If households have gained notoriety as sites of consumption—wasteful or otherwise—Americans commonly think of household production as a thing of the past. Perhaps Grandma and Grandpa ran a farm or a store, goes the thought, but now everyone travels elsewhere to produce. That idea rests on a mistaken equation of production with paid employment and/or sale of a product in outside markets. As we saw earlier, in fact, plenty of paid employment does occur within households; specialized care workers provide their services to household members, mothers take in other people’s children for paid day care, and employed people work at home. But the bulk of household production takes place without direct monetary compensation. Unpaid personal care, food preparation, repair and maintenance of clothing, pet and plant care, home improvements, housecleaning, financial record keeping, automobile maintenance, yard work, children’s school homework, parental supervision of that homework, sending out family news, and driving household members from one
activity to another all belong to household production. Put together, they absorb a large share of contemporary Americans’ efforts.
We have already encountered household production repeatedly, most obviously in the frenzied workdays of immigrant caregivers. We have seen plenty of evidence that household work divides along lines of gender and age, with substantial inequalities in both regards. Spouses often struggle over that division of labor, as do parents, children, and other household members. In working out household divisions of labor, indeed, people are defining their relations more generally—establishing rights, obligations, and definitions of relative worth that organize household life. Moreover, despite the absence of wages in the strict sense, households establish systems of reward and punishment for participation in household work. In the short run, gifts, loans, allowances, and household budgets build monetary transfers into those systems. In the longer run, households work out rules of reciprocity, including claims on household assets. In this way, households establish production economies as complex as those of many a commercial firm.
Many households, furthermore, build commercial activity directly into their daily operations. Spouses and children of executives and officials find themselves participating in the employed member’s public activities. Parents organize the participation of their children in contests, competitions, and part-time jobs. People in sales, finance, editing, and various forms of writing sometimes work out of their home. And a surprising number of households—espe – cially immigrant households—run family businesses. In all these cases, commercial relationships do not simply transect and influence household relationships; they become household relationships.
Instead of surveying the whole complex range of household production, let us settle for two illustrations of these general points: age and gender differences in household work and children’s participa
tion in household production. In both cases, by now the main points should be recognizable:
• Households operate as small economies, with significant divisions of labor.
• Within households, intimate relations and economic relations coincide.
• Household members match meaningful relations with appropriate economic transactions and media.
• Because these relations significantly affect household members’ individual and collective fates, members repeatedly negotiate with each other over the proper definitions of their rights and obligations, sometimes breaking into rancor and open struggle.
• The frequent presence of third parties to any such negotiation—children, parents, paid helpers, kin—makes the interplay among household members more complex and consequential than in ordinary paired relationships.
As anyone who has ever lived in a household knows, both age and gender mark the division of domestic production: helpful children clean their rooms; studious children prepare their homework; parents drive the kids to sports competitions or music lessons; grandparents babysit their grandchildren and also help their grown children with errands or housework; wives clean, plan and cook meals, shop for groceries, wash dishes, do laundry, and hire the nanny or the maid; husbands help out with some of the same activities but typically specialize in taking out the garbage, yard work, car care, and household repairs.
On the whole, gender differences in household production have attracted more attention than age, kinship, and generational differences. Feminist critics have observed, puzzled, and fumed over persistent inequities in the allocation of household labor between men and women. A wide variety of studies document what Arlie Hochschild identifies as the “second shift” (Hochschild 1989) and what Kathleen Gerson calls the “housework gap” (Gerson 1993). Women do a disproportionate share of the labor that goes into maintaining and reproducing a household’s daily life: cleaning, cooking, repairing, caring, transporting, maintaining contact with kin and friends, and monitoring the household’s means of existence (Daniels 1987; Di Leonardo 1987). For contemporary American households, a series of striking observations recur: the box on page 244 summarizes standard findings from household studies.
What accounts for such patterns? Analysts of these findings disagree sharply over their explanations: sexism, tradition, power struggles, labor market gender discrimination, economic efficiency, gender ideology, and sheer time available outside of work all compete for recognition as fundamental causes. Since similar struggles and inequalities often occur in same-sex households, however, some share of these patterns must result from household dynamics as such rather than from general features of male-female relations (Carrington 1999; Sullivan 2004). But for present purposes, findings and explanations converge on this book’s basic point: in organizing their economic activities, household members are actually negotiating the significance of relations among themselves.
These debates, furthermore, are not just esoteric academic disputes. They correspond to day-by-day struggles within households. But when it comes to practical advice on how to handle domestic work equitably, commentators ordinarily minimize household dynamics and turn the problem into a question of personal and individual strategy. How do you get a husband to pitch in more often or more effectively? How much should you do around the house to satisfy your wife’s requests? Often the solution hinges on negotiating skills and assertiveness. For Linda Babcock and Sara Laschever, a key obstacle to gender equality is women’s reluctance to ask: “Women don’t ask. They don’t ask for raises and promotions and better job opportunities. They don’t ask for recognition for the work they do. They don’t ask for more help at home” (Babcock and Laschever 2003: ix). If women are to balance the increasing demands of the workplace and family, they urgently need to become skilled negotiators. “Seeing the home as an arena in which negotiation plays an important role,” the authors conclude, “can enable both men and women to start thinking more creatively and more fairly
about ways to share their household responsibilities” (183). Individual negotiation matters more than political ideology or social scientific analysis.
How-to books of household management gesture in the same direction. For instance, in Just Kiss Me and Tell Me You Did the Laundry, Karen Bouris offers numerous guidelines for mediating couples’ “chore wars” over which spouse is expected to perform what household task. To first determine the level of existing inequality, she provides a “housework quiz” that easily reveals the current “domestic dominator” by asking questions such as these: “Where are the mop, the children’s Tylenol, and emergency numbers for the babysitter?” “Without looking, how much laundry detergent, dishwashing liquid, and milk do you have in the house?” “When is the car due for an oil change?” (Bouris 2004: 192). For Bouris, individual consciousness looms large in fair settlement of domestic chore wars. “Developing awareness and mental responsibility,” she notes, “may require a major personality paradigm shift that takes years to fully develop” (198).
A return to the households of the Vermont family day-care providers discussed earlier displays concrete evidence of gender as well as age differences in domestic production. In these households, women’s earnings bolstered their say within the home. At the same time, however, in order to protect masculine pride, husbands and wives minimized the significance of the women’s income for household survival. Both points underscore the interplay of household economic activity and gender relations. When it came to the Vermont couples’ division of housework, both husbands and wives treated the fact that women worked at home as opportunity and justification for the women to take on a disