Monday, 23 June 2008

Halving it all?

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.


luna said...

interesting issues to ponder in the pursuit of parenthood...

I am lucky to have a hub who does a lot around the house!

Hekateris said...

I thought the article was an interesting exercise in the ways of the upper middle class. No matter what people say, the wife will always do the majority of the work (I should add that my bitterness is talking, here) no matter what the husband says. It's deeds that count, not words, and for whatever reason, most men can't or won't do the housework that's necessary. Oh, they'll do the big ticket items and then expect a pat on the back and a thank you so much, but doing the daily dirty work? Not a chance.

Oro, the greatly disillusioned.

Birch and maple

s.e. said...

I too have the same fears. Frequently the words "things must change before we have children." Although, I dread that they will not.

This is the reason my term of endearmeent for my husband is pathetically usually "lazy ass". If you figure out how to train them, please share your secrets! I haven't given up yet.

Lisa Rullsenberg said...

I am - frankly - rubbish at most household tasks; my partner is not a huge amount better. We tend to muddle through. I'm inept at washing up especially but also really dislike doing it, so this has easily been accepted as being his task. I also can't quite let go how he hangs washing on the dryer so I invariably re-do this (though he insists it's fine: I need to get over myself!). Overall, it evens out between us both in terms of abilities and choice. Housework is certainly a topic I've thought and written about before on my blog. Our house undoubtedly isn't as spic and span as his family house always was/is, and there are times when we both feel slobbish for our 'failings'. But then we get over that anal stage of living in a show home and get on with life. Do we fall back on stereotypes, and would this have been worse if we had wanted children? I don't know. But that the debates still remain live after so many years of feminist thinking and theorising about the topic of domestic labour (including childcare) gives vital pause for thought. I thought your citation of Bitch PhD's remark - "feminism needs men, which means we *all* have to get over our gender essentialism" - was especially pertinent.

annacyclopedia said...

So interesting and quite timely for me right now. I've just gone back to work after a 9 month hiatus, during which time I assumed the vast majority of household responsibilities. I did more than Manny when I was working, it's just that I did things far less often. But now that I'm back at work, I'm not willing to give up a cleaner house and better meals, so we're trying to work together more and have assigned tasks everyday. We'll see how it goes - so far, not great.

I find it very hard to do certain tasks without getting consumed with resentment - the symbolism of being the one who always cleans the toilet is just too rich for a feminist who was born in the 70s. But we're trying to divide the chores based on what we like to do or are good at, and I'd rather clean the toilet than be responsible for the clutter that piles up on our kitchen table. So I guess we'll see.

My mom always quotes a friend of hers who said, "Scratch the surface of any liberal relationship with a baby, and you find very traditional roles." In my experience of observing my friends, this is sadly true. Of everyone I know, there is one couple who divides the childcare anything close to equally. It really saddens me that even now, so few men really take the initiative or have the confidence to care for their children in practical ways.

Long enough, I guess. I have quite a lot to say about this - thanks for a thought-provoking early morning read!