Why can’t working mothers negotiate better at home?

Interesting article here in The New York Times, though nothing particularly new in it about the work and family balance and why it isn’t working so well for women.

Telling women they have reached parity is like telling an unemployed worker the recession is over. It isn’t true until it feels true. That’s because measuring women’s power by looking only at women — and by looking mostly at the workplace — paints a false picture.

Men today are at the turning point women reached several decades ago, when the joint demands of work and home first intensified. In her new book, “Reshaping the Work-Family Debate: Why Men and Class Matter,” Joan C. Williams describes how men find themselves caught between meeting cultural expectations and a growing dissatisfaction with the constricted roles shaped by those expectations. “You have to ask why, if women are asking men to change, and if men say they want change, it hasn’t happened,” she says. “Either they are all lazy, or they are under tremendous gender pressures of their own.”

The life-work dilemma for women has long been that “the workplace has changed in their favor, but home hasn’t,” she says. Men, however, “have the opposite problem. More is expected of them at home, but expectations have not shifted at work.” Which explains why the percentage of fathers in dual-income households who say they suffer work-family conflict has risen to 59 percent from 35 percent since 1977.

One quick thing I do want to comment on is this bit of the article:

And women still perform twice the housework and three times the child care that men do, even in homes where women are the primary breadwinners.

I have noticed this before in studies. In fact some have mothers working outside the home as doing more domestic labour and childcare than mothers who don’t work outside the home! Why does this happen?

Of course one can’t underestimate the difficulty involved in overcoming entrenched sexism in the division of domestic tasks but why isn’t the increased negotiating power of enhanced female financial independence  addressing this problem better in those relationships where men and women are earning similar amounts? Here is my theory.

Women working outside the home can’t afford to have anything fuck up because if their home life fucks up it quickly fucks up their jobs, too. The double, and even triple shifts, some working mothers perform means that there is no wriggle room in their week. In fact the more hours they work outside the home the less time, and importantly, energy they have for the constant negotiation and re-organisation that is required to achieve fairness inside their homes. Life happens on the run. When they do get to ‘sorting shit out’ they probably find that their money speaks in the negotiations they have with their partners but in the meantime they are scrambling from one day to the next.Working mothers are probably risk-adverse and that doesn’t facilitate novel or complex negotiation outcomes.

Thinking about it now I see that the fairness I have managed to create in my own home has in many ways been a product of the extra flexibility I have as a part-time worker*. I can test solutions. I can also withdraw, delay and refuse. I have more time to think, giving me the perspective necessary to problem-solve, though as Bitch PhD points out, the fact that monitoring equality falls to me in the spousal relationship is a sign of my inequality. House-work strikes and the like need both time and alternative options. If you wait until your partner gets around to doing their share of the laundry you may end up with no clothes to wear to work. If you make small children pack their own school lunches it will probably be you fielding the phone calls at work from the kids’ school about the empty lunchboxes.  (And there is nothing like children being held to ransom in a stand-off with a partner to make a mother fall back into line).

Family members do adjust eventually to more equitable arrangements but many working mothers probably just don’t feel they can afford the time to get there.

*I worked full-time until I became a parent. With each of my two children I spent the first year at home so I have had a taste of stay-at-home motherhood, and I quite liked it, but I lack the experience of the long haul to speak authoritatively on that particular topic.

Cross-posted at blue milk.

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11 responses to “Why can’t working mothers negotiate better at home?”

  1. Mindy

    This is quite telling don’t you think

    Men who didn’t stay home to take care of children began to do so when it became a matter of national security.

    They could stay home when it was something important… /sarcasm

  2. Helen

    Thanks for this post – it speaks directly to the conflicts in my life at the moment, and I’ve got too much on this subject to write and polish while I’m overwhelmed with chores, work and family responsibilities at the mo. Of course I’m doing other things and that’s great, but in order to make space for my things I’m having to run, run, run just now. We are having a big “zero” birthday at our house soon, and it’s instructive to see how the SO – who can hang out until the bath looks like something out of a Pompeii museum, not in an arty way but in a covered in crap kind of way – SUDDENLY sees the cobwebs I never get around to brushing off the windows, suddenly sees the garden I struggle and fail to get under control. For the first time in years he’s done some GARDENING and you should see the place. If people aren’t coming around he’ll take the “women are too fussy” line but once they are, the dusters come out. I’m enjoying the extra cleanliness and the schadenfreude and refusing to notice the guilt-trippy vibes coming my way. I do 80% of the work normally and I fail to bring the house and garden up to scratch – because there’s only one of me – so I refuse to be guilted! But it’s still a problem – the usual squalor is why I hardly ever invite my friends around, and it’s not fair.

    If this sounds a bit more brain-fried than usual, I’ve been enduring a peak few weeks at work, while making the boy sangers every morning and hemming his trousers in the evening for the reason cited in the post – he’ll eat nothing, or some crap he finds, at school and I’ll be the one held responsible.

  3. Mary

    The fact that in the usual model very little changes for a male partner doesn’t help.

