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  • The end of the chore wars?

    By Aeron Haynie September 15, 2011 7:54 am UTC

    Good news for men and women: Time Magazine recently heralded the end of the chore wars! According to author Ruth Davis Konigsberg, women can stop complaining and men can stop feeling guilty because they work equal amounts. That is, if you combine the time spent working inside and outside of the home. While women do a bit more housework and childcare, men are working more hours at their jobs.

    According to the article, women have been beguiled by the myth of the "second shift," which came from Arlie Hochschild’s 1989 book and argued that working women came home and began their “second” unpaid job of taking care of the household. Hochschild’s work was based on old research, and gender patterns have changed greatly in the last forty years; according to recent research, men are spending more time with their children, and everyone is doing a lot less housework.

    This all sounds great, until you examine the article’s claims closely. First of all, Konigsberg acknowledges that working women still do spend more time on housework and childcare; her point is that men are spending more time at the office and so it all evens out. Maybe it’s just me, but I see a big difference between paid, promotable work and unpaid labor. To be pragmatic, only paid work provides you with money for your old age. The author remarks that marriage roles can be adjusted over time. Really? After years of being the more hands-on parent while your spouse works later (and, one imagines, gets more done and thus earns greater professional rewards), you can suddenly launch yourself into super-career mode? Perhaps, but I imagine this "shift" is a bit more difficult.

    Konigsberg’s research does acknowledge a gender disparity in leisure time: men engage in more activities that give them pleasure, that recharge their batteries, while working mothers tend to multi-task even when "off the clock." She writes, “This leads to leisure's being 'contaminated' by less pleasurable activities or 'fragmented' by interruptions." It's interesting that Konigsberg does not connect this inability to really take time off with the gender roles in the house. "For whatever reasons, men seem more able to claim--and protect from contamination--[leisure time]." For whatever reason, indeed. Could it be that it’s difficult to take time off when there is no clear boundary between work and home?

    This quantitative approach to household/child care doesn't take into account degrees/types of work. Are all hours spent with one's children equal? Is planning the week's meal, grocery list, and nutritional value of the meals equal to cooking one meal? Women famously multi-task: calling home to remind spouses about after-school activities, stopping cleaning to find clothes, picking up dry cleaning on the way to work? As John Tierney and Roy Baumeister’s recent book points out, being forced to make lots of choices all day produces "decision fatigue" and depletes our ability to make good choices. The spouse who is in a more managerial role – and who is not able to engage in leisure activities – may feel more stress than hours worked imply.

    I’ve experienced both roles. For the first five years of my daughter's life, my husband and I both worked, but I was the primary caretaker and household manager. Although I was grateful to spend time with my daughter when she was small, I was very stressed. Now I am the primary breadwinner, work longer hours, and my husband does more childcare. I am one of those lucky women who were able to make this shift, who found a good job when circumstances allowed this shift in marital responsibility. For what it's worth, here's what I've observed about being in the traditionally "male" bread-winning role: it's a lot better. Of course, that’s because I love my job and I realize that’s rare. Although I now have the pressure to pay the bills I get lots of rewards: the satisfaction of doing a good job, I earn more and have greater job security; most of all, I focus on one thing at a time. And I enjoy being home more: I don’t stress about the dirty house because I’m not in it as much. When you are responsible for managing the house and you're the primary caretaker, you're never away from your workplace.

    These are complex issues and everyone’s choices, challenges, and resolutions are unique. But using the term “chore wars” turns the debate into a petty squabble, rather than the serious, essential question of how we live our lives.

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Comments on The end of the chore wars?

  • many role shifts
  • Posted by Roena , retired - chair of social science at Avila U on September 15, 2011 at 4:00pm UTC
  • Having been through a whole range of traditional marriage (60s), single parent (70s), and struggle to create a more equitable 2nd marriage (on-going), I can attest that it is an on-going, never ending balancing act and negotiation. And so much easier after the children are launched. I particularly appreciate Aeron pointing out the trivialization of the struggle by calling it "chore wars." I can see many young men are more sensitive to child caring responsibilities, but not to the rest of the managing of the household. Women still seem to be doing more multitasking, with all the stress that involves. Good luck to you all!
  • The good Times news
  • Posted by daughter-maker , Administrator on September 15, 2011 at 11:30pm UTC
  • Thanks for bringing Konigsberg's Times article to my attention, and offering an in depth reflection on the good news. Regarding the dubious announcement that "it's all better now!" I'm reminded of my public school teacher husband, and news he relayed to me from a staff meeting. A program was launched that claimed it would eliminate the achievement gap for the school's under resourced population --and in 3 years, no less (time that has, alas, since elapsed without delivery of said elimination). Staff were silently enduring this when a genial colleague finally commented: "Wow, this is going to be great. I can't wait!" He managed to conceal any sarcasm.

    I appreciate that people have a will to try to improve things, and take stock of how far we've progressed, but it's poignant when the effort goes wrong along the way, sometimes landing us in a worse-off position than we initially faced. It ain't over, and that's also worth saying. So thank you!
  • Spot on
  • Posted by MIS Prof , business college at public teaching university on September 16, 2011 at 4:00pm UTC
  • Great set of observations about the 'Chore Wars' article! Absolutely spot on. I especially loved the point that men are still well able to protect their leisure time. That was the heart of the chore wars, IMHO, after all (women doing the second-shift while men read the paper, watched TV, napped, or went to the gym or fishing or whatever).

    And of course women still only earn on average about $.77 for every $1 earned by men, much of which is rationalized by employers taking into account that so many women must still take more time off from work to bear and care for children and household. So, women are doubly penalized.

    (Hmm. We need to perpetuate the species and care for the young to do so, right? Raising that young to be great contributors to society is in our collective best interest, right? Wouldn't it be smart to support that activity and reward and value those doing it instead of penalizing them? Hmm. I sense a whole lot of short-term thinking going on.)

    I do concede that we've made progress. The 'house-husband' is less rare (I actually have one in my household). Men are spending more time with their children (although among my supposedly educated colleagues, acquaintances, and friends around the country many still think it unreasonable to take time off for carting a sick child to the doctor and then staying home with her). People are doing less housework in general (settling for a less than magazine-perfect household, or maybe outsourcing the cooking (eat out, take home, etc.), and cleaning/laundry).

    There is hope we are trending in the right direction. But I think claims that the chore wars have ended are premature and greatly exaggerated.