Several years ago, I volunteered for a nonprofit on a task force focused on tackling work/life balance through public policy in New York City. If that task seems daunting to you, then you would be correct. Through research, we very quickly realized that work/life balance was a multi-issue problem that cannot be easily solved through a few policies. One of my fellow task force members, a second wave feminist, said, “We just all need wives to get things done.” Most of my fellow task force members were public policy wonks so they focused on the problems of family care and breastfeeding accommodations in the workplace. I agreed with the direction but I was more interested in tackling how the imbalance of housework within heterosexual household relates to work/life balance.
(I am sure that households with homosexual couples and/trans individuals also experience problems with balancing work and life. However, I am going to focus on the distribution of work within heterosexual households.)
I am a Xennial (or an Elder Millennial) which means that I was born in the early 80s. Feminism was taught to me through society as women “doing it all.” Strong women went to work wearing large shoulder pads and sneakers on the street. Their houses were clean as they headed up the corporate ladder. Their kids behaved well. They were also great wives. As someone who attended an evangelical Christian church in the 90s, I learned that the ideal woman followed the example of the Proverbs 31 Virtuous Woman, who literally did it all. She clothed and fed her family while managing several businesses. No easy feat in biblical times. I remember someone asking the question back then about the Virtuous Woman’s husband daily activities. According to the scripture, he sat at the gates chatting with the elders all day. Hmm. That didn’t seem right.
Somewhere in the mid-90s, my parents divorced and a whole bunch of people I know also became children of divorce. Our Baby Boomer mothers had realized that they couldn’t do it all. And they were married to men who expected them to work outside and inside the home without any reciprocation from their husbands. Those men were still making more money than their wives due to unequal pay. They were still king of the castle as far as they were concerned.
At some point in my adolescence, I realized that no one told boys what was expected of them. There was a pretty silly 1980s movie with Michael Keaton called Mr. Mom. That movie poked fun at a dad who was a clueless stay-at-home dad. It is presented as a hilarious impossibility. Even in 2019, the idea of a stay-at-home dad gets some skepticism.
In my research, I got to see how much this imbalance of distribution in housework costs women. One of the biggest costs is that experience career stagnation because they do not seem committed to their jobs. They typically have to take on lesser paying, stagnant roles to be able to have the time to pick up their sick kid from school if they need to. Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In outlines these problems well but gives problematic solutions. It really is just an updated version of “do it all” ethos. But her book, which I read while I was researching for the task force, suggested that women find a partner who is willing to help with home responsibilities. I agree with her there.
Where do we find these guys that Sandberg talks about? According to my research, guys that work in female-dominated fields. For example, men who work as teachers, nurses, and designers tend to do more housework. Unfortunately, the researchers assumed that those men take on housework because they don’t make a ton of money. That’s a pretty sexist assumption. Maybe those guys are a bit more understanding of women which is probably why they chose an unpopular field for a man to go into. Research also shows that women have heavily moved into male-dominated fields but men haven’t done the same with so-called “pink collar” fields.
Who normalizes housework for men in our society? Technically, it should be your parents. But if you grew up in Gen X and later, most likely your working mother did not have the time to teach you this. And you probably got the message that men were not supposed to take part in chores. Oh yeah, men mowed the lawn and barbequed but cleaning wasn’t in their purview. Both men and women born in Gen X and later suffer from not being taught simple household chores.
We ask for equality in the workplace but that equality originates in the home. My research led me to find that men don’t perform household chores as often because their partners disapproved of their capability. Honestly, as someone who is in a relationship with a man and has lived with male roommates, I would say that their cleaning abilities are lacking. What I learned from that study was to praise rather than complain [nag] if I want my partner to share in the housework. Which is an irritating compromise when you are scrubbing a supposedly clean dish because there is food still clinging to it.
The panacea as I see it to all of this is to bring back Home Economics or Family Consumer Sciences. Yes, the class that was barred by second-wave feminism because it was essentially teaching women to be a wife. Those second-wave feminists had no idea that home economics was a part of the first wave of feminism at the beginning of the 20th Century. Back then female activists started looking at managing the home in a scientific way. Home economics is the reason that you know to wash your hands before you prepare food. Imagine a world in which people did not know basic hygiene, cleaning, and child-rearing that nowadays we think of as common sense. That was the world in which our great-grandparents were born. And maybe even our grandparents. Home Ec is focused on making the home more economical or rather more efficient. Marie Kondo’s organization teachings come from this scientific approach to the home. Instead of burying home ec in shame, we should have embraced it for all students. Japan, with it’s high-ranking education system, has been teaching students life skills since the 1940s to encourage gender equality in the home. In the United States home ec is offered (if offered at all) in middle school or high school. By contrast in Japan, life skills are included as part of the curriculum from 5th grade through high school. All children learn how to cook, clean, launder, organize, give childcare, and budget. In other words, they learn how to adult.
If we had life skills in school then maybe we wouldn’t have memes shared around the internet stating, “Can’t adult today.” Maybe school would be more engaging for people who see school as full of useless subjects. Just maybe we could have a healthier population because more of us will know how to cook. And maybe boys would know what was expected of them when they become men. Also, women can have the opportunity to move up in their careers and really get to “have it all.”