Chore Wars: do women work more than men?

When I first saw this cover and the title for Ruth Davis Konigsberg’sChore Wars” in Time magazine, I was intrigued.  This debate has been going on for quite some time, with the general consensus being, at least to my understanding, “of course women are doing more work than men.”  So I was very surprised when I reviewed the article and found out that,  according to the statistics they reviewed, men and women work about the same.

But I was even more surprised that the article seemed to stop where it did.  Of course, while all studies have potential flaws, and often seem skewed to support a certain predetermined outcome, I thought this article oversimplified what is actually a very complicated issue, glossing over the fact that equal quantity of work, even if that is taking place, does not take an equal toll on the participating parties.  I fear that the article could be misinterpreted to undo good that has been done and, ironically, give men a sense of entitlement to embrace as justified the very attitudes the article claims to debunk.

In the article, the author, a working mother, talked about what has been referred to as the “second shift” – both parents work, but the woman comes home early (while the husband continues working), so that she can make dinner, get the kids ready for bed, do laundry, etc.  The women, not surprisingly, feel overwhelmed.

The article cites to research done by the U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics and finds that if you calculate the pure number of hours worked by both men and women, including commercial (i.e. career, professional, outside the home) and domestic (i.e. childcare, household) work hours, counting both the same, men and women, on average, “work” pretty close to the same number of hours.

So why do the women feel like they are so much more overwhelmed than the men?  Why does it seem like women do so much more around the house than the men do?

The author presents a couple of theories: (1) women generally take on the kind of managerial role in the family that consumes energy even when they are not actively working, and (2) men are better at relaxing.

Can this be true?  It’s true in my house.  My wife does the budget, pays the bills, plans meals, does the grocery shopping, picks out clothes for the kids, organizes, and about a billion other things that I never even think about.  For me, when I’m around, I help with the kids: dress them, bathe them, feed them, entertain them.  But when they go down for the night, for me, that’s it.  I don’t think about them again until morning.  But my wife is never off duty.  She is constantly thinking about the family’s needs and wants, what supplies are running low, what chores need to be done, errands run, what’s for dinner tomorrow night, and the night after that.  So it is a full-time job, and it never seems to stop.

Which goes to the next rationale presented by the article: men are better at relaxing.  I think this is true too.  Very true.  When I go to the gym, read a book, watch TV, go for a run, go play basketball, go to a movie, go to the bookstore, go out with my guy friends, or take a trip, I am GONE.  I don’t worry about whether my oldest son’s homework is done, whether last year’s winter coats will fit the twins next year, whether we have any spaghetti noodles for dinner next Friday.  I am completely able to turn the domestic part of my brain (whatever little part that is) off, and focus on what I am doing.

My wife does not seem to be able to do this at all, and sometimes I find it frustrating.  Sometimes I will come home, knowing that she has had a hard day, and say “honey, why don’t you just let me take care of the kids tonight, and you go to the movies/go work out/go out to dinner?”  She will never do it.  Why?  I think part of it is that she knows that even if she goes, she will be so worried about all the things that need to get done that aren’t getting done that she won’t even be able to enjoy her “time off.”  And part of it is that she is more money-conscious than I am, and knows that we haven’t budgeted for such “frivolous fun.”  And part of it, I flatter myself, is just that she has missed me and doesn’t want to spend time away.  And she is probably at least a little bit worried too that I will lose one of the kids or start something on fire.  Why can’t she just let go, though?  Why can’t women let go of some of their managerial role?  Why can’t they just relax?

Part of the answer is, I think, if someone doesn’t step up and actively take charge of the domestic situation, no one will.  I have told my wife that if she doesn’t want to do the budget and bills any more, then she should just stop doing it.  I told her I would do it.  This is never going to happen.  Even if I did “take over,” she would be so worried about me messing something up or missing something (a distinct possibility, I will concede), she would be more stressed out than if she just kept doing it herself.  And I think the truth in a lot of homes is, if the woman wasn’t constantly on, constantly thinking about the needs of the home and family, the whole thing would fall apart.

So it’s easy to say “just relax.”  And easy to think “come on, why don’t you just let some of that stuff go?”  But it’s easier said than done.

Why do you think women feel more overwhelmed than men?

A couple other thoughts.  Even if the number of hours worked is the same, there is work and then there is work.  I have heard men say of their stay-at-home wives “I mean, come on, how much TV do I get to watch at work?  How many naps do I get to take?  How much free internet searching time do I get?”  Any man who thinks staying at home with young children is easy clearly (a) has never done it, and (b) is a complete idiot.  Even if there are brief glimpses of would-be downtime, the kids could wake up  from their nap, explode their diaper, or freak out for no apparent reason at any given time.  Waiting for those time bombs to go off is no kind of relaxing.

And kids are noisy and needy.  Constantly.  It kind of starts to drive you insane after a little while.

And let’s face it, we have downtime at work too.  How do you think I wrote this article? (just kidding) (or am I?)

