classes? That’s where I think we can really start to see a shift.”

Reprinted with permission from Forget “Having It All”: How America Messed Up Motherhood—and How to Fix It by Amy Westervelt, Seal Press, November 2018. 

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