Scrolling down a Facebook page dedicated to mothers in academia, I found the comments I was looking for in about two minutes.
My husband and I used to be in a quasi-equitable relationship … then things began to go downhill after the first child, and now after the second we might as well be back in the 19th century (except I am also trying to make a career; after-hours).
I need to vent. I have a 1 and 3 yo … and a husband who I feel like is a 3rd kid sometimes. Things around the house don’t get done unless I push it.
I am enraged at my husband all the time. He’s supposedly a Stay at Home Dad, but I still do 75% of the household management.
Like many women, I am the mom who does all the things. I do a majority of parenting, a majority of household management … I pay our bills on time, I deal with our car, I deal with sh*t when it breaks … I pick up his laundry, I pick up his prescriptions, I remind him about doc appointments.
I could have shared hundreds more of these exhausted, desperate complaints from women simultaneously putting in a full workload and trying to manage a household with a partner (usually a man) failing to pull their weight. Although women have made significant strides toward gender equity in the workplace, this does not always translate to gender equity in the household. Studies have found that women often shoulder an extra burden at home, even women who work as much outside the home as their husbands do. (Total average work done seems to be equal between genders in the United States, but this observation hides the fact that working mothers are doing a disproportionate amount of labor.)
The solution to this problem may seem obvious: heterosexual men with working wives should do more housework. But even among couples who try to share housework equally, this does not always happen. This is, in part, because there is a set of jobs—mostly those related to household maintenance—that are traditionally the purview of women. While women have taken on new kinds of responsibilities outside the home, traditional norms and expectations that they should manage most work inside the home remain entrenched.
What we need to understand is that gendered division of labor has traditionally served an important social purpose. If we want to change the system, we have to consider why it exists in the first place.
This can mean that when time evaporates and stress increases—often as couples have children—many couples fall back on these ingrained patterns, which can add up to too much work for fully employed women (and, it seems, ensuing rage at the offending spouse). As I point out in my book The Origins of Unfairness, better understanding these patterns of behavior can help us figure out why couples are still failing to divide work evenly. What we need to understand is that gendered division of labor has traditionally served an important social purpose. If we want to change the system, we have to consider why it exists in the first place.
Most societies have traditionally recognized two genders—men and women. And while there are different rules for how it works, nearly every society uses gender as a tool to divide household labor, meaning that there are typically different jobs men and women are expected to do. In recent Western history, women clean clothes, men hunt, women cook, men plough, women take care of young children, men build houses, and so on. In other societies, women make rope while men make ritual pottery, or women fish while men build musical instruments.
Gendered division of labor is so widespread because traditionally it has had an important purpose. Since many jobs take time and effort to learn to do well, families could save time by dividing duties and encouraging individuals to specialize. Little girls could learn to do the labor expected of women, and little boys the labor expected of men. Consider, for instance, the expertise necessary to change wool into a sweater or to build a bed using just whittling tools and wood. It would be extremely difficult for each individual to master all such tasks.
Modern couples attempting to shed these roles stand to gain something important—fairness. But they also lose a strategy for coordinating their expectations for who is going do what.
Today, changes in technology mean that relatively less expertise is needed to maintain a household, making this specialization less crucial to survival. But there are still real benefits to knowing who is going to do what ahead of time. Consider this passage from a recent New York Times article where the author describes dividing labor with her husband. After having a child:
We continued to divvy up tasks randomly as we always had, but the negotiations grew increasingly contentious. We had evolved enough to shed traditional roles and aspire to an egalitarian relationship, but that didn’t solve the problem of nobody liking the drudgery of household chores … Without any division of labor or set roles, we each thought we were doing everything (because we were).
Clear gender roles and expectations allow for easy coordination because they remove the discomfort of uncertainty, and the complexity of bargaining. Modern couples attempting to shed these roles stand to gain something important—fairness. But they also lose a strategy for coordinating their expectations for who is going do what. Understanding this functionality is crucial to thinking about changes in household labor. Because gendered division of labor does something for us, we need to be thinking not about removing it but about replacing it. We need to ask: What else can allow for efficient, coordinated households where both partners do their fair share?
While I don’t have a fully worked out solution, one option is for couples to get more intentional in how they divide chores. It is easy to revert to traditional norms (i.e., women do the household stuff) when we are not paying attention or acting on autopilot. This seems to be especially common once couples have a child—suddenly everyone is busy, overwhelmed, and not always thinking clearly.
It is easy to revert to traditional norms when we are not paying attention or acting on autopilot … A proper, explicit discussion of roles, using real evidence, can help.
A proper, explicit discussion of roles, using real evidence, can help. For instance, couples can use time diaries (say, for a week or two) to become more aware of who is really doing what and how much. Couples can create lists that explicitly communicate which jobs they prefer and which they’d rather avoid, generate estimates for how much time these jobs take, and make a clear plan for dividing them.
If this sounds like a lot of work, new apps can help. Labor of Love, for instance, has couples assign point values to different chores and then rewards whoever gains enough points. This sort of strategy depends on more rational reasoning, rather than the fallback social rules we have traditionally used for household division of labor.
Or you can write a book about gender, fairness, and household labor. Turns out this is a great way to get your partner more interested in evening things out. (Love you, honey.)