Some Theories on Why Men Don't Do as Many Household Tasks
And some suggestions on what could be done to change that
In a curiosity surely born of some deeper yearning, I asked a few ambitious, heterosexual working mothers I know to send me a list of the invisible tasks they do on their "second shift," family needs that their equally ambitious, working male partners simply do not see. Within an hour and a half, I received a collection of lists that averaged around 35 items each, full of the taxing, the trivial, the short- and the long-term: sick child duty, travel planning, photo organization, holiday preparation, emotional support work, hairstyling, online searches for sports equipment, et al. Clearly, I had hit a nerve.
When I asked their husbands to comment on the lists, it was like someone had just asked them why they had refused to carry the baby. Some men wrote carefully crafted arguments about different culturally conditioned spheres of expertise and talent; some listed all of the chores they did—mostly garbage and yard work; and others were afraid to speak at all, for fear of taxing their already stressed marriages. Another nerve.
Judging from the radio silence that followed the men's responses, the women were hoping for something different. I think they wanted their partners to pick up a broom.
Only a handful of working parents have the "village" they need to care for their children during the period in which career opportunities slam up against pregnancies, births, years of nursing, and other crucial forms of caregiving. Most of us have to buy the village, and it's expensive—so expensive that almost everyone has to stop hiring once they have paid for childcare and, in the very best cases, a cleaning service, despite the fact that there is much more to do.
To completely eliminate the destruction that childrearing exacts on your mind, body, and career, you would have to hire workers to handle your finances, home repairs, pets, laundry, afterschool commitments, errands, and shopping, among other responsibilities. Add to these costs the overtime that most working parents pay to accommodate the fact that their childcare needs extend well beyond the presumed eight hours a day, and you're talking about a lot of cash. No one has this kind of money.
Because no one can afford to fully replace themselves at home while they are at the office and because, when it comes to more important tasks like selecting afterschool lessons and resolving playground disputes, no one wants to replace themselves, working mothers have famously picked up the slack for both partners, subsidizing our market with their free labor, enabling our companies and institutions to charge artificially low prices for their goods and offer artificially high salaries to their employees.
All of this means that mothers are important, in all of the ways in which socially conservative forces routinely note. But it could also mean that mothers—especially working mothers—are exploited. They are being used as a means by their partners, our institutions, and our economy in a system they did not design, to do more than their fair share of the family's work, all without compensation. No one yet has asked or empowered working mothers to reimagine and restructure their workplaces to suit their own ends. So the basic lack of self-governance and self-determination, combined with the unpaid labor, raises the specter of injustice.
Theorists have been studying and publicizing the phenomenon of invisible work since Ann Oakley's The Sociology of Housework (1974). But especially squeezed working mothers report little progress, even though most can recall the exact, pre-marital dinner conversation in which they explicitly contracted with their partners to divide the household chores equally. Why aren't we seeing more change?
Scholars of social work, sociology, and psychology have studied the factors—like household division of labor and expressions of gratitude—that motor gender and/or sexual differences in marriage satisfaction. But there is little research aimed at understanding the reasons why the perceptions of working men and women differ when it comes to the proportion of family work they perform and, if, in fact, women's perceptions are accurate, why men have not taken up more of these tasks.
There are three plausible hypotheses we might consider:
The Epistemic Hypothesis: Perhaps men simply can't see what needs to be done. They didn't see their fathers doing these tasks; and their mothers did their invisible work quietly and without call for recognition. In this case, our male partners suffer from what philosopher Norwood Russell Hanson called "seeing-as." Without the requisite background as a trained scrap-booker, for example, men do not see a pile of old photos as a distracting project waiting to happen. It's just a pile of old photos. They live in a different reality.
In another version of this hypothesis, it's not that men have been differently acculturated. Rather, they have a different cognitive architecture. There is some very early selective attention data suggesting that distractions are costly for women. When it comes to men, however, these same "distractions" may actually serve as cues to get men to pay attention to whole categories of things they might otherwise ignore.
The Motivational Hypothesis: Perhaps men have an inkling of what, supposedly, needs to be done, but they don't believe the tasks are valuable enough to justify the time it would take to complete them: One could run to the craft store so the children can make handmade, instead of store-bought, valentines for their classmates, but this would be silly. There are more important things to do.
In another version of this hypothesis, men may be unwilling to respond to family needs because they either believe they will not respond correctly or that their partners will criticize them for not responding correctly: Why should I go to get the craft supplies, if I'll just end up getting the wrong thing? It would be a waste of both of our time for me to go. You have to put the right person on the right task.
The Structural Hypothesis: Perhaps men are attentive, knowledgeable, and willing, but their supervisors won't allow anyone to leave work at 6 p.m. to pick up their kids from daycare. In other words, it might be that men do not contribute equally because they can't. If your husband doesn't become assimilated to our workplace culture of manic ascension, determined to pursue what U.S. politicians, novelists, and landscape painters have historically cast as limitless possibility, he's fired.
In order to relieve working mothers and save their relationships, I don't think we need to wait for the scholarly research to mature. We don't need to think deeply about theories of justice, fairness, and what counts as injustice either. Life isn't fair. (Ask any mother who has nursed a baby.) There are certainly cases in which injustice generates extreme suffering, and these cases may call for a more philosophical response. But the exhaustion of relatively privileged mothers working in the United States is not one of those cases.
Instead, we need simply notice, first, that these women are overwhelmed, second, that they're our best friends, and, third, that there are lots of little things we can do about their suffering. To start, partners might ask working mothers to draw up a list of invisible tasks, remain attentive to the work that needs to be done, do some of it, and remember to recognize the effort and sacrifice involved in completing the remainder. Fathers, especially, might ask themselves a series of questions:
- Do I do half of the laundry and half of the dishes every day?
- Do I buy half of the clothes and toys?
- Do I take on half of the management of my care providers?
- Do I write half of the lists and notes?
- Do I wake up in the middle of the night to calm the baby half of the time?
- Do I change half of the diapers?
- Do I plan half of the travel?
- Do I track half of the household budget?
- Do I put the kids to bed half of the time?
- Do I make half of the grocery, sports, and afterschool lesson runs?
- Do I write half of the e-mails to my kids' teachers?
- Do I watch the kids for half of the weekend and for half of every weeknight?
Despite the media rhetoric, no working mother wants to do it all. She wants to do half of it all. Maternal investment is a physical, emotional, and logistical bitch. So the responsiveness of one's partner makes a difference.
In the workplace, individual supervisors should take steps to humanize their institution's policies and help their male employees respond to family needs. The supervisor who fails to see the company interest in making it possible for a male employee to give the very best care to his child is a supervisor who fails to see the ways in which all of our lives are thoroughly enmeshed, the ways in which caregiving affects everything from innovation, profit, and expansion, to drug use, crime, and truancy.
The central point of the "work-life" conversation is routinely lost. It's not a conversation about fairness, and it's not, exclusively, a conversation for and among women. This is a conversation about families and about babies and their care, which makes it a conversation about kindness, responsiveness, and our nation's collective future. You don't let a mother work from home just to make her life easier. You let a mother work from home so her child can receive the very best of care, care from a mother who will remain responsive because she has been able to fulfill her own ambitions, in addition to her child's needs.
There are more things to be done in this world than are explicitly required of us by laws and principles. So we all have a standing responsibility to remain attentive, fulfilling needs when we can, particularly when those needs are expressed by people we know and love.
SIGHs and Relief
The good news is that many men already seek out these responsibilities. I like to call their actions "small instances of gender heroism" or "SIGH"s, in honor of the intense pang of gratitude and relief a damsel-in-distress feels when a superhero notices her especially—amidst a crowd—and swoops in to enact a rescue that was so unexpected that its impossibility had become the central pillar of her fierce independence. You know, like the dreamy effect Mr. Darcy has on Elizabeth Bennet, Superman on Lois Lane, and Antonia on her line through Danielle and Therèse.
In the course of my own life as a working mother, I've been lucky enough to witness several such acts, without which I would not have maintained my sanity:
- In films with pregnant main characters before and since Fargo, the pregnancy is always the story, and the pregnant character's screen life begins or ends with the birth. But Joel and Ethan Coen wrote a main character whose pregnancy was only one aspect of her interesting and socially relevant life. SIGH.
- In a charged professional setting, a wildly successful, male philosopher—whom I didn't know personally—chastised his equally successful male colleague for calling on everyone else in the room before me, though my hand was raised first. "I'm not sure what's wrong with him," my defender said, loud enough for the speaker to hear. "He must have a blindspot." SIGH.
- During meetings scheduled on short notice, my male and female colleagues tolerated the giggles of my young daughters, as they watched cartoons with headphones on a nearby computer. SIGH.
- This past year alone, comedians Jon Stewart, Samantha Bee, and Tina Fey have generated several (hysterical) SIGHs.
- At a crucial turning point in my career, a senior female philosopher actively defended the non-traditional character of my research. SIGH.
- Finally, long ago, my spouse asked me for my list of invisible work, which we split down the middle, and I haven't done a load of laundry in more than 20 years. SIGH.
Small acts of heroism—not treatises, theories, studies, and arguments—will motor the revolution, millions of individuals with all kinds of power paying very close attention to their friends and colleagues who are mothers and offering them helpful, creative, and locally appropriate assistance whenever possible.
Find a working mom and lead with the following SIGH: "What do you need, in order to raise your children and advance in your career at the same time?" Just swoop in and help her out, not because you're obligated to rectify an injustice, but because you can. Responding to the misery of the people you care about is what you do.
Looking for a way to start this difficult conversation with your partner? Consider the categories of invisible work below. What percentage of this work do you do? What percentage of this work does your partner think you do? Record your answers and compare notes.
- Childcare management and communication
- Cooking and meal preparation
- Laundry, ironing and mending work
- Grocery shopping
- Home decorating (garage sales, picture hanging, etc.)
- Yard work
- Afterschool lessons, weekend activities, and summer camp planning and coordination (researching, driving to, waiting during, and equiping)
- Communication with extended family (calling mom, mailing gifts, etc.)
- General household cleaning (sweeping, vacuuming, garbage removal, window washing, etc.)
- Making travel arrangements and packing
- Party planning and holiday preparation (cards, meals, decorations, cleaning)
- General social outreach (setting up playdates, interacting with neighbors, making plans with friends, etc.)
- Monthly financial chores (bill paying, health claims and tax prep)
- General shopping and consumer research (for clothing, gifts, technology, media, etc.)
- Putting kids to bed and waking up with them in the middle of the night
- Getting kids ready for school, dropping them off, meeting the bus in the afternoon
- School-related tasks and communication (contacting teachers, delivering forgotten items, volunteering, attending conferences and shows)
- Staying home with sick kids
- General family scheduling
- Coordinating and completing home repairs
- Documenting family history (taking and organizing photos)
- Disciplining kids (establishing and enforcing consequences for misbehavior)
- Managing and picking up the pieces after major upheavals (moves, home sales, funerals, job losses)
- Pet care (walking the dog, checking out kennels, etc.)
- Emotional work (resolving playground disputes, offering advice, proactively keeping the peace among siblings)
- Long-term financial planning (for retirement, college tuition, etc.)