Sunday, April 19, 2015

The real consequences of the “second shift.”

I few weeks ago, my mother called me and she was clearly upset.  After a few minutes of questioning, she revealed that she’d just gotten off the phone with my father.  With my graduation quickly approaching, she had started organizing a party to celebrate.  Apparently, she had described her progress to my father and he did not respond well.  When she told him she planned to have the party at the house, he insisted that she start over and think of something else because the house was too messy.  Fortunately, we were ultimately able to resolve the issue without my mother having to start from scratch. 

But this isn’t the first time my parents have had this fight and it likely won’t be the last.  My parents have always fought over the cleanliness of their home.  To be fair, the dishes never seem to get done, the groceries don’t get put away, the mail sits in piles on the counter, and there is always laundry to do.  

But what it really boils down to is an issue of expectations.  Like many women in this country, my mother is expected to do it all and do it well.  And as a result, my mother essentially works two full time jobs.  This phenomenon has been referred to as the “second shift.”  Even though today’s women spend more time in the paid economy, they are still expected to complete most of the domestic responsibilities and chores. 

By now, it is well-documented that working women do more housework and child care than working men. This is what we call the "second shift": Men and women both go off to work, but it's women who come home to a whole other job.
According to the most recent American Time Use Survey, women spend nearly twice as much time engaging in household activities. 
On an average day, women spent more than twice as much time preparing food and drink, almost three times as much time doing interior cleaning, and four times as much time doing laundry as did men. Men spent more than twice as much time doing activities related to lawn, garden and houseplants, and doing interior and exterior maintenance, repairs, and decoration as did women.

More information and charts about household activities can be found here.

And with these expectations, comes criticism and backlash when they are not met.  Like many women, my mother is still held responsible for nearly all of the domestic work despite working full time.  And, like many women, she is criticized when some of these things fall through the cracks.   

The fact of the matter is that, even with men starting to pick up some of the slack, women are still pulling more weight around the house.  And as a result, women are experiencing the extra stress, frustration, embarrassment, and hurt-feelings that come with this expectation/criticism cycle.

So what can we do to help these women?  What can we do to try to put an end to the second shift?

First and foremost, we need to continue to recognize the double burden placed on women.  We need to acknowledge that more is asked of women in our society and women are expected to “rise to the call.”  Admitting that most women cannot “have it all” – at least not without help – will help reduce the pressure so many women feel to be perfect. 

But to really help women out of this double bind, we also need to challenge the underlying causes – differences in socialization and cultural expectations – and rise above the misconceptions that women are naturally inclined to household tasks or innately care more about them.  We need to recognize that “housework isn’t a debt wives owe to their husbands, nor one that husbands owe to wives.” 

For my part, I will continue to support my mother as much as I can.  I will let her vent.  I will commiserate with her.  I will help her when things start to slip through the cracks.  And I will use my position as the smart-mouthed, liberal, feminist daughter to challenge the expectations that are placed on her – one awkward conversation with my father at a time. 


Jessica S. said...

I think the criticism part bothers me greatly (especially when the partner is not doing nearly as much), and it can begin making women feel like they are not good enough or not keeping up with some national standard for housekeeping, so then they try harder. Now we have high expectations for women to do all of this housework. I hope we can begin to see what an unfair burden this is to women, and not have these expectations.

Hart Ku said...

To the extent our society's expectations have gradually/incrementally shifted away from seeing housework as "woman's work," I think we've made some progress. But we are certainly still a long ways from achieving anything close to gender parity there.

I'm sure there must be some studies that show how the division of labor/responsibilities in a household affect a child's perception of gender. The expectations in our subconscious are really difficult to talk ourselves out of having, even if we know better, intellectually. And I think this is a key battleground for feminism that might not be talked about nearly enough. Especially if we want to raise a generation that is truly receptive to the message of feminism.

Heather said...

This is not going to be a popular statement, but I think women need to take some responsibility for shifting this burden. I agree completely that women still do most of the home labor, even when they work, and that is a problem. However, I believe part of the issue is that a clean house is more important to women than men. I know my partner just doesn't notice the dust and the dirty carpet. It does not bother him like it bothers me. As a result, I find myself attending to it the majority of the time. However, my partner is more than happy to do his fair share if I ask. The problem is I rarely do. It has been suggested that perhaps the problem is that women are reluctant to ask for help. Women need to shift their mindsets that the burden lies on them to do all the work. Women need to speak up and ask for help. Now whether they should have to do that is another question. We would all like men who volunteer to clean the house and pack the children’s lunches without being asked. Perhaps in time that will come, after we start speaking up and asking for help.

VK said...

When my mother needed help to prepare some events at home, she never asked any of us. She was still complaining though. I understood that was a way for her to ask for help, so I helped her. But my brothers never helped her. I don’t know why I did it and not them. Was it because I was conditioned by society (so I felt concerned) or was it due to my personality, allowing me to understand my mother’s feelings and the unfairness of the situation?
In the past, my mother never asked for help from neither my brothers nor me. She did it wrong, but at least she did not treat my brothers and me differently because of gender bias. As a result, my brothers became the prototype of the guys who will participate in chores, but only if their partner asks for it. They will rarely do something from their own initiative.
So, I agree with Heather. For sure, my mother should have asked for help. And more, as a parent, she should have attributed tasks to all of us by distributing them equally.