The “Chore Wars” and the “Second Shift”

Another busy week here at WM – so I am re-posting something I wrote last summer – because I notice a lot of traffic still coming to my site from this article and well – the topic is still relevant to all of us: the second shift, the roles of dads, and more. So please – read on and comment!

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I eagerly purchased the August 8 Time Magazine issue with Ruth Davis Konigsberg’s cover story “Chore Wars.” I was ready to hear the news, I was excited for her insights into new research. I read it and was irritated and disappointed because there seemed to be so much opportunity for a new discussion, one focused on the increasing role of fathers at home, the struggles fathers face with balancing work and family but instead it was clouded by the same old woe-is-me of the second shift facing moms and boring old attempts at stoking the fire in the mommy wars debate.

Over the past two weeks, I struggled with which direction to take my reaction to her article because there is so much to say. In the end, I’ve decided that the more productive thing is for me to point out what, from my perspective in my experience as a full-time working mom, she missed. I also want to point out where, from my perspective, as an at-home mom (who also works but what sort of “label” is there for a mom who can wear whatever she wants, is home with her kids, but crams work in when they nap and at night?) – where she really confused me in her argument and analysis of new data.

Can you relate?

Issue #1: Working Moms & Time Spent with Children

First, in case you haven’t read the piece, the allure of the title is meant to enlighten you on new research that basically invalidates this notion of the “second shift” for working moms because new research shows that fathers are doing much more around the house and fathers feel much more pressure to get home and engage in their kids lives. Personally, I really can’t stand it when researchers give us precise time breakouts – in this instance we learn that working women are doing 1hr. 10 min. a day of “child care” and men are now doing an average of 53 min., almost 3x the amount they did in 1965. My first question is this: Since when do we refer to being with our children as “child care”? And secondly – really – who does this apply too? If someone had told me when I was working full-time that I spent 1 hr and 10 min a day with my kid, I would have smacked them in the face because I clocked every minute I spent with my kids and every minute mattered to me – it mattered so much that I raced around like a fool to every other part of my daily life – just to be sure I got as many minutes as possible with my young daughter. And also, my kid woke at 5:30am, so I well surpassed that hour before I even left for work. So can we stop with the minute-by-minute break down people?

Secondly, the author skims over the fact that time diaries don’t account for the stress women feel when managing a family and keeping the schedule a float and to me – that’s where much of the story is when you are talking about full-time working moms and time. Just keeping the family schedule takes an extraordinary amount of time and organization, whether you go to an office all day or stay home, and the stress of managing it and keeping things running smoothly is something that in my experience, usually the moms handle.  And as much as we bitch, most of us handle it because we are control freaks and the idea of letting it go to our husbands makes us recoil. Whether we admit it or not. Also, when I was working full-time, I might have complained about how time-consuming it was but also, it kept me very involved in the day-to-day, something I needed to quell my own issues with being gone.

Back to the “chore wars” concept, I think that this piece was not meant to pit women against men, however, and really no good comes out of that. This notion of accounting for time spent and tracking inequities only perpetuates anger and resentment among couples with young children because it’s completely unrealistic to think that the responsibilities that come with raising young children can be divided equally. It also doesn’t account for the fact that often times, especially when sick, little kids just want their moms. So it’s mom who is going to leave work, call pediatrician, fill prescriptions and launder the vomited sheets. And make no mistake, mom is exhausted but mom loves to be needed. Even if she’s bitching at her husband along the way. That’s parenthood – so the media’s constant interest in perpetuating the concept of fair division of labor is unnecessary and unproductive. It ain’t ever gonna be equal or fair, people, not when we’re talking about young kids. It’s just damn hard work.

Issue #2: Working Moms & Free-Time

To me – the real story when she was focusing strictly on working  moms and time – is on free-time. She skims right over what was, for me, the biggest struggle and most exhausting part of working full-time and having young kids. She notes that research shows the quality of free-time for working moms has worsened: “women have less opportunity to relax in a way that recharges their batteries.” Umm…could there be a bigger understatement? Here’s where I think there is an important distinction when you talk about the lives of women working in an office all day long and women who stay home with their kids, whether they work-at-home or whether their full-time job is tending to the kids (which, let’s not forget, is an ENORMOUS full-time job). When you work full-time, unless you have the luxury of having a nanny who not only keeps your house clean when you are gone and does your kid’s laundry, but also runs all your errands, buys your groceries and preps your meals (which most people don’t have), then this leaves you the weekend to get lots of work done to keep the house going. But the weekend is also when you get that quality uninterrupted time to spend with your kids that you crave from being gone all week – which means if you’re anything like I was – you usually spend afternoon nap time racing around like a maniac getting everything done – which means you have little-to-no time that is just for you. And everyone needs some quality time just for themselves. So again, it was disappointing to me that in this area – which is so critical and so exhausting for working moms – this topic was just sort of glossed over so we could instead evaluate how many minutes we spend with our children compared to at-home  moms.

