Chore Wars

Men are now pulling their weight — at work and at home. So why do women still think they're slacking off?

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Photo-Illustrations by Peter Rad for TIME

If there was one time in my marriage when life felt the most unfair, it was during the witching hour. When our children were young and I was working from home, I would relieve our babysitter at 5 p.m. and start to feed and bathe our 3-year-old and 6-month-old and begin various pre-bedtime rituals. By 6 p.m., this thought would be running through my head: If my husband doesn't come home from the office soon to help, I'm going to lose my mind. By 7 p.m., my panic would turn to anger: Do I have to do everything? Each minute before his arrival seemed like an eternity, my task much more onerous than the pressure he was facing to make daily deadlines. Was our parenting arrangement altering my perception of time — and virtually guaranteeing that I'd be pissed off when he got home?

In a word, yes. My conviction that I carried a heavier load was validated by similar complaints from my female friends as well as scholarly books and morning TV shows, all reinforcing what has become a global notion that working women — and working mothers in particular — toil much more than their partners. But what we weren't seeing was that there was a mounting body of evidence that women were not, in fact, workhorse wives picking up their husbands' slack, that there are several variables in the dual-earner equation, debits as well as credits that need to be tallied in order to take a true measure of who does more. So does that mean my sense of injustice and that of so many other women have all been the result of an accounting error? Thankfully, it's not quite so simple. But the story of how a woman's double (or was it triple?) duty of paid work and housework and child care turned into a foregone conclusion even while the data have been telling us otherwise does begin with some math.

When women began to enter the workforce in large numbers in the 1970s, it seemed logical that one day husbands and wives would divide making money and taking care of the home in a 50-50 split. University of Chicago economist Gary Becker's 1965 theory of the allocation of time predicted it would happen, and he won a Nobel Prize. But that goal, as all of us non-Nobelists can attest, proved elusive. Maybe we simply put too much faith in the power of structural change absent family-friendly policies or were too naive about how deeply our gender norms for who does what inside the home were ingrained. At any rate, women joining the workforce soon faced a new challenge: to get their husbands to chip in more with the housework. That sometimes led to fights. No — that almost always led to fights. Women who found partners who ran the dishwasher at night and emptied it in the morning without being asked were viewed as the lucky exceptions. Women who had partners who cleared the table but then dumped the dishes into the sink were the norm. Feminism became known as "the movement that brought women more work," as the frustrated housewife of the 1950s and '60s became the equally frustrated wage-earning housewife of the '70s, '80s, '90s and 2000s. And all the bickering about who did what escalated. In a 2007 poll conducted by the Pew Research Center, 62% of married adults said "sharing household chores" was the third most important ingredient (after faithfulness and sex) in a successful marriage — up from 47% in a comparable study in 1990.

So a year and a half into a new decade, it may come as a surprise to you, as it did to me, to discover that on balance, husbands and wives have never before had such similar workloads. According to data just released by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, men and women in 2010 who were married, childless and working full time (defined by the BLS as more than 35 hours a week) had combined daily totals of paid and unpaid work — which is to say, work at the office and all the drudgery you have to do at home — that were almost exactly the same: 8 hr. 11 min. for men, 8 hr. 3 min. for women. For those who had children under the age of 18, women employed full time did just 20 min. more of combined paid and unpaid work than men did, the smallest difference ever reported. No, men were not doing the same amount of housework as women, but neither were women pulling the same number of hours at the office as men. (Husbands and wives who split everything down the line are as hard to find as the great white whale. In a 2009 analysis of results of the National Study of the Changing Workforce, Scott Hall at Ball State University found that only 9% of 810 people in dual-earner couples split everything. These couples are often parents who do blue collar shift work and cannot afford and are not at liberty to be flexible in their work hours.)

What's more, new research on working fathers indicates that they're the ones experiencing the most pressure. In a July report called, tellingly, The New Male Mystique, the Families and Work Institute surveyed 1,298 men and concluded that long hours and increasing job demands are conflicting with more exacting parenting norms. The institute had launched the survey to follow up on its 2008 finding that 60% of fathers said they were having a hard time managing the responsibilities of work and family, compared with only 47% of mothers in dual-earner couples. "Men are feeling enormous pressure to be breadwinners and involved fathers," says Ellen Galinsky, the institute's director. "Women expect more of men, and men expect more of themselves."

This report comes on the heels of a national survey of 963 fathers working at Fortune 500 companies, conducted by Boston College's Center for Work and Family and released in June, in which 57% of respondents agreed with the statement "In the past three months, I have not been able to get everything done at home each day because of my job." Brad Harrington, executive director of the Center for Work and Family, points out that men may be feeling particularly squeezed because they never anticipated having so much domestic responsibility. "It's a surprise for them. They weren't prepared that this would be expected of them, and they have no role models of how to do it," he says.

What these new findings mean is that the widespread belief that working mothers have it the worst — a belief that engenders an enormous amount of conflict between spouses — is simply not the open-and-shut case it once was. Quantitatively speaking, we have no grounds to stand on. And it's time that women — myself included — admit it and move on.

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