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THE ELUSIVE 50/50 DIVISION OF LABOR, PART II


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April 26, 2007

THE ELUSIVE 50/50 DIVISION OF LABOR, PART II

Anne Tergesen

My last blog—essentially a complaint that moms, even when they're the primary breadwinners, are often the ones to take primary responsibility for organizing the household and the kids—certainly struck a nerve, especially with working dads. The comments from dads were varied: Most said they try hard to do their fair share; A few argued that moms like me should shut up and go home, where we belong. Here’s my favorite from the latter camp:

“Many feminists seem to me to be angry at God for designing biology so that the hardship of childbirth falls on them. They never stop to think maybe there are good reasons for that design - maybe women as a whole are just better at taking care of home and hearth. Maybe our kids and our homes miss something when women aren't the "primary caregivers". So instead of railing against "traditional" roles of men and women, perhaps try embracing them and making your family and society the better for it.”

Almost all seemed to agree that when inequality occurs, women are at least partly to blame:

“I can’t think of one husband that would be able to handle the flak for doing things less than the wife’s way,” one commenter said.

To get more insight into what the struggle for a 50/50 split feels like from the dad’s point of view, I spoke to Marc Vachon. Marc and wife Amy recently launched a web site called equallysharedparenting.com. They practice what they preach: Both work part-time so they can divide the parenting and housework. They also make an effort to have equal time for recreation. For tips from Marc and Amy, see my colleague Lauren Young’s recent blog. Here’s what Marc had to say:

Q: Do you think women—and their high standards—are part of the problem?

A: I don’t think women are often very comfortable with letting guys do things their way.

I think women believe society expects them to take care of the house and childcare. Amy and I have this discussion. For example, when we were planning a birthday party for our daughter, I said, “I’ll plan this one.” She got a little concerned. She felt the party would reflect on our family and on her ability to do a good job.

Q: How can men tell women to back off?

A: When Amy went back to work after maternity leave, she left me a list of thing to do – the times to feed the baby, the clothes to dress him in, etc. I took the list and ripped it in half. She was shocked, but I said, “You’re going to work and I’m at home. I’m doing it my way.”

Q: How can women learn to stifle the urge to micro-manage?

A: The difficult discussion most couples don’t have is “What is the standard the household is going to meet?” That keeps guys from doing their share. If the woman has a higher standard, he thinks to himself “I’m not going to fight it.”

If a husband and wife agree the house needs to be cleaned up before bedtime, then the wife has to learn to get out of the way if it’s his responsibility. Just go to bed – and if it doesn’t get done, then you have a discussion about it the next day.

Amy and I have agreed that one person’s expectations cannot dictate the way the other does a job. For example, when it comes to the laundry, I do all the darks and she does all lights. But I like to wait till there’s a couple of baskets and then spend an afternoon doing it. She likes to do it right away. So, if she needs dark clothes because I haven’t done the darks yet, she has to buy more dark clothes. She had to be open to operating on my timetable.

If she wants to dust every day and he wants to dust every six months and what they agree upon is to dust once a month, then she will have to spend her recreation time dusting if she wants it done more often—because that’s not the standard that was agreed upon.

Q: What if a couple is not equal in the breadwinning department? How can they figure out a way to split the domestic work 50/50?

A: The model we’re proposing is equal across all domains. Once you start skewing that model, it gets more complicated. The person home will do more childcare and probably more housework. But if a woman, say, is home all week, I would make a strong effort to have the guy spend more time on the weekends with the kids so the woman can go out and pursue interests. The problem is if a guy never gets to the point where he’s comfortable taking care of the kids, he can dread being with them. It takes a commitment on the part of a father, in this example, to get to know the kids.

Q: How can a couple try to divide the job of organizing the kids’ activities?

A: Have him worry about the dentist’s appointments, while you deal with the doctors. Recently, Amy said she was feeling like she was doing more than her share of the childcare and housework. She asked me to take over a yard sale for the preschool. I said fine. I’m committing to taking this on. But if I decide not to participate—if I decide it doesn’t meet my threshold—you have to be able to let it go. You cannot nag me or remind me.

Q: Is it going to happen?

A: I don’t know yet. The flyer is on the table. I only mention it because it’s a good example of the woman learning to let go.