Speaking of those pesky at-home moms, I actually do belive that at-home moms have a greater chance to find free time on the weekends than working moms because they NEED time AWAY from their children -and it’s good to let the husbands have some alone quality time with the kids – so the at-home moms can – and do – head out on weekends by themselves to decompress and recharge their batteries.

Issue #3: The Inevitable Pitting of Working Moms Against At-Home Moms

So again, this piece on chore wars and the division of labor between spouses ended up adding fuel to the mommy wars with this ridiculous time diary research stating that “The group that has benefited the most from women entering the work force is, ironically, stay-at-home mothers, whose husbands are doing more child care…Among married couples with children under 6, Bianchi’s analysis shows non-employed mothers spend only 10 more hours a week on child care than moms with full-time jobs.”

Ok. What?

First of all, again, why does she keep referring to raising our own kids as child care?? Isn’t that called parenting? And secondly, I conducted a totally scientific research study by revisiting my past self as a full-time working mom and spent some time with her vs. my current self who is home full-time and I can tell you this: I spend WAY more time with my kids than 10 hours a week more than my past self did. Where do they get this crap and can we get some context? Specifically because she is talking about families with children under the age of 6, as is the case in my house, so these kids aren’t in kindergarten all day. So unless she found a group of women who stay home full-time and send their children away to daycare most of the day while they toil around and eat bon bons at home, then how is it possible to state at-home moms basically spend a little more than an hour more a day with their kids than full-time working moms? (Could I get that for like a week, though?) This actually really pissed me off because it feeds into this antiquated cultural notion that at-home moms don’t do anything and are “bored.”

My other issue is she skims over the fact that working moms pass off housework duties, thereby lessening their burden at home, but doesn’t account for how at-home moms are exhausted just from maintaining that aspect of a household. When I worked full-time, I always came home to a clean house. If your kids are in daycare all day, they aren’t home tearing up the house. If they are home with a nanny, her job is to make sure the house is clean when you walk in the door. When you are home all day with your kids, you’ve cleaned up 5x by 10am. That’s work in my book. Anyhow, I digress. My point – this “chore wars” piece was more about working moms vs. at-home moms than it was about the wonderful news that  most of us already knew – which is that men are more engaged and involved at home now than they used to be.  

Issue #4: The “Slacker Dad Myth”

So this disgruntled house-work dad is a thing of the past now, eh?

In the end, what Konigsberg’s piece did which was productive, from my perspective, is shed light on new research showing that working fathers feel more pressure to balance family with their careers and yet the workplace makes fewer accommodations for fathers than for mothers. I wish that she had spent some more time focusing on how many employers offer paid paternity leave and how many fathers actually use that paternity leave. One friend noted that though her husband’s firm offered something astronomical like 6 weeks of paid paternity leave, it was “career suicide” to actually use it.

The Wired Momma Conclusion

So – that was my long-winded way of reaching these three conclusions after reading the “chore wars”:

1. Working moms deserve more time to themselves and I’m not sure how they’re going to get it unless their employers offer them more flexibility and the moms use some of that extra flexible time to decompress instead of with their young kids.

2. In my right mind, I can’t see how in the world at-home moms spend only 10 hours  more a week with their kids and why do we even keep talking about it? What purpose does it serve beyond feeding the notion that at-home moms are bored and mindless keepers of children?

3. Dads are doing more – but women are setting themselves up for a world of disappointment when they are pregnant if they actually think there will be a fair and equal division of labor – just buck it up – have an involved husband and realize parenting young kids is more work than you can believe until you are doing it.

Did you read the article? What do you think?

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2 Responses to The “Chore Wars” and the “Second Shift”
  1. Sara
    August 24, 2011 | 1:19 am

    GREAT piece, Mon. I have no good adds, other than I agree with you!!

  2. M.T.
    September 4, 2011 | 9:46 am

    This was wonderful to read! Thought provoking, honest, and respectful. Thank you!

    I, too, am mystified by the idea that at home moms (I am a non-working at home mom of two morphing into a work from home mother of two) only spend 10 extra hours a week “child minding”. Unless they are counting every minute of the day as only one activity, so if you’re grocery shopping for an hour with two little kids, the hour gets recorded as “grocery shopping” and not “child minding”? Trying to do all the stuff that needs to get done while also being the sole adult responsible for one or more small children is so stressful that the chance to do chores alone while someone else watches the kids almost feels like relaxing. Even nap time isn’t totally free – you don’t know exactly when it will be over (or, in the case of my almost-two-year-old, if it will happen at all) and you will suddenly have to drop what you’re doing.

    The stress has in some important ways been a creativity booster for me, but it sure has been stressful.

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