I think there are exceptions to every rule.  I am sure that some men are bums and don’t help out at all, goofing around all day at a joke job, and then coming home and putting their feet up in front of the TV like “where’s my dinner, woman?”  And I am sure some women let their kids be raised by Cartoon Network while they sleep in, don’t shower, and watch soap operas until three in the afternoon and then microwave a frozen pizza for dinner.  But I think the truth in the vast majority of situations is, men and women are both working hard, both overwhelmed sometimes, and that’s life.  To the extent this article means men are stepping it up and making things more equal, I think that’s a good thing.  But for any men who are thinking of using this article as a tool for justifying less work around the house, yeah, good luck with that!

(I thought this was another good article on the topic).

11 thoughts on “Chore Wars: do women work more than men?

  1. I would be terrified for my girls if I died tomorrow and knew it was up to my husband from now on. I don’t even want to think about it. I have no idea why we can’t let some of the “stuff” just go. It’s a great question. My husband has also offered to do the bills, etc. before, and although I make a mistake here or there, I would never get any sleep at night (wait! I get sleep at night?) if he took over. I guess I don’t have any brilliant insight on this topic.

    There is a lot of inequality in our home. I will admit that it irks me just a little, when he can come home each day after work and have a 30 minute ritual in the bathroom. I often think to myself, he doesn’t really get home at 6:30, it’s more like 7, because it won’t be until then until he is mentally/physically present. On the other hand, I can hardly take one minute to pee all by myself without some sweet adorable face barging through the door. Mom’s are always “on”. We’re never off work, even when we do get alone time. However, I am a real advocate for every woman taking, or making time for herself. It’s a must!

    In all honesty though, I am not looking for equality necessarily. I can’t speak for every woman out there, but I just want to be appreciated for what I do inside and outside the home. I want to be supported in those efforts, even it’s just something as small as: putting your dirty dishes in the dishwasher because I JUST cleaned the entire kitchen and the dang thing is empty and it’s RIGHT THERE! (for example).

    I think if we focus on trying to figure out who is doing more, it opens the door for resentment to creep in (guilty of this myself) and that is just not good for a marriage. I find that it is best to try and support one another in our very different, but equally important roles, and try to help each other out the best we can.

    • “[T]errified”? That doesn’t sound good. I am sure my wife, too, would be concerned. But I hope not terrified. I wouldn’t be that bad. Would I?

      On the contrary, DeAnne, I think you did have some brilliant insights. Maybe you just don’t realize it.

      You have some idea about why you can’t let stuff go. You know that the chance of anyone else coming along and picking up the slack, of their own volition, without being asked, cajoled, or threatened, is slim to none. So before you can let something go, you need to analyze whether it is something that can be let go completely. Permanently. And I doubt there are very many things in your life that would fit that bill.

      And it sounds like your husband has, like me, offered to pay the bills. Here’s a little secret though: he didn’t mean it. And neither did I. We know you’re not going to let us, so it’s just an easy way for us to rack up some extra leverage in the argument.

      A similar argument can be made for my offerings when I get home from work at the end of one of her bad days and say I’ll watch the kids while she goes out. It’s not an identical argument, because I am sincere and would do it if she took me up on it. But I know she won’t. So it, too, is kind of an empty promise.

      And moms definitely get less sleep at night; I don’t think anyone can argue with that. I don’t know if it’s maternal instinct or what, but sometimes, not always, but sometimes, we (the men) literally do not hear the kids. Granted, sometimes we do hear them and then pretend not to hear them. But at least sometimes, we just don’t hear them at all. Still sucks for the moms, who hear every rustle, every irregular breath, and every cry, but I think dads deserve a tiny pass on this one. If we literally don’t hear them, what can we do? (on the other hand, if you hear them, but then elbow us to get up because you have already gotten them three times that night, and we still don’t do it, that is a different situation entirely).

      And I think you touch on what the article kind of glosses over, and that is that there is a lot of inequality in every home. Actually, the article does sort of concede that, on average, all women do more work in the home, but when you look at all hours worked, inside and outside the home, by both parties, in terms of sheer quantity, the number of hours worked is about the same.

      Which left me asking: “so what?”

      To me, even before I read this article, comparing work done inside the home to work done outside the home is kind of an apples and oranges comparison. It’s just not the same. I work more than 40 hours a week (and sometimes more than 50 or 60 hours a week) in a profession that is universally understood to be high-stress. And yet, being at home with the kids for a whole weekend, even if my wife is there too for most or all of the time, I just about lose my mind. Sometimes I am actually looking forward to Monday morning so that I can finally get a “break.”

      There is no shame in your being irked by your husband’s ritual. But I will say this: he’s not doing it out of spite. Unless you have told him, he doesn’t even know that this bothers you. He’s not taking this time because he feels like he deserves it and you don’t. He’s taking it because he is tired and stressed at the end of a long day, and is trying to mentally prepare himself for his second shift. All he knows immediately, which is all any of us knows immediately, is that HE is tired, HE feels like he wants a break. If he thought about it, he would know that you were tired too, but that is not immediate to him. That’s not a guy thing, though. That’s a human nature thing. We are all selfish by nature, if only because it is only our wants and needs that are immediately perceptible to us.

      Also, he does it because he can. The kids are used to not seeing him all day, so he can sneak in and go off and do his thing, and the kids will let him. Not so for you. And this isn’t fair. But it’s also not your husband’s fault. Do you deserve a break at least as much as he does, if not more so? Absolutely! But the fact is that, unfortunately, to take that break, you need to proactively go somewhere or get him to take the kids somewhere so that you can actually be alone, otherwise your break is never coming. Again, not fair, but I think probably true. But then, you knew this already, advocating women taking and making time for themselves. Good for you!

      I think your outlook on equality is healthy. In the game of “my life sucks more than yours,” nobody wins. It is only reasonable that you would want appreciation. Not being appreciated is one of the hardest things in the world.

      I also liked your dishes example, and think it in itself is more profound than you immediately realize. Here’s the thing with that dish. If we put that dish in the sink, we know that it’s going to go away eventually. We should put it in the dishwasher, and we certainly could, but we don’t have to. We are not doing this to be mean, or because we think it is your sole responsibility to clean that dish. But men are like small children, or puppies. Simple minded. The dish goes in the sink, the dish disappears, the dish reappears clean. Very little effort on our part, a very efficient system. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, as it were. Now let’s say you are sick of your role in this system, and rightfully so. So you just leave that dish in the sink too. And the next one. And the next one. But the problem is, you are stuck living with and being around those dishes all day. We are merely in the same house as that dish for a couple of hours each evening. We don’t care, because we don’t have to care.

      I think this holds true for a lot of household tasks: the result of it being done or not done has much more of an impact on you than it does on us because that is where you spend the vast majority of your day. We can tolerate a mess for a couple hours each evening no problem, but you have to live in it. So the value in a neat and tidy home is much more apparent to you than it is to us.

      It is important to communicate. Because we can’t read each others’ minds. The only way for him to know how you feel or what you need is for you to tell him. And vice versa.

      I think you hit the nail on the head with the statement: “I find that it is best to try and support one another in our very different, but equally important roles, and try to help each other out the best we can.” Different but equally important. Everyone is stressed, everybody is tired. The best we can do is try to see it from the other person’s perspective, appreciate them, and give a little bit more if we can. If you want to be resentful, you don’t have to look too hard to find a reason to be. But if you choose to look past it, to find the positive and accentuate it, you will be happy.

      And you have to realize that everyone needs and deserves breaks, and those must be taken, by force if necessary. Even if it’s just to go run or punch a punching bag for 10 or 15 minutes. Or even just to vent your frustrations on, say, a blog (it feels better, doesn’t it? Get it out!)

      I just wanted to add that a lot of the pressure women feel is, I think, self-inflicted. You think your husband or friends or peers expect your home to be a certain way, your kids to be a certain way, the meals to be a certain way. Don’t do it. Especially when you have young kids, it’s all about survival. At the end of the day, as long as nobody gets hospitalized and the house doesn’t burn down, you can count it as a success. There is always tomorrow.

      Thanks for your thoughtful comments, DeAnne. Hang in there!

  2. Great thoughts Spencer! It’s always good to hear perspective from another man.
    ….simple minded….puppies….small children…I see it now 🙂
    I should add that no matter what, I would rather be working at home 24/7 than be working anywhere else in the world! With the challenges of being a full time mother/homemaker come rewards that outweigh those challenges exponentially.
    I also should make sure to mention that I have a wonderful, supportive husband who does a lot with our girls. A lot more than even some of my friends husband’s are willing to do. And I would never, ever want to trade places with him. I would never want to do the work that he does every day (law enforcement).
    Here’s to ‘equally’ supporting one another!

    • While I appreciate where these follow-up comments come from, I assure you that they are unnecessary. I never would have assumed you would want to do anything other than what you are doing, nor would I have assumed your husband is anything other than a great spouse and father. A freaking punk at times, as all men are. But great nonetheless.


    • Um. I am surprised you would ask this question, being that you are a man. I can only speak about the man I currently live with, and he would most definitely NOT respond to a sticker chore chart. I know him well enough to know that any sort of attempt in that direction would be foolishness on my part, and would certainly blow up in my face big time. Very counterproductive. Very.

      My kids on the other hand…Yes. I believe they would respond well. We have done a sticker chart for my oldest to encourage her to try new foods and it worked really well. Now that she is 5 and going to be starting Kindergarten, we are getting ready to implement some sort of child labor opportunities that will allow her to earn money, so she can then learn to manage money. It hasn’t happened yet, but I am positive a sticker chart will be involved.

      • What was the payoff? For the stickers? Like, with your kids? 10 stickers = a candy bar? A dollar? Depending on what reward the stickers indicated I, as a husband, could become VERY interested in a chore chart system!

  3. For Katelyn, it worked like this: We had a long list of “healthy” foods we wanted her to try. When she would try one she got to put a sticker on, but she also got to decide whether or not she liked the food. If she liked it, she would put the smiley face sticker right side up. If she didn’t like it, she would put the sticker upside down (I never found any frowny face stickers). Once she had tried all the foods at least once, she earned a trip to Chuck E Cheese’s with just mom and dad. It worked pretty well actually. I’d like to say we thought of the idea, but it was actually a counselor that suggested it to me.

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