The Chore Wars

So, how’s it going over there? Feeling rested and happy as the end of summer rolls around? Like you’ve accomplished everything you’ve set out to do?  What’s that, with plenty of time to spare?

By the way, how’s your house? Looking spic and span, I’m guessing, just like mine.

Ha. I thought so.  In a recent issue of TIME Magazine, Ruth Davis Konigsberg addresses the latest research on the “Chore Wars,” which reveals that men and women are spending roughly the same amount of time splitting household work.

Now, do we believe this? Of course not! There’s just way too much work to be done, which means that we must blame someone.  Listen to how The New York Times’ reporter Lisa Belkin dealt with all this work back in the early days of new motherhood:

The nadir came one afternoon when I drew up an elaborate chart, with separate columns for the amount of time, down to the minute, that we had each spent alone, together, working, playing, and caring for the baby over the weekend.  That it didn’t prove the dramatic imbalance I’d set out to prove only fueled my rage even more. I maturely ripped the chart to pieces, tossed it all at my husband, and stormed out of the room.   (Life’s Work: Confessions of an Unbalanced Mom, 207).

Hmm.  This doesn’t sound like anything the rest of us would do, right?  I, for one, wouldn’t go to the trouble of creating such an elaborate chart.  I’d just yell about it.

But back to Konigsberg.  According to recent data by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, for men and women “who had children under the age of 18, women employed full time did just 20 min. more of combined paid and unpaid work than men did, the smallest difference ever reported.”  (And here’s where we insert a joke about the amount of housework being done in families with kids under the age of 5.)

Konigsberg elaborates: “No, men were not doing the same amount of housework as women, but neither were women pulling the same number of hours at the office as men.  (Husbands and wives who split everything down the line are as hard to find as the great white whale.)  (46)”

Now, that’s interesting.  A lot of women I know have also battled to condense their work hours (or at least keep them under control) so that they can spend more time with their kids.  Of course, I also happen to live in an affluent area where women have the financial flexibility to be able to pull that off.

Not so for those of us struggling to make ends meet.  And if you’re a blue-collar worker without any flexibility in your schedule, forget it.

“What’s more,” writes Konisberg, “new research on working fathers indicates that they’re the ones experiencing the most pressure. [emphasis mine]”

In a July report called, tellingly, the New Male Mystique, the Families and Work Institute surveyed 1,298 men and concluded that long hours and increasing job demands are conflicting with more exacting parenting norms.  The institute had launched the survey to follow up on its 2008 finding that 60% of fathers said they were having a hard time managing the responsibilities of work and family, compared with only 47% of mothers in dual-earner couples.  “Men are feeling enormous pressure to be breadwinners and involved fathers,” says Ellen Galinsky, the institute’s director.  “Women expect more of men, and men expect more of themselves.”

I know this is something Ken’s experienced himself.  As much as I complain around here, the truth is that I’m not exactly raking in the big bucks from all my part-time work.  And while he’s one of those great dads who does a lot with the kids, sometimes I feel like I’m stuck  in the 50s no matter how much Ken helps out around the house.

“Cooking, cleaning, planning the meals, grocery shopping—I don’t know if you realize how much work it all is,” I said to him the other day.  “And if I don’t do it, it doesn’t get done.”

Once again, I’d reached my limit with our wild and messy house.  “How come all of this is my responsibility? It’s driving me crazy!”

“That’s how I feel,” Ken said.  “Like everything’s on my shoulders.  No matter how much I do, I can’t keep up.”

“But that doesn’t make any sense! If you’re working your butt off and I’m working my butt off, then how come nothing’s ever get thing done?”

My therapist friend Scarlet would tell you that it’s because there’s just way too much work to do.  That keeping on top of everything these days is simply impossible.

Now, Scarlet’s the same person who told me about a recent visit with her in-laws.  Both of them spent the entire weekend helping out around the house—washing laundry, putting it away, etc.—and even though they had two pairs of extra hands around the house for an entire weekend, Scarlet, her husband and their in-laws still couldn’t get all of the house work done.

How’s that for fucked up?

When she told me this, I didn’t want to believe it.  Because if I did, that meant that I’d never be able to get on top of my own house either.

It makes me wonder why we’re putting so much energy into villanizing our spouses when maybe what we should be doing instead is figuring out how to cut down the work involved in keeping a household (and all of its members) afloat.


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