12:54 PM

Work/Life

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As the other half of this particular equality equation, I got a kick out of reading my dear husband's comments. Marc is my true partner, and I love and respect him for this every day. We definitely challenge each other to stay the course of equality, but always as friendly and supportive partners.

Posted by: Amy at April 26, 2007 01:35 PM

This and the previous blog were highly informative. Ms. Tergesen posited her question without malice and, I was surprised to find, responses from readers were fairly articulate.

I have been aware of this issue most of my life, since I have the perspective of a woman whose father did most of the organization of household and children's activities. As a biological scientist, I caution those who would prefer to assign domestic duties based on a "wiring" advantage that either sex is alleged to have. While I do not deny that men and women have biological differences, I also know that humans as individuals show more variety in capability than any generalization could possibly allow for, and because of that, no man or woman should be coerced into responsibility by the pseudo-scientific idea that he or she is made for it.

When the stereotype of the bumbling dad is reinforced in the media, I don't feel sorry for the moms "forced" to carry the burden - I feel sorry for the men who are constantly being devalued and ashamed that in this day of supposed women's liberation, women let society's pressure convince them that either: they aren't good mothers if they don't micromanage their way to an impossible or unhealthy ideal; or, because men are so inept, it's okay to let them get away with not carrying their weight. Here's what I think and what I hope someday the media will reinforce: men are not inept, and women are not spine- or brainless enough to let this fatuousness continue damaging their families.

Posted by: Thought Woman at May 7, 2007 07:46 PM

Marc Vachon's comments were male chauvinistic. Since women usually have more experience with housework and childcare than men, the men need to ask the women for advice and coaching on how to do it. Marc acted like housework and childcare take no skill. He insulted women's experience and expertise. Marc thinks that men's standards of housework and childcare should be the true standards and that women should adapt to them. Again, very patriarchal.

Men will not take equal responsibility for housework and childcare until their fathers, mothers, children, friends, colleagues, and peers demand that they do it. We need to stop rewarding men for exploiting their spouses. I've noticed that when I go to a married couple's house for dinner and point out the inequities, the husbands get defensive. However, they also start taking more domestic responsibility because they know that someone is watching.

It is not a woman's responsibility to get her husband to be an equal domestic partner. It is SOCIETY's responsibility. Next time you see a man dumping housework and childcare on a woman, call him to account for it. If you are silent whenever a man is domestically exploiting a woman, you are perpetuating the problem.

Posted by: Kathleen Trigiani at May 9, 2007 10:11 PM

Kathleen,

It's not that these things require no skill; but they do have a low learning curve, and most people can figure them out on their own, given enough time. Also, most people have all learned in their lives how to clean up after themselves. And everyone pretty much everyone tends to grow better in a task when they are allowed the freedom to do it their way. (This is basic management knowledge).

Now your statement that men won't take responsibility unless their forced to... well you may want to rethink your stance on calling other people sexist... I think I know why the men you were taking "responsibility" for (very condescending) were getting defensive around you.

Posted by: alen at May 10, 2007 01:34 PM

Kathleen,

Yikes - you could not be further from the truth about Marc. Perhaps you should re-read his words above, and you will notice that he believes in the couple's collectively negotiated standards - not the woman's OR the man's. Once these agreed-upon standards for household chores are determined, he is saying that the woman cannot then hold the man to her standards - only to the household standard. Furthermore, I think it is a huge generality to state that women have superior childcare and household skills; it certainly is not the case in my house! I agree that if one partner is highly experienced in a specific skill, it only makes sense for the other partner to learn from this expertise. Let's not make this about chauvinism, however.

Finally, I'm right there with you that things need to change in our society to dissolve our patriarchy. But I am opposed to a solution that 'forces' men (or women) to do anything. Marc and I are focused on showing both genders the beauty and fun of equality, so that they can choose it for themselves and sustain it despite societal pressures otherwise. People don't change in the intimacy of their own homes because someone strongarms or shames them into doing so.

I have previously read your material on the web, and was entranced by it. Therefore I'm amazed by your attack here. Is this just your general tactic? The irony is that it seems we both want the same end result.

Posted by: amy at May 11, 2007 08:07 PM


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