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The antidote to an epidemic among mothers to achieve unattainable standards
The 1970S' FEMINIST MOVEMENT changed a lot for women. It paved the way for a generation of girls who could largely do and be all that the boys could do and be. But now those girls are becoming mothers themselves and realizing things aren't so equal after all. In Stunned, journalist Karen Bridson explores how women today may have the right to achieve what their fathers achieved, but are expected to do it ...
The antidote to an epidemic among mothers to achieve unattainable standards
The 1970S' FEMINIST MOVEMENT changed a lot for women. It paved the way for a generation of girls who could largely do and be all that the boys could do and be. But now those girls are becoming mothers themselves and realizing things aren't so equal after all. In Stunned, journalist Karen Bridson explores how women today may have the right to achieve what their fathers achieved, but are expected to do it while doing most of what their mothers did too.As a result, women are angry about the inequality inside their homes and are beginning to see how sexism beyond the domestic realm has never really been fully erased at all. From grander-thanever domestic and mothering standards to the financial and professional setback motherhood brings, there's a whole lot leaving women stunned these days.
Stunned is a call to action to women to finish the jobs their mothers' generation started. It's about recognizing that the way things are structured isn't in women's favor—even today—and deciding to do something about it. Stunned lets women know they are not alone, that things shouldn't be the way they are, and that change is possible.
Are you the cleaning lady in this house, Mommy? But you're the only one who cleans.
—my five-year-old son, Adlai,
watching me wash the kitchen floor
I first began to recognize how parenthood would shake down as a heavier burden on me than on my husband when I was in the labor room. The truth was, however, the lopsided arrangement actually started long before, quite early in my pregnancy. I just couldn't see it. I ran around making sure we had all the things we needed to have and knew all the things we needed to know for baby, while he dragged his feet the whole way. At the time, I chalked it up to his being totally freaked out by the prospect of having a child, and, at the time, I thought his reaction was cute. I had the daily physical reminder of pregnancy to alert me that this baby had to be prepared for, and for him it was less real. But then, when I was heavily in labor and in agony, I realized the very obvious physical truth—I had the baby inside of me, and at some point, I would have to push it out! The whole baby thing simply would be much harder for me than my husband. Period. But that didn't change the fact that I thought he should try to level the playing field somehow.
So I was more than a little perturbed when, once I had the epidural, my husband just laid back in the cushy leather recliner chair and took a snooze. While he napped, I had my water broken, talked to doctors and agonized over the risks of baby poo in the amniotic fluid, and endured severe pain across the top of my belly. The doctors numbed me from the waist down, which I found distressing because I hoped to avoid this medical intervention. Through all this, my husband looked very comfy while he slept like a baby. And I was ticked.
Once our child was born, the round-the-clock painful nursing and rocking of the baby began. I was in labor for twenty-one hours and had been up for hours before that. Now I had a newborn that needed feedings every two hours and rocking and walking, and I immediately began to feel overwhelmed by it all. I was struggling with so much, but after a few hours with me in the hospital, my husband announced that he was utterly exhausted and had to go home to sleep.
He stressed that our labor coach and nurse had suggested that one of us (read: the man) should go home and try to get some sleep. He reasoned he would be of more help after he was well rested. I can't tell you how angry I was to see him walk out that door. Why did he get to sleep? I couldn't. And he didn't even have a ripped vagina! His nipples weren't cracking and bleeding. I was scared, and exhausted, and needed help.
When my husband returned the next day, he showed me a little card he had made for the baby on the computer. While I could have been thinking about how sweet and nice it was that he was so taken with our son, I actually was thinking, how nice for him to have time to play around on the computer. I wanted to shout, 'I am over here barely keeping it together! I am so hurt and tired, and you are making craft projects.' And so it began.
The Dish on Housework
Before we had our son, my husband could clean a bathroom like no one I'd ever seen. He'd get right down on the floor, armed with ammonia, and hose those little rooms down so well I'd marvel at how he did it. I could never get them that clean. To my dismay, he has touched a toilet brush only once that I am aware of since our son was born. And his obsession with doing the dishes before I could get to them—always a nice surprise—suddenly ended after our boy arrived. To me, it felt as though he stopped doing many household chores because of his resentment over the child care responsibilities now expected of him. Maybe he thought he could even the score by throwing a few jobs back onto the table, with only me to take over.