    In that model, there is a pregnancy and labour, which mostly happens to the woman. Women share labour horror stories with each other, my husband tells me that men glowed at him and told him how much he’d enjoy fatherhood, 100% the best thing a man can do, etc. Then, in Australia, a typical model man takes 2 weeks off and back into work, which has its disadvantages (dealing with the same work requirements as before but with a new baby and new feelings and messed up sleep and quite possibly a distressed or at least changed partner). Eventually he settles back in, which is genuinely hard. Some months or years later the woman returns to work. Why should he have to adjust? He adjusted already dammit. He did this work. He’s been doing it the whole time. And he might be jealous in some respects of the woman’s relationship with the baby.

    So, yes, I’ve made it All About the Manpain, and it’s definitely about the patriarchy more (or as well). But co-parents (thus, usually fathers) are not taught to value their relationship with their children under the current leave arrangements. In fact they are taught that change in themselves would be bad, they need to man up and get the work done as their first priority.

    We’ve been having a bad time with 4 months of round after round of childcare illnesses going through each of us in turn. Doing equality policing would be way down my list of priorities. (At the moment it’s not needed: whoever happens to be well does everything.)

  4. Emily

    This. In my current relationship I am tired of being the one doing the equality monitoring in the first place – things are obviously unjust if we began our relationship on an unequal footing!
    Helen, I am so with you on the ‘ashamed to invite people over’ thing – the house becomes a pigsty because I am NOT doing all the housework myself and then if I want to invite anyone over I am ashamed of the way we live! I don’t want to live in squalor, actually I hate it, but there is something so fundamentally soul-destroying about being the invisible, unpaid servant in a relationship that is nominally of equals.
    Aka: NO, I do NOT want to have sex with you after scrubbing your shit off the toilet because ‘you didn’t notice’! Sorry to get so specific with that but seriously, how should I feel towards a grown man who expects someone else (me) to clean up his shit?!?
    I used to fall for the ‘i didn’t notice’ defence but I’ve realized it means ‘i don’t care because I know you’ll do it’. So now my bathroom is like a swamp and I wouldn’t sit on my floor. Am I happy? No! But I’ll be damned if I’ll pick up and clean up after an able-bodied adult with shorter outside-the-home working hours than me!

  5. Seonaid

    Speaking only for my own experience, *I* couldn’t negotiate because I felt guilty. Even though I was the primary income earner, even though I had been unable to find work closer to home after 10 years of searching, even though my husband was perfectly capable – I felt like I needed to do something to make up for the fact that I was gone all the time.

    Guilt, guilt, guilt, guilt, guilt. No negotiating position available at all.

    I’m better now, although having chosen a different path, I still feel guilt over not ‘pulling my weight’ financially.

  6. Mindy

    @ Seonaid – I think if you added up the all the unpaid work you did at home all those years, you are probably waaaaaay out in front. That guilt is hard to shake though.

  7. Pen

    Yes, Emily, absolutely.

  8. OlderThanDirt

    When my husband was laid off, there would have been a time when he could have stepped up, but of course I couldn’t ask him because he was depressed about being laid off.

    We’re taught that maintaining his pride in himself is important to us both, and there are things that a man just cannot bear. Like being in the position I held for 12 years. When I was home with the children, I did the shopping and the cooking and the house laundry. When I went to work, I did the shopping and the cooking and the house laundry. When he was home without an outside job, he spent his time at the gym and on the golf course and on his bike and running. And looking for a job, he really was, but everything else stayed the same. And I just couldn’t make myself say anything.

    I wonder what it will be like when we’re both retired. Will I say then, “Hey, I know it’s been 35 years with this one system, but I now have the time and energy to wear you down, so we’re going to the 50-50 plan.” I hope so.

  9. Linda Radfem

    Having studied and written about this topic, my understanding is that the reason unemployed men do even less around the house than employed men is to do with gender roles. His masculinity is compromised through the incapacity to perfom the male bread-winner role, so he sure isn’t going to compromise it further by doing demeaning womyn’s work.

    Men’s involvement with unpaid domestic labour peaked somewhere around the 1980s and has been declining ever since. Also, the most recent research suggests that it’s teenage children who do the least with men not far behind. I’m sure that would vary from household to household though, according to different variables. My personal experience is that young people in single parent households contribute far more to the management of the house, than young people in two parent households, for example.

  10. tigtog

    Here’s a copy of the content of a comment from one Jeff who linked to a splog in his meta-details and via CommentLuv. Since CommentLuv has now changed so that I can’t edit its output as part of the comment field, I can’t just delete the link via the blog dashboard. So I’m not going to publish his comment with that link there. I will however quote it below. If Jeff wants to comment again, drop the splog links and it will be approved if it’s on topic.

    Jeff wrote: I agree that women (and men both) need to be more cognizant of the division of labor at home. I think part of the problem can be that many men grew up in households where they didn’t have to do many chores. I know that I did. Both partners need to recognize that it’s really important to evenly divide things, and men need to remember that “forgetting” to pull our weight isn’t cute, it’s actually really insulting to our wives.

  11. tigtog

    Having studied and written about this topic, my understanding is that the reason unemployed men do even less around the house than employed men is to do with gender roles. His masculinity is compromised through the incapacity to perfom the male bread-winner role, so he sure isn’t going to compromise it further by doing demeaning womyn’s work.

    Ouch. That has the ring of toxic truth to it.

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