Motherhood is Madness Stategy 3: Don’t expect women to be servants

Here is the THIRD strategy in my upcoming book. I welcome your feedback and please pass along to your friends!


Strategy 3: Do not expect women to be unpaid servants

“When women shoulder a disproportionate share of responsibility for housework, their perceptions of fairness and marital satisfaction decline, and …marital conflict and women’s depression increases” (Bennetts, The Feminine Mistake)

Neither my husband nor I expected me to become an unpaid servant. He never expected me to do all the childrearing as well as all the tedious and mundane housework. But I do, even with a full time job. I make the lunches, I buy the groceries, I plan the meals, I organize weekend events, I arrange music lessons – and that’s just the predictable stuff. I pick up the kids from school when they are sick, I drive them to dentist, doctor and eye appointments and I stay home from work on every “PD” day and holiday, which is about 45 days a year not including summer holidays. When I worked for a corporation, I used up every single holiday and had to take unpaid days for the rest.

And I get paid absolutely nothing for this work. In fact corporations and governments penalize me by saying that this work is not only worthless for counting (in our GDP) but is also so simple as to be irrelevant to the world of business and work. When I applied for a job after having children one interviewer looked at my resume with distain, as if I have been doing nothing for five years. Since I made no “income” during several years, I was not allowed to buy disability insurance in case I get sick. Nor was I able to add to my retirement savings. In essence d my work out of our home not only has no value, but is invisible and carries a stigma that can never be removed. If this is not oppressive, then nothing is!

Research shows, that when a woman marries, her contribution to housework increases by approximately 7 hours a week! Just by tying the knot.  Whether we like to admit it or not, the housekeeping responsibilities remain solidly in the domain of women. In their book “Career MystiquePhyllis Moen and Patricia Roehling found, that when couples marry, not only does the amount of time that a women spends doing housework increase but a man’s decreases by 33 percent. (Bennetts p. 247-8)

And why is this so? Do women like doing this work? Are they naturally better at it?  Research suggests otherwise and blames this imbalance squarely on the shoulders of our socialization and societal expectations. For women, this conditioning starts in childhood with us simply copying our mothers as role models. As Selma Greenberg, an expert in this area,  suggests, “One of the most powerful ways mothers and fathers transmit to children their ideas on what kinds of adults they should grow up to be is through the parents own behavior. By looking, listening, by observing children also learn a lot about their place, their station in life.”

From very young, girls are programmed to do the majority of the household chores and boys are told not to. This conditioning is reinforced on television, the Internet and advertising, being fed a very specific and narrow definition of what it means to be a woman, wife and mother.

Author Leslie Bennetts explains it this way, “In general, women have felt obliged to perform housework, and men have assumed that domestic work is primarily the responsibility of mothers, wives, daughters and low-paid female housekeepers. In contrast men’s participation in housework has appeared optional.” Because we, as a society expect females to do this work, they do it. Indeed they do it for no money, status or recognition.

Even if you have three university degrees, as a mother you will be expected to clean toilets and wash floors. And if you choose to hire someone else do this work you will be expected to hire, manage and fire help.  In addition you will be expected to take on home maintenance and upkeep. This includes buying furniture, repairing household items and being at home when the electrician or plumber is available, which seems to always be during regular work hours.

To make matters worse, this domestic work although important, will often be out of your control and will also be seen as easy to do. This contributes significantly to women’s’ unhappiness, as described here:  “The association between doing household chores—what social scientists call low-schedule-control tasks like making dinner, which can’t be postponed until next week—and unhappiness is so pronounced that even when women reduce their hours to part-time, they don’t get any happier. In fact their marriages may even suffer, because women working part-time end up doing far more of the household chores.“ (Bennetts p 251). Hope Edleman reinforces this thinking in her  article, “Bitch in the House,” and lists the many significant yet mundane tasks that woman do  including keeping the refrigerator stocked, filing income taxes and finding a reliable babysitter.

For mothers, however, the most unappreciated and invisible job of all is what I call the “domestic contractor” otherwise known as “the one who nags.” When women take on the full responsibility of the domestic realm, not only do they do their own share of work, but also manage the contributions of the other family members. Bennetts describes it in this way: “After the kids arrive, women disproportionate burdens are exacerbated by the additional job of masterminding the whole domestic enterprise. Ask your typical dad what size shoes his children wear and you’re likely to draw a blank stare. Try asking him about his children’s teachers and playmates.”

