If you want more power at work, you may have to give up some at home. Anne Glusker offers a radical theory.
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.
Many women who have grappled with this issue realize that even when their spouses begin to do more of the work, they find themselves playing the role of household director ("We need milk, packing tape, orange juice, and turkey dogs. And on the way, could you stop at the dry cleaners? And could you be home in time to take Mia to ballet?"). This manager–employee dynamic isn't good for any relationship outside the office. Talk about how to parcel out specific duties, Naomi Cahn suggests, rather than addressing the problem in an abstract sense: "Just say, 'I don't want to be the one to cook dinner every night—let's figure out another way.'"
There are two basic methods for splitting things up: Each of you takes complete responsibility for certain jobs, and the other person never again has to think about, say, food shopping or the kids' homework; or you divide a task according to days of the week or months of the year. (The latter strategy comes in particularly handy if the job in question is particularly hateful.)
If he pleads the "I don't know how" defense, you'd be wise to offer some patient coaching while he learns. (Imagine how long it would take you to figure out how to do one of "his" jobs.)
And, finally, use the language of "sharing," not "helping." If he's helping you, he's only aiding you in what is, after all, your responsibility. But if you're sharing the work, you're in it together.
When thinking about this new way of managing your household, release is the crucial word to keep on the tip of your tongue. If you want him to make the kids' dinner, you simply can't control what he puts on their plates. We've been brought up to take the broccoli off the stove while it's still green, to separate the colors and the whites, to remember to call the babysitter. Most men haven't, but they can learn. Our job is to stand back and let them. And, when necessary, figure out how to put in our two cents diplomatically. (The best time probably isn't when he's right in the middle of a task.) We have to remember that our mothers and grandmothers held fast to the power they gained by doing these things—and doing them their way—because they had no other kind. Fortunately, we have many more options these days—and one of them is letting go.