Beyond the Vacuum Cleaner


In college I read Arlie Hochschild’s The Second Shift as part of a sociology class. I was a terrible student and managed to get through college without doing vast swaths of the assigned reading, so the fact that I not only read this book but remember it 25 years later is emblematic of how significant it felt to me.  In the book Hochschild famously discusses how the household responsibilities were divided up (way back in the 80s, when she was gathering her data). Women, she wrote, put on large shoulder-padded suits, went to work, and then came home and took on a second shift that involved putting the house back together. Back then I inhaled the book and went forth into the world certain that no marriage of mine would involve a second shift. I don’t think that I was alone on this.

In our interviews we frequently ask about household responsibilities — how are they divided up, who does what — in part because women of my generation saw how hard it was for our mothers and many implicitly knew that things would be easier if we had a spouse (or hired help) to deal with the housekeeping. And for the most part, our interview subjects tend to respond that the household duties are divided evenly. Many caveat this by saying something like, “Well, he’s still a man, so he doesn’t always do it the way I would do it.” Some have thrown money at the problem and hired outside help to take on responsibilities ranging from packing kids’ lunches to grocery shopping. But most have reached a kind of equilibrium that makes them feel like taking care of the house is somewhat shared. Case closed, equality achieved, right?

Well, funny thing  … who does the laundry turns out to be the easy part. In Mom: The Designated Worrier, Judith Shulevitz writes that women still bear the bulk of the psychological part of parenthood. Mothers are the ones who make the lists and the plans and book all the appointments. As someone who is currently sitting in a sea of camp forms, camp packing lists, and health forms, sifting through various summer childcare options, and attempting to purchase 5 mandatory pairs of white shorts while deciding how much summer soccer is really too much, I can say she’s right.

Not only do mothers still take on the burden of ensuring that their children are signed up for things, clothed, and healthy, we do it so automatically that when we asked about shared responsibility for the children and the household in our interviews no one even mentioned those ingrained psychological responsibilities beyond emptying the dishwasher or doing the laundry. In some cases, where we prodded on a particular topic, someone would admit that I buy all the Christmas presents or I plan all the birthday parties or I schedule all the doctors appointments—even the women who were primary wage earners—but it was always said in a tone that implied: of course I do that stuff—do you think I’d trust it to someone else?

There is no escaping the inherent demands of motherhood. But the first step is recognizing that these demands exist, that it’s not all about who cooks dinner or picks the kid up from school. Our interview subjects seem to have a handle on the logistical issues. It’s the psychological ones that are harder to manage.

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