This critical job involves overseeing the entire  household, making sure that each person knows what to do and ensuring that each person does the  job in a competent and timely manner. Almost every mother I know has a running list of almost two pages of tasks and chores, half of which are not her own, but rather reminders for others! And accompanying this master role comes the nasty job of enforcer. When jobs fail to get done, the mother suffers even more from the push back. She gets called a nag and often ends up doing  others chores herself rather than have to deal with “motivating” others and ensuring quality control.

And when women complain about all this, we are told that we simply need to let a few things go or lower our standards. It’s our fault if we can’t find a healthy balance.

So where are the husbands? Are males born lacking in domestic skills? Could we have raised a whole generation of men are incompetent at housework? Are males lazier than females?

According to the research, it is none of these things. Men are quite able to contribute to the home but choose not to and this is due to three main reasons. First, most boys, even to this day, are not expected to contribute as fully as girls to the housework.   As Leslie Bennetts points out in her book, it’s a matter of perception. “But most Americans think that the division of labor is fair when a wife does two-thirds and the husband does one-third. When he starts approaching half, they think it’s unfair. To assume that men only need to do one third when their wives are working just as many hours as they are is just absurd.”

Second, most men raised in the last few generations have been told that they must be the “bread winners” or the solo income earners of their family. Because of this they often do not consider it their responsibility to do any domestic work.  Thirdly, workplaces are notoriously structured in a way that works people so hard and for such long hours that fathers (and mothers) are frankly exhausted after work and simply do not have the time or energy left to spend on their family responsibilities.

What we do not see is the long term and deeper impacts. When mothers get little domestic support, significant push-back and substandard or untimely help, women suffer expontentaiily. Lurking below the surface is a sense of unfairness, a growing knot of resentment, a decrease in self esteem and an attempt to gain back control.

Many mothers silently accept that they have no power to change things and be begin to resent their husbands, their children and their lives. They become women they don’t even recognize, as described by Leslie Bennetts: “Maintaining some semblance of equity in your marriage can force you to deploy all of those nasty tactics you swore you would never stoop to as a parent, but nonetheless found yourself using the minute you actually had a kid. Bribery and punishment work; so do yelling and complaining. Threats are also effective, as long as everyone knows you mean business. With husbands, tender banishments are particularly useful.”

To appreciate how downtrodden many mothers feel, just listen to their pathetic pleas and manipulations for “help” with chores that are not even theirs, only to be rebuffed or labelled as nit-picky commanders.

Meanwhile, studies show that in those relationships characterized by a more equal division of labor such as in two-income marriages where both parents share the domestic tasks, women are less susceptible to depression, more likely to be sexually attracted to their husbands.

The bottom line. Over our entire lives we are socialized to believe not only that females are responsible for all the domestic chores, but also the masterminding of the whole domestic enterprise. We are told that work such as cleaning toilets and washing floors is not male-appropriate. Nor is it worthy of pay, status of recognition or even being included in the calculation of our GDP. In fact it is deemed to be quite mindless and easy yet in reality it tends to be both low-control and mundane, which makes it particularly nasty. And rather that right this imbalance, husbands tend to shirk the responsibility suggesting that women are both better at this work, but also enjoy it!

What to do. Domestic work must no longer be considered female’s work or menial work. We can no longer automatically assume that females are meant to do all this work or that this work is not worthy of status, income and recognition.  We must never suggest that women are “built” to do this work or that unlike males they somehow enjoy mundane, tedious and repetitive work. We must also stop celebrating men who do a minimal amount of housework.

We must start raising our children so that both boys and girls contribute equally domestically – from washing bedding, to setting the dinner tables and cooking meals.  We must no longer let husbands off the hook. We can no longer accept men saying things like “I am too tired” and ask them to question the absurd work expectations and notice the toll it takes on all workers.  As fathers take on their fair share, they become role models for their sons and their daughters and the cycle is broken.

“Did having a uterus really mean you loved scrubbing toilet bowls, and having a scrotum mean you couldn’t even see dirt?” (Douglas and Michaels, Mommy Myth p 35)

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