The University of Wisconsin's National Survey of Families and Households study found the average wife does thirty-one hours of housework a week and the average husband does fourteen. That's a ratio of two to one. Stay-at-home wives do thirty-eight hours compared to the husband's twelve, a ratio of three to one. And when couples have full-time jobs, the wife does twenty-eight hours to the husband's sixteen. As for child care, that ratio is a shocking five to one. Moms spend fifteen hours caring for the children, while husbands spend two. If they are both working, the statistics are eleven hours versus three, according to Sampson Lee Blair, an associate professor of sociology at the University at Buffalo who studies the division of labor in families. Blair explains, 'The most striking part is that none of this is that different, in terms of ratio, from 90 years ago.' Blair also found that 58 percent of women say the division of labor in the home is unfair to them.
One study conducted by economist George Akerlof in 2000 found that women, on average, perform 70 percent of the work inside of the home even when they make more money outside of the home than their male partners do, and that number shockingly stayed the same even when the men became unemployed. As a result, employed wives enjoy less leisure time and experience more stress than their husbands do. With this in mind, it's not surprising that couples argue most about children, money, and division of labor in the home.
And while we may expect inequities in nations around the world that are renowned for the poor treatment of women, these numbers are largely consistent across the First World. A 2004 study representing thirteen nations, found that almost 73 percent of women reported the wife always or usually did all of the housework. Among the findings, more than 76 percent of women in the United Kingdom reported they did the large majority of housework, while 81 percent in the Netherlands and a whopping 97.8 percent in Japan reported the same. In the United States, almost 67 percent of women reported they always or usually did the housework. Interestingly, Russia reported the highest equity ratings, with 60 percent of women saying the division was equal.
With an increasing number of women working outside of the home today, the inequality of labor within the home is even more intensely felt. The second-job's worth of work that working women come home to at the end of the day was dubbed 'the second shift' by feminist and author Arlie Hochschild in 1991. Taking it a step further in 1997, Hochschild defined the 'the third shift' as recognizing, understanding, and coping with the emotional consequences of the compressed second shift. Let's also not forget the nature of what we are talking about here. Washing, drying, folding, and putting away the laundry, vacuuming, mopping, dusting, scrubbing the toilet, shower, and tub, washing and putting away the dishes, cooking, tidying, organizing—the list goes on and on in a never-ending circle of work that's simply never finished. Ground-breaking feminist author Simone deBeauvoir wrote, in The Second Sex, 'Few tasks are more like the torture of Sisyphus (a king in Greek mythology who was punished by having to roll a boulder up a hill only to watch it roll down again over and over for all eternity) than housework, with its endless repetition: the clean house becomes soiled, the soiled is made clean, over and over, day after day. The housewife wears herself out marking time: she makes nothing, simply perpetuates the present. She never senses conquest of a positive Good, but rather indefinite struggle against a negative evil. . . . the battle against dust and dirt is never won.'
When discussing the division of labor in the home, it is impossible to objectively measure who is doing more on a day-to-day, minute-to-minute basis. Moreover, most men do not acknowledge up front that they have no interest in sharing the workload. The resistance (as described below) is usually far more subtle than that.
In Ann Crittenden's brilliant must-read The Price of Motherhood: Why the Most Important Job in the World is Still the Least Valued, she talks about a common, but until recently, undefined male syndrome that she calls 'the where game.' Crittenden explains it as an affliction that perfectly intelligent, even highly-educated men suddenly suffer from after marriage or parenthood. The scenario goes something like this: Woman asks man to help her by doing something. He says, 'Well, where is it?' An example would be on a night that my husband isn't happy about taking our son to bed, he'll often shout out, 'Well, where are his pyjamas?' A man may have studied at the doctoral level, he may oversee 250 people at work, he may even have invented some of the great inventions of the twentieth century, but suddenly, when his partner asks him to do something, he needs her help finding the thing in question. The truth is, as admitted to me by many a man, this is their way of making it less likely for the woman to ask for his help in the future. Instead, she'll simply do the chores herself. Every woman knows what I am talking about. And even more sadly, too many men do, too.
I have a friend named Kate who, as a self-employed mom, engaged a very part-time caregiver, and otherwise handled her clients around the care of her two small children. She also was responsible for the laundry, cooking, and most of the other household chores. At the time, she didn't mind having the additional responsibility on her shoulders, she said, because, she could fit the chores into her schedule, while working part-time from home.
But then, her husband accepted a buyout package from work and set out to start a business of his own. After her husband launched his own business, my friend increased her client roster to help offset the financial change her husband's new venture had created. With her husband home, she had expected him to help more around the house, too. But no such luck. 'I'd come home from being with clients all day and the place would be a total mess,' she said. 'And I would think, couldn't you have started dinner or something, at least? Or even thrown a load of wet laundry into the dryer? A few threats were issued, and eventually we evened out the chores.' He now makes the kids' lunches, picks the kids up from school, and does the grocery shopping. 'I'm lucky; he's reasonable and smart,' she acknowledged.
