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

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The group that has benefited the most from women's entering the workforce is, ironically, stay-at-home mothers, whose husbands are doing more child care as a result of the larger cultural shift toward involved fatherhood and who now stand out as uniquely low in their total workload. Among married couples with children under 6, Bianchi's analysis shows, nonemployed mothers spend only 10 more hours a week on child care than moms with full-time jobs. "In terms of gender equality, it's paradoxical that upper-middle-class women have the highest rates of employment and yet they're the ones that are bearing the biggest brunt of these intensive child-rearing norms," says Paula England, a sociology professor at New York University. And they compensate for this larger time commitment to children by scaling back their work hours — from, say, a 45-hour workweek to a 40-hour one. So the first shift decreases, but not in a way that leaves them at liberty.

The result is that working women now have a greater perception of being overworked, even as the total workloads of the sexes have been trending toward convergence. Why do we feel we're doing so much more than our partners? "Some things that you're orchestrating might not take up a lot of time, but they do take up mental energy," notes Bianchi, who is now at UCLA. Time diaries don't take into account the stress women feel from being household managers, keeping that precisely calibrated family schedule in their heads at all times or knowing what's for dinner, what ingredients are required and their exact location in the refrigerator.

The Myth of the Slacker Dad

What's clear from the latest round of data is that men and women alike work hard and feel work-family conflict, although that conflict manifests itself in different ways. "For working fathers, work interferes with family more than family interferes with work," says Harrington of Boston College's Center for Work and Family. "They're working more hours and carrying more responsibility, so it's natural that they would feel more career pressure." Harrington also points out that the workplace makes fewer accommodations for fathers than for mothers. "When women come back to work after a baby is born, there's an expectation that she'll have to make compromises, but the men in our survey felt that there was no way that their managers expected less of them as a result of having a child. So there's a conflict between a father's responsibility to his family and to the workplace, there's a conflict between his spouse's expectations and what he can deliver, and there's a conflict between his own career aspirations and being an ideal parent." All those competing pressures may account for why 65% of working fathers in Harrington's survey believed that partners should provide equal amounts of care but only 30% of fathers reported that caregiving is actually equal.

Researchers are also discovering differences in how men and women experience time, especially free time. Liana Sayer, a sociologist at Ohio State University, and Marybeth Mattingly, now at the University of New Hampshire, found that whereas in 1975 free time reduced feelings of being rushed for men and women alike, by 1998 it no longer reduced time pressure for women. Not only do women report having less free time than men now, but also the quality of that free time has worsened. "We suspect that it has to do with shifts in how women are spending their free time, which is increasingly devoted to a blend of child care and leisure activities," says Sayer, who notes that this leads to leisure's being "contaminated" by less pleasurable activities or "fragmented" by interruptions — when you're reading on the couch, say, and get called away every 15 minutes to referee a squabble or find a missing Lego piece or administer a snack. According to the University of Maryland's time-diary studies — which, unlike the BLS's, collected data on tasks occurring simultaneously — in 1975, mothers combined 25% of their child-care activities with leisure activities. By 1998, that had risen to 50%. And even the most dedicated mother would probably admit that there's a qualitative difference between having an adults-only meal with friends and going out for pizza with those same friends and a bunch of kids.

The gender inequity that persists, then, is in access to high-quality leisure time, which, for whatever reasons, men seem more able to claim — and protect from contamination — than women. The obvious cost of this leisure deficit is that women have less opportunity to relax in a way that recharges their batteries. This is a real grievance that needs to be addressed, but women also have to acknowledge all the work that men are doing and take comfort in the fact that short-term imbalances, especially after childbirth, can — and should — be renegotiated over the course of a marriage, as long as neither partner gets too entrenched in a particular role. For the good news is that the longer a wife stays employed, the more her husband is likely to chip in at home. And the older the kids get, the less time they need. Mothers of 14- and 15-year-olds spend only about 13 min. more a day on unpaid labor than young childless women. Free time increases too — once the kids are all grown up — with mothers of adult children clocking amounts of leisure time similar to those of young women without children. I'll bet, however, that the moms enjoy it much, much more.

Will the notion of the working woman's second shift ever get laid to rest? It would certainly help if men as well as women would take their feet slightly off the gas pedal of their careers when their children are very young. But the second shift has also become something of an idée fixe, a chronic lament that makes change seem impossible and locks men and women into a perpetual stalemate. As sociologist Joseph Pleck points out, "Inequity in the gender division of labor gets rediscovered in pop culture every seven to 10 years as a new generation of women enters early parenthood and that's the issue that they see." As for the book that put a name to the source of this conflict, it too has had several lives. The Second Shift was reissued in 2003 and will be updated and reissued again in January. "Penguin called me up and said, 'Hey, this is still hot,'" says Hochschild.

I came into this story wanting, more than anything else, to find a way to escape the feeling — I was about to say of oppression, but maybe it's more exhaustion — that I have when I leave work each day and face all that needs to be done at home. I never realized that one solution was staring me in the face: Don't go home so early! "As long as women pull back on paid work, they enable men not to, so it gets to be a vicious cycle," says Bianchi.

My kids are now out of diapers and go to bed later, and the babysitter stays until 7 p.m. I'm back to working longer hours in an office, which has actually had the biggest impact, more than any amount of asking, pleading, goading or yelling, in increasing my husband's already significant involvement at home. The witching hour is a little bit later, but now, more often than not, it's on his time, not mine.

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