As I pick up my son's blocks from the living room floor for the 73rd time, I remind myself that in some long-ago preindustrial agrarian society, women got satisfaction, pride, even status, from doing housework and doing it well. While they churned butter and made cheese, I gather red and yellow and blue hunks of wood. They wove and spun flax, while I try desperately to fold my bottom sheets so they lie as flat and perfect as those in my mother's linen closet. But every minute I spend block-gathering in the morning before work means I arrive at the babysitter's, and thus at my office, that many minutes later. And each second of the evening that I devote to sheet-folding is a second less for the work I swore I'd do after dinner.
Where, I find myself wondering, is it written that mundane household tasks inevitably fall to the female half of a couple? Ever since sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild published her groundbreaking book The Second Shift in 1989, it has become increasingly common knowledge that in households where women work full-time jobs and earn full-time paychecks, they still do the vast majority of the cooking, cleaning, and childcare. We could blame men for being couch potatoes or for clinging to male privilege—but at least one observer suggests that women are the ones holding on.
George Washington University law professor Naomi Cahn says that many of us don't actually want to rid ourselves of our time-honored duties, that consciously or not we discourage our spouses from sharing the burden—a practice sociologists refer to as gatekeeping. Popping last night's leftovers in the microwave and scheduling endless kiddie doctor appointments may be a far cry from that beautiful old butter churn, but it's one of the ways our identities as women, and as mothers, is reinforced.
"Powerful force fields" drive men and women to their age-old corners, according to Joan Williams, author of Unbending Gender: Why Family and Work Conflict and What to Do About It. "There are intense pressures on men to perform as breadwinners and on women to perform as mothers. Women have been held up to the gold standard, which is the full-time stay-at-home mother," she says. Most working women with children layer their caregiving role on top of their moneymaking jobs. This double shift adds up to a frazzled life—as well as fewer raises, bypassed opportunities, and lost promotions. We can't perform at peak levels on the job if we're forever sitting on hold with the pediatrician or leaving the office at the end of the day to skirmish with the dust balls lurking under the couch.
Our society expects a great many hours from its workers—with no time off for kids' sick days, school closings, or car trips to Girl Scouts and soccer games. Although a revolt against this time-leaching workplace has begun (Juliet B. Schor, in her book The Overworked American, makes a case against the ever increasing number of hours we devote to the office), the fact remains, at least for now: Women who soar on the job are not going to be those who cling to their traditional tasks at home. So if soaring is what you want to do, you might look at whether you're contributing to the imbalance of power on the home front.
If your spouse plays lip service to the idea of sharing the household burdens but doesn't actually take them on, ask yourself a few pointed questions. Do you feel you'd be a bad mother/wife/ girlfriend if you didn't (a) do all the grocery shopping, (b) pack the kids' lunch, (c) keep track of all play dates, and (d) make 95 percent of all social plans? Where does this feeling come from? Did your mother do these things? Does your partner expect it? Are you aware of which jobs you don't mind doing and which you resent? And, finally, are you ready to share both the burden and the power?
If you decide that you are, sit down with your partner for an honest discussion. This may seem an obvious move, but the first step to solving a problem is identifying it, or, as Joan Williams says, "making it visible." And in order to talk about it, you have to take it seriously. Perhaps most important, you must believe that household tasks do not naturally fall to you if you want your partner to believe the same.
Realize you may have to change your standards of how things are done in your home. (I try not to think of this as lowering them.) I keep telling myself that no edict from on high says my sheets must lie folded precisely in the linen closet. My husband may need to work on his folding technique, but I need to work on my expectations. And even if he doesn't dress our child in what I consider the "right" clothes or clean the bathroom in the "proper" manner, I've got to let him do it his way.