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    Mothers attempting to balance parenthood and academics.

The end of the chore wars?
September 15, 2011 - 3:54am

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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