Forget the glass ceiling: the new battle of the sexes is over housework
IN SPAIN WOMEN CAN CITE DOMESTIC NEGLIGENCE IN DIVORCE SUITS
Eleanor’s husband, Paul, rarely watches Trailer Park Boys, so he takes full credit for coming up with the brilliant idea of taking their injured nine-year-old daughter to a vet. “Raven came back from the park weeping,” says Eleanor, a Toronto landscape designer and mother of four. “She’d hit her arm on a metal bar.” So Eleanor, who was expecting nine children for a birthday party, called her husband home from work and instructed him to take Raven to the hospital. “After the movie I called to check in. He said: ‘Oh. It’s fine. I took her to Anastasia [the neighbourhood vet—not her real name]. She examined her arm and said there was no break.’”
When Eleanor returned, Paul was sitting on the deck, contentedly drinking a beer. “It saved an awful lot of time and I’d been working all day,” he says. “I was not looking forward to sitting in a hospital waiting room. And neither was Raven.” While Paul’s decision was perfectly rational—children and dogs are not so different when it comes to their tendons and bones—it also illustrates a sore point among men and women: when fathers are involved in child care, they do things differently.
That issue has come to the fore recently as men and women around the world do battle on the domestic chore front. You only need to browse the 172 responses to a posting about household chores last month on Leslie Morgan Steiner’s Washington Post-sponsored blog, “On Balance,” where parents sound off about home life, or trawl through the 128 letters in response to Salon's recent review of To Hell With All That: Loving and Loathing Our Inner Housewife, by Caitlin Flanagan, to know that who does what at home is a hot topic. “The gender caste system is still alive and well in most of our households,” wrote Judith Warner in the New York Times upon the death of feminist icon Betty Friedan earlier this year.
Warner, the author of Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety, notes that working women today do upwards of 70 per cent of household chores. Research from around the world consistently shows this to be true. Women spend more time on child care and housework than men, even
when women are also spending as much time in the office as their partners. In Japan, a survey released this year revealed men do only one quarter as much housework as women. This, shockingly, is actually an improvement on previous surveys. The imbalance is often cited as a reason why Japanese women delay having children. Only in Norway and Sweden do you find virtual parity between men and women on the work and family fronts.
In Canada, which falls between those extremes, working mothers spend 9-9 hours a day in a combination of paid and unpaid work, compared with 9.1 hours for dads, according to an OECD report released last year. Men do spend more time in the office30 minutes more, on average. But women more than make up for it with child care and other unpaid labour: 78 minutes more per
day. This may not sound like much until you calculate how many hours there are between walking in the door at 6:30 p.m. and collapsing into bed at 10 p.m., and how much dinner making, cleaning up and homework supervision has to be crammed in to that time.
In Britain, Melissa Berm, a journalist, coined the term “married lone parent,” or MLP, to describe overworked, exhausted females who were trying to be all things to all people with little support from their spouses. It caused a flurry of debate on parental chat lines, and the MLP is now part of the British lexicon. Kathy Lette has gone even further in her new novel, How to Kill Your Husband (and Other Handy Household Hints), which includes such chapter headings as: “The Working Mother’s Week, or Where the Hell’s Your Father?” The perception of women as desperate housewives spawned a glut of British
WIVES HAVE MADE HUSBANDS LAZY BY COMPLAINING, SAYS COLEMAN
reality television shows last year, including Bring Your Husband to Heel, starring a dog trainer and spouses in need of house training.
Since most women, though, are no more likely to take their husbands to the dog trainer, or kill them, than they are to take their children to the vet, Spain may offer a more acceptable solution. A new marriage contract, introduced last year, mandates that husbands and wives share domestic responsibilities including housework and looking after children or elderly parents. The contract will allow women to cite domestic negligence in divorce proceedings—a reasonable step in a nation where working women spend about three times as much time doing housework as men, and where fathers spend only 13 minutes a day, on average, looking after their children. The measures were introduced by Margarita Uria, a member of parliament. “Men have to learn to start taking more responsibility in the home and women have to help them do this,” she told the BBC.
Spain isn’t alone. Almost every government in the industrialized world has had a working paper on how to address the imbalance. Britain’s Institute for Public Policy Research reported that, while the public expects a high degree of gender equality at work, most people expect women to look after the home and young children. In Australia, the federal sex discrimination commissioner, Pru Goward, launched a discussion paper last year on the family balancing act. Why the imbalance? Is it because, as the title of Joshua Coleman’s book, The Lazy Husband: How to Get Men to Do More Parenting and Housework, suggests, men are intrinsically lazy? Coleman writes that one reason
for the chore wars is that too many women choose, at least metaphorically, to spend unnecessary hours sitting in hospital waiting rooms instead of taking their children to the vet. He says some women have made their husbands lazy through a process he calls “gatekeeping.” “People often gatekeep by complaining about the other’s standards, by redoing tasks, or by refusing the other’s offer of help,” he writes, echoing sentiments widely voiced by participants on Morgan Steiner’s blog.
Those in academia who study the gender gap say there is some truth to this. “We don’t just want our husbands to do the task, we want them to do it when we want them to do it, the way we would do it,” says Linda Duxbury, of the Eric Sprott School of Business at Carleton University. “And men don’t work well being micromanaged. We’re not being micromanaged in the corresponding male chores.” Duxbury, who authored a 2001 study on work-life conflict, describes an incident in which her husband was preparing dinner while she instructed him on how to chop onions. “He said: ‘Linda, I’m either doing it or I’m not.’ Women have to recognize that in some ways we are the authors of our own misfortune. We like to be martyrs. We like to complain.”
