Thanks to Bitch PhD, I came across an interesting article in the The New York Times about shared parenting.
In parts, the article makes for depressing reading. It cites some recent research carried out by the University of Wisconsin, which revealed that the average wife does 31 hours of housework a week while the average husband does 14 - a ratio of slightly more than two to one. As one academic interviewed for the article points out, this ratio has not altered substantially over the past ninety years: back in the days when women had to tend fires and put clothes through the wringer and then hang them outside to dry, the average woman spent 50 hours a week on housework, and the average man 20.
The article set me thinking about the division of labour within my own marriage. Our current lifestyle is by and large enabled by two things: Mr H's salary, and my unpaid domestic labour. Although I do some part-time teaching when the opportunity arises, to all intents and purposes Mr H is the sole earner. He has assumed full responsibility for covering all our monthly outgoings while I am writing up my PhD. Looking at other postgraduate students, many of whom are struggling to hold down several part-time jobs while also trying to write up, I realise how lucky this makes me.
In return, I do the bulk of the shopping, cooking, cleaning and laundry. Sometimes I resent this - particularly at weekends, when he is sitting in the living room watching the television, while I am scrubbing the bathroom or changing the bed linen. Once I am able to take on more regular paid work and am contributing to the household finances, the situation will have to change. Either we will have to divide the chores more equally, or we will have to use some of that extra income to pay for extra help around the home.
But how would this change if we were to have a child? For the purposes of the University of Wisconsin survey, housework was defined as things like cooking, cleaning, yardwork and home repairs. Child care was an entirely separate category: where the housework ratio was two to one, the wife-to-husband ratio for child care in the United States turned out to be closer to five to one.
For the NYT article, author Lisa Belkin interviewed a number of couples who were determined to buck the trend, and to take equal responsibility both for parenting and for domestic chores. What I took from the article was just how hard they had to work to achieve this - not because of any ingrained resistance on the part of either partner - but because of a marked reluctance by employers to afford their employees, whether men or women, the right to flexible working.
One of the couples interviewed said that, before having children, they had decided to get a dog. The husband explained that it was a kind of 'test' to see how willing they both were to change their schedules to accommodate this additional responsibility: "we would have to decide who would take the dog out at night, who would walk her early in the morning, who could work with vomit.”
Although Mr H is very good at dealing with vomit, the cat remains by and large my responsibility: I am the one who remembers to buy more cat food, who knows when her vaccinations are due, who arranges to take her to the vet. Interestingly, the cat herself appears to perceive me as her primary care giver: when she decides at 5 o'clock in the morning that it is in fact time for breakfast, it is me who is awoken by a polite but persistent paw tapping at my face!
Would this also be the case if we were to have children? I think that both of us would have to work very hard to ensure that it did not become so. As Bitch PhD points out, if equal parenting is going to work, both parents have to want it equally. On this issue at least, "feminism needs men, which means we *all* have to get over our gender essentialism."
Both Mr H and I are the products of very traditionally gendered relationships: both of our fathers were the sole earners, while our mothers assumed full responsibility for the home and for childcare. For better or worse, that remains our model of a successful marriage. There are moments when - in spite of all our intentions - we tend to fall back upon stereotypical ideas of what constitutes "men's work" and "women's work": he takes out the rubbish and checks the oil in the car, while I do the laundry (I do, however, draw the line at ironing his work shirts!). The knack is, I think, to be aware of what kind of assumptions underlie these decisions, and to continue striving towards a relationship in which we are both equal partners and peers - even if this is sometimes easier said than done.