A study published by University of California sociology professor Scott Coltrane in 1996 found that most women feel obligated to do this work, and that most couples consider men's contributions as 'helping' his wife rather than the man's actual responsibilities. While the rate of increase in men's absolute hours of routine housework have increased over the years, their contributions have not nearly approached those of women because the men were starting from such a low level, according to a subsequent study released by Coltrane in 2000. Beyond that, it's been found that some of the decrease in women's hours of household tasks can actually be attributed to women hiring outside help—usually other women—to do household chores.
Unfair division of labor in the home remains an epidemic among the mothers I know. I make a point of asking all the women I meet about their situation at home. While there are some really great men out there, many fall into the old-fashioned gender role trap. As sons of the 1970s, feminists, they should know better. While Coltrane's 2000 review of studies done in this area found that researchers express guarded optimism because more men today say they enjoy cooking and cleaning, too many women do not see significant progress in their homes and with their husbands. With the recent trend toward women opting out of the workforce and returning home to take care of their children, any gains we have made toward more equality are certainly at risk.
One mother interviewed for this book regarding the dish on the division of labor at home said her husband's complete inability to help out with the house and kids served as the impetus for the end of their marriage. 'I felt I did 100 percent of the housework, laundry, grocery shopping, and errands,' she said. 'My ex was a controlling jackass who flat out refused to help with the housework. If I had not done it, it wouldn't have gotten done.'
Melissa, thirty-five, the mother of two small children, said when she went back to work full-time after her second child was born, she handled almost everything at home. 'There was a lot of animosity,' said Melissa, who would bring hours of work home with her each night so she could stay home with her kids two days a week. 'I told him, 'You have to be doing more at home. You've got to start giving the kids their bath at night, and you've got to start making the meals.'' Now Melissa believes the workload is much more equitable at home, but she says her husband still has far more leisure time than she does. And when they are all at home together, the children still go to and want to spend time with her. 'I get up at five am. just so I can have some time to myself before everyone wakes up,' she says.
Scott Coltrane's studies have shown when women shoulder a disproportionate share of responsibility for housework their perceptions of fairness and marital satisfaction decline and marital conflict and women's depression increase. On the other hand, men's participation in the routine chores at home helps to relieve a women's burden and contributes to her sense of fairness, while decreasing her chances of depression.
As for me, fighting over the workoad involved with raising our son almost cost me my marriage. Fortunately, my husband and I sat down and engineered a plan that we felt would make the work more equitable.
Although I took three months off after our baby was born, my husband was the one able to take paternity leave for a year. Because I was self-employed, my income was tied to my ability to continuing to work, so I did. (I feel guilty even writing this given how little maternity leave most women in many countries around the world get, but in Canada, the mother or father can take one year with a government benefit for a portion of your usual salary, about one-third of your usual earnings. Some employers even expand upon the government benefits. I'll discuss this more in Chapter 2).
I had a book to finish writing and lots of story deadlines to meet. So, I was back to work at the three-month point. I would nurse the baby for a half an hour, change his diaper, and play with him for the remainder of a two-hour period, and then I would hand him off to my husband and go upstairs to write for two hours. I'd be back down again for another feeding, and the cycle would continue. So basically, every two hours, for two hours, my husband could do what he wanted, while I worked nonstop.
My husband insisted he had work to do for his job as well, but I don't believe he really had to do most of this and that he would take time to do busy work just so he could escape any additional baby care. We argued endlessly about it, and I actually grew to dislike him for about the first year after my son was born. It took me another year to start to like him again, and then, during my son's third year, I finally fell in love with him again. And as our son becomes more independent and the parenting job becomes easier, I feel closer and closer to my husband again. When my husband's paternity leave was over, he worked from home most days of the week and was able to take some shifts to watch our son so I could get my work done as well. But still, a majority of the child care fell to me. I fought vehemently for equal division of the housework, as you will hear more about throughout this book. Now, I have to say, my husband works very hard around the house. Even though he, strangely, no longer cleans bathrooms.
©2009. Karen Bridson. All rights reserved. Reprinted from Stunned. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted in any form or by any means, without the written permission of the publisher. Publisher: Health Communications, Inc., 3201 SW 15th Street, Deerfield Beach, FL 33442
one Why Moms Are Mad 1
two More Fuel for Mad Mama Fire 33
three Women Divided 67
four Seeing the Bigger Picture 97
five United Women Beaten Down 127
six A Fresh Face on Feminism 153
seven Little Girls Lost 169
eight Lest We Forget 187
nine Monkey Mamas Unite 207