Still, Duxbury says it’s not as simple as saying we have made our men the way they are. Neither is it merely about women being proactive in getting men to do more at home, as Coleman suggests. Husbands, like children, he writes, need incentives, and nothing is more likely to motivate a man than the prospect of sexual favours. He does not elaborate on what would be a suitable reward for women;
presumably, their pleasure in a gleaming home is satisfaction enough.
But what of, for instance, the responsibility of thinking about and planning family life? “It’s very hard to measure,” says Kerry Daly, a professor at the University of Guelph and co-chair of the Father Involvement Research Alliance. Daly is involved in a $ 1.6million national study of fatherhood. “You don’t see it in terms of who does the tasks. It’s the planning, the orchestrating, the thinking, the calendar work. It is very clear in the studies I have done of dual-earner couples that the woman still takes responsibility for the planning.”
Melody [not her real name], a Vancouver journalist and mother of two teenagers, agrees. Melody often works late, so her husband has
taken over the cooking and laundry duties. “But I’m still the executive parent,” she says. “I’m in charge of making sure we get to the dances, the eye appointments, the doctor, the dentist and organizing summer camp. He is really good, but he doesn’t remember from day to day what needs to get done.” Alison, a Toronto lawyer and mother of two children under the age of four, uses similar boardroom language in describing the division of labour in her home. “He is good at doing tasks, and okay at doing some things unsolicited, but I chair most of it. I try not to downplay his contribution. He is very supportive. But we constantly fight about this and it’s an issue because even for me to make To Do lists for him makes me resentful and takes an effort. Sometimes I can’t stand the weight of it, that I’m the holder of the knowledge.”
Daly believes this pattern is rooted in the traditional model of the division of labour. “What’s been difficult for women to let go of is that sense of responsibility and sense of accountability. We’ve changed some of our external behaviour—the work activities that we do as men—but we haven’t changed this outmoded model,” he says.
One reason men and women approach housework, and child care, differently may have to do with our brains. “The neurobiology of men and women is different—different on a structural basis, different on a chemical basis and different on a physiological basis,” says Sandra Witelson, a neuroscientist at McMaster University who is respected in research circles for her studies on sex differences in the brain. Right now, there is still a gap between what scientists can see in the
brain and what they know about how those differences play out, so any link is hypothetical. But “the crucial point here is that there are many neurobiological differences and they inevitably have consequences for thinking and behaviour,” Witelson says.
It has been well-documented on IQ tests that women are better at picking out details in pictures than men. “I think it’s not unreasonable to say that this may be a factor in why a man can open a fridge and not see the bottle of wine at the back. We do that better for some reason,” says Witelson. Still, if women can function in a work world
largely constructed by men, men can do their share at home. “Because we are such highly cognitive creatures, we can do things that are contrary to our nature,” says Witelson. “Human brains are very plastic and we’re very adaptable.”
But adaptibility, as she points out, only goes so far. My neighbour Jessica went out one sunny Saturday, leaving her husband in charge of her own children, then aged 8,10 and 12, as well as my two daughters, who
were 5 and 8. The children are generally well behaved and self-sufficient, which may explain why Chris, who works long hours during the week, felt relaxed enough to drift off to sleep. When Jessica returned at 8 p.m. and asked if their youngest had put on her pyjamas and brushed her teeth, Chris sheepishly confessed he had been asleep most of the time. While he was slumbering, the children had indulged in a session of butt-art, adorning their behinds with sunglasses and noses. Luckily, they had used washable markers.
That’s another intrinsic difference between men and women—a mother might take a catnap while her own children played, but few mothers would be able to fall asleep if someone else’s children were also in their house. From my own highly unscientific survey of friends and colleagues, it is clear men also do not see what women see. When they walk into the living room, they blot out the dust bunnies; when they buy apples, they don’t notice when half are rotten.
If we accept that men really are different and will always do things differently, including parenting and housecleaning, it could go a long way toward a ceasefire in the domestic wars. Women can learn to duck out of the kitchen and let their men cook, and be less critical if the towels aren’t folded perfectly. Men can volunteer to do more of the drudge work, and recognize that signing consent forms, coordinating afterschool activities and registering children for swimming lessons are essential and timeconsuming parts of parenting.
“Once fathers are in the home, they learn to take these things on and recognize how much work is involved,” says Andrea Doucet, associate professor in sociology and anthro-
pology at Carleton University, whose research focuses on fathers as primary caregivers. Her book, Do Men Mother?, is to be published in September. Doucet believes getting fathers to take parental leave is also important. And when it comes to the housework, pay someone else to do it if you can afford to, even if it’s just for a few hours a week. Having someone clean your home may seem like a frivolous expense, but in the words of Linda Duxbury: “It’s cheaper than getting a divorce.” M
‘HE IS REALLY GOOD, BUT I’M STILL THE EXECUTIVE PARENT’
SPAT FORCED HUSBAND TO BRANCH OUT
Gayadhar Parida had a spat with his wife and stomped out on her. That was 50 years ago, and since then the resident of Orissa state, in India, has been living in a mango tree in his garden. Now in his 80s, he passes his days among poisonous snakes, receiving food handed up from family members, and only comes down to drink water. Babula, his 55-year-old son, has repeatedly tried to coax him down, to no avail.
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