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Equality at Home: Just How Equal is Life for Couples These Days?

July 17, 2020 Barbara Ballinger & Margaret Crane

We grew up in an era where most of our parents, their friends, and even ourselves and our peers divided up tasks once married. Usually, the man did the messy inside and outside stuff—dishes, garbage, fixing the toilet and changing light bulbs if handy, yardwork and maybe grilled—and cleaned the grill afterward. The woman got the stereotypical female work—wash, iron, clean, cook, set the table, grocery shop—unless we did it as a pair (Margaret’s late husband always went with her to shop and Barbara’s liked to do the wash). We also took over the carpool, care of a sick child and supervising homework, except if we were terrible at math or grammar and handed that off to a  spouse who was better in those subjects.

 

Younger couples, including our kids, often did away with such roles if they had a partner or spouse. So did many LBGQT partners. We’ve seen this firsthand. When Barbara’s mother asked her younger daughter if she made breakfast for her husband each morning before he went to work, she replied frankly, “Absolutely, not. I go to work, too,” she reminded her grandmother who was surprised. Barbara’s mother, now 100 ½ had taken a course on making a marriage work when an undergrad in the Midwest in the late 1930s and the rules were clearly fixed. Margaret’s younger son and his girlfriend who live together, both in their 30s, share all the household duties cooking, shopping, cleaning, taking out the garbage, grilling, vacuuming, doing the laundry, watering the plants, washing dishes and drying, et al. 

Thank goodness roles have eased and even bled into the other without always the old-fashioned delineations. More men cook and more women grill, mow the lawn, unclog toilets, and load the dishwasher.

 

But have they really become equal partners? And that’s one reason we became interested in interviewing the editors of a new book that crossed our desks, Creating Equality at Home: How 25 Couples Around the World Share Housework and Childcare, from Francine M. Deutsch and Ruth A. Gaunt (Cambridge University Press, 2020). The other reason this book piqued our interest is the timing. This is a hot topic especially right now when many couples are stuck inside together quarantining and, in many cases, both working from home. Add to the mix child rearing and schooling if you have little ones running around. Without a clear rejiggering of an equal division of labor and boundary setting, experts predict there might be a flurry of divorces once a vaccine is found and the virus abates. 

In the introduction to the book, the editors point out how women’s lives have changed in public but numerous studies show that gender inequality still happens at home, just not as often. Typically, women remain the gatekeepers at home, the editors write. And certain time-consuming jobs routinely fall to them, too, which don’t count as “housework” per se, such as planning the social calendar, paying bills, buying gifts, and doing the thank you note writing, for example. There’s also the mental work of parenting, which means it’s usually the wife who keeps track of everything and manages the house even when men might be successful managers at work.

 What’s more and key is that after working outside the home, many women are still burdened by a second shift at home, what Arlie Hochschild said way back in 1989 represented “‘the stalled revolution.” For the book, the editors and a team of researchers interviewed 25 couples in 22 countries. All have found a way to create equality at home. And the main reason this matters, the editors say, is that women are only more likely to succeed in the paid outside work force if there’s more equality at home. 

We talked by phone with Deutsch, a professor emerita at Mt. Holyoke College, who’s also author of Halving it All: How Equally Shared Parenting Works (Harvard University Press). Following are her edited, condensed responses. 

Question: Are habits almost set in stone based on what they saw their parents do at home during their childhood? Or can there be a marked shift when a couple starts to live together or marry today?

Answer: Habits are definitely not fixed in stone. Parental influence is important in giving a person a feeling about the possible divisions of labor. A number of women, specifically, don’t want to do what their mothers did. That being said, it’s one influence when people marry. Another often depends on their job.  

Q: How can someone really know how much their partner might help—or not—from living together or in the early days of marriage? Do they need to discuss options before marriage?

A: It’s very difficult to know how things will evolve. Co-habiting couples tend to divide things much more evenly than those who marry. In addition, whether married or not, the shift from not having children to having children is usually a huge turning point that may result in a shift to more traditional roles. This tends to be true all around the world but doesn’t imply that it’s true for everyone. Those who want children but hope to maintain equality have to be very explicit. In the book, the wife in a Swedish couple was ambivalent about having kids because she didn’t want to give up her career and get stuck in a traditional role. She and her future husband had several conversations and it was when he agreed to be very involved in raising the child and sharing labor, that she agreed to have children together. And he has been involved! 

Q: Did you find most couples agree about what percentage of “work” they take on if asked and separately from their spouse?

A: There’s typically a bias in which each thinks they deserve more credit than the other person gives them, no matter the actual division. It reflects that we tend to remember more of what we did than what someone else did. One couple in the book joked that they each did 60% of the work. 

Q: Do you agree with one of your interviewee’s statements, “It’s different because I’m the loud-mouthed Feminist?” Is it helpful to be louder about wants over the long-term, or does that backfire?

A: First, I think she was joking. What makes a difference is being clear about your expectations. What doesn’t help—and I’ve seen and heard this—when some women think their husbands aren’t stepping up to the plate, they end up exploding. They might shout, “Why aren’t you doing more?” Or, “This isn’t fair.” Naturally, the husbands want the storm to calm so they step up a little and do more, but it doesn’t last. They didn’t establish a principle but simply reacted. The women who get their husbands to stay with the tasks are more likely to calmly sit their husbands down and say, “Let’s share this together.” Sometimes, it takes a number of conversations. Of course, there are couples where nobody has to say anything, it happens. 

Q: How hard is it to renegotiate roles after a few years or many due to health or job changes such as a promotion and more responsibility, longer hours, travel, etc.?

A: In my research, I found that many things can trigger change—a new job, having a second child, a pandemic. When circumstances like COVID-19 happen, it can create an opportunity for change. 

Q: And what happens where there is change. For example, what happens to equitable household roles when one part of the couple stops working or cuts back? Are they “expected” to take on more work once they are home or have more free time?

A: Yes, on average, they take on more if one loses a job, etc. But it’s also gender related. If men lose a job, they do more but not as much as women who lose a job. Women are still more prone to feel responsible for household labor when they available for it. 

Q: What is the best way to show appreciation if your partner goes beyond the usual call of duty? And do you point this out every time they do so or what?

A: Every couple has their own way of showing appreciation. Although appreciation is generally a good thing in a marriage, we have to be aware of a double standard of praise and criticism. There’s tendency for men to get more credit for doing things women do routinely. “What a great father he is!” because he diapered the baby. It’s a complicated thing. It’s really not equality if one partner of the couple gets more praise. It has to work both ways. 

Q: How often does the disparity in the amount of labor at home lead to more than little skirmishes but major conflict and even dissolution of a union?

A: I can’t give you a percentage but the division of household labor can be a major conflict in a marriage, especially when there’s a “slacker” husband who sits on the couch no matter what the wife does. It’s even worse if she’s bringing in half the income and he isn’t doing his share. I haven’t studied traditional marriages where women stay home and men go to work, but I do think those types of marriages are dwindling. 

Q: What are some of the biggest conflicts couples face? What is clean enough, for example, as a standard?

A: Cleanliness is certainly a big issue. Generally, women have higher standards. Also, men may resort to a “strategy of incompetence.” By doing a  job poorly, they can eventually get out of doing that task—such as doing the laundry or picking up the kids at daycare. We heard of a machinist husband who ruined the wash because he said he wasn’t good with the equipment, even though he was used to dealing with machinery. 

Q: Do you see a difference in the division of labor with younger couples today and, if so, do religion, economics, jobs, or other factors contribute?

A: Yes, we’re trending toward a more equal division, though we’re not there yet. Attitudes are definitely changing. And there are so many reasons why. 

Q: What are the five key factors that will determine equality success?

A: First, couples need to eliminate a gender bias toward women making compromises in their work lives while men go full steam ahead. Both need to compromise to accommodate equality and especially parenting. Men will take a promotion without talking it over, but more women will turn it down for the family. We found couples where men turn down promotions, too, which may mean less money but will mean a more equal family life. 

Second, they must communicate their expectations. 

Third, equal sharers reject “essentialism,” or the belief that men and women have fundamentally different natures and that women are better nurturers, so they need to do more parenting, for example. 

Fourth, men have to feel responsible for care of the home and not have their total identity tied up in their job. 

Fifth, women need an identity that isn’t totally tied up in motherhood and gatekeeping or being the No. 1 super parent! They shouldn’t subtly or overtly discourage their husbands from taking care of the kids or doing the cooking or cleaning. 

And, if we added in a sixth, it would be having a group of like-minded friends they socialize with, so the same philosophy is shared, seen and heard.