I have to confess that I am a bit sick of thinking about issues related to being a mother in the workforce. Things got a bit nasty on my last post on working motherhood, and I had to threaten to delete comments written by actual people (as opposed to spambots) for the first time ever. And with the recent Rosen/Romney insanity and the fact that the English edition of Elisabeth's Badinter's book about how we're all being oppressed by motherhood was just released, triggering a bunch of annoying articles about it that I stupidly went and read... I think I'm just weary with the judgment and venom that the topic brings out in people. I can't even bring myself to go find the appropriate links for the Rosen/Romney and and Badinter stuff. You'll have to resort to Google. I'm sorry.
If you're sick of the topic, too, you may want to click away now. Don't worry, I won't blame you.
But I need to write one more post on this topic before I take a little break from it for awhile. I really want to wrap up what I learned from my recent post about men, women, and chores before the discussion fades from my memory. That post beat my previous number of comments record by at least 2x- and I read every single one of the comments. It sparked several posts from other people, which had their own interesting comments sections, and I read all of those, too. Here are the posts I know about (let me know if I missed one, and I'll add it):
- Laura Vanderkam included a link and some discussion in a round up post
- Mary Anne Mohanraj wrote a short post. It is nice to find someone else who is interested in the topic despite mostly having it under control in her own life.
- Cherish at Faraday's Cage is Where You Put Schrodinger's Cat wrote about about her switch from being like Joan to being like Janet. Spoiler alert: she made the switch by switching partners.
Nicoleandmaggie also had a deliberately controversial post about chores, in which they argue that we are a little bit too obsessed with cleanliness, and that many of us might be happier if we'd let our standards in this area slip a bit. That post was planned well before I wrote my post, though, so I can't claim any credit for inspiring it. Still, it is quite relevant to my thoughts on this topic, and has some really interesting comments, so if you are interested in the topic, go read it if you haven't already.
You may remember, that part of what motivated me to write my original post was a desire to have better advice to give to worried young women who are hearing from all directions that they will certainly be doing more of the housework and parenting, and that this is why women are leaking from various pipelines, etc., etc. They see me claim that this is not how my life worked out and they want to know how I solved this problem. And up until now, I've mostly been limited to telling them to choose their partner carefully. Which I still think is good advice, but perhaps a bit limited.
But now, maybe I can tell them a little more.
I've decided to write the rest of this post as if I were giving advice to that hypothetical young woman (or man! Gosh, wouldn't that be refreshing?) who has emailed me worrying about how to combine parenthood with a career. I'm doing this because it makes it easier for me to write, and as I mentioned last week, writing time is at a bit of a premium for me right now. However, please note: if you do not feel like you need advice in this area of your life, then I am not writing to you. If you've made different choices than I have, and are happy with them, then hooray for you! Really. If you've made different choices than I have, and are somewhat unhappy with them but have decided you don't want to try to change them but want to complain about them anyway, then, um, I guess that's OK, too. I'll make you a deal: I won't be bothered by that if you don't make me listen to the complaining. Regardless, I am really, truly NOT JUDGING ANYONE. Really. Truly. I save my judgmental streak for people who hurt other people.
But some people do want to change things, or avoid getting into unhappy situations in the first place. And here is what I would say to any of those people, if they were to ask me:
First, it is OK to take the division of household work seriously. I didn't read a single comment or post that would make me think otherwise, but if you need a reason other than comment volume, here is mine: chores equal time, and time is precious. It is irreplaceable. I have a limited amount of time, and I don't even know how much of it I have. So I guard my time jealously. Time I spend cleaning the toilets is time I don't spend playing with my kids or working on the various projects I have going. And playing with my kids and having time to work on those projects help keep me sane and happy. So, someone who won't do his share of the chores is essentially saying to me: "my sanity and happiness is more important than yours"- and I won't have that. You may feel differently than I do about that, which is obviously fine. But don't let anyone tell you that this subject isn't worth worrying about.
Second, sort this out with your partner before you have kids if at all possible. Again, I didn't read a single comment or post that said that having kids made this easier. Quite the opposite, actually. As I alluded to in my post about being a feminist mother, having kids made this harder for me and my husband- and we started from a really good place. Even if you try really, really hard to share the parenting equally, chances are good that the mother will spend more time on parenting tasks than the father, particularly when the kids are really little and the mother is breastfeeeding, dealing with separation anxiety, and all that. My husband and I had to make a conscious decision to trade off some other chores for the parenting work, even though we both think that is a sucky decision. For instance, I'd like to spend less time snuggling Petunia in the middle of the night. My husband would like to spend more. Too bad for us- Petunia has her own ideas on the subject, and right now, we've decided to let those trump ours. I think agreeing on this sort of trade off would be much, much harder if you're starting from a less equal starting point.
Along those lines- if you haven't found your partner yet, I'd suggest asking him if he plans on taking any paternity leave when he has kids. Don't be surprised if he hasn't thought about it, but do pay attention to what his eventual answer is. Nicoleandmaggie referenced a study showing that the division of household work is more equal in families in which the father takes paternity leave. This makes intuitive sense to me, because a Dad who has spent a significant amount of time being the sole caretaker for a little baby probably understands how much work that is. Even if he doesn't also have to lactate. And a Dad who understands how much work caring for a baby is may be more likely to think "hey, I think I should just do those dishes tonight, while my lovely partner gets our baby to sleep."
For what it is worth, my husband took some paternity leave both times, including splitting a month with me: for both Pumpkin and Petunia, when the baby was four months old, I went back to work 3 days a week and my husband stayed home with the baby for those days. It is nowhere near what the Swedes do, but it did give him several days per week when he was the sole parent with the baby for over eight hours. We live in California, so we both qualified for some paid parental leave- it didn't completely cover our lost salary, but it did make this an easier decision to make. I think he's inspired one or two of his colleagues to follow the same pattern, too. And completely independently, I know of at least one male colleague of mine who did something similar. I hope someone is studying how these changes are playing out here in the US!
Third, don't assume that people can't change. I say this not because I have myself brought about change in my husband- I lucked out, and he thinks that it is "obvious" that having an equal division of labor is the right thing to do. I say this because Ginger and Hush wrote comments saying that they were once the guilty party who wasn't contributing as much as their partners to the household chores- or whose partners thought that, at least. If they can change, so can your partner, if he really wants to. Yeah, yeah, I know. There are cultural influences at work that might make this harder for him. But the great thing about being human and having a big, powerful brain is that you can choose to actively work against those influences. Now, I'm not saying that it will be easy to get this to change, or even that it will necessarily be worth the effort it will take you. But I am saying that it is at least possible for your partner to change and start doing more chores.
OK, so given all that, if you are in a relationship in which the division of chores is not as equal as you would like, what can you do? The way I see it, you have three options:
1. Care more
Some people here and on Laura Vanderkam's post were surprised that I'd leave a partner over this issue. But as Cherish's post and Erin's comment on my post show, I'm not alone in that, and while I do not think any less of people who would not leave over this, I do think that if you care enough that it is a deal-breaking issue for you, chances are excellent you'll end up with an equal chore split, particularly if you take my second point above to heart and sort this out before you have kids. Once you have kids, you may be stuck with lingering inequality even if you do leave, because you are too good a mother to make your children suffer because their father can't get his act together and remember that it is his turn to take in treats for the class or whatnot.
2. Care less
This is the approach advocated in Nicoleandmaggie's post, and I think everyone should really consider it. Laura Vanderkam has argued something similar before, too (but I can't find the post- Laura, send it to me and I will link it)- namely, if you and your partner are disagreeing about how often the windows need to be washed, there is a chance that he is right and they don't need to be washed that often. If your house is not a health hazard, then it really doesn't matter if it is a bit messy. Note that I say that as an asthmatic who has a severe dust allergy. Removing dust is a priority for me. Removing clutter... not so much. Cleaning the windows? I care about that only because my husband does.
3. Decide to stop caring
You can also decide to make peace with the inequality on the chores front. Partners are people, and are a total package. Perhaps your partner provides something else that you decide compensates for the fact that he can't ever remember to do the dishes. That is fine. Great, even, as long as you are truly at peace with your decision to let this issue go. Shandra and GMP had really good comments about this approach.
I guess there is a fourth option, too- just stay unhappy. But I'd try the other three options first! Personally, I'd go with a mix of 1 and 2. But that is just me. Only you know what is right for you.
I want to thank everyone who took the time to write comments on my first post and/or write their own posts on the subject. I truly learned a lot from reading your words. I wish I had the time to link to more comments in this post- but if I try, this post may never get posted. I am much, much happier with the answer I can now give to a young person asking me about this topic. If you feel I've missed something essential, or just have more to say on the topic, by all means- leave me a comment here. For some reason, this topic gets emotions running high, so please, try to keep your comment respectful to people who think differently than you. Feel free to argue points, but please do not bash other people for their opinions. I'm feeling a bit touchy on this point right now, so I might moderate with a heavier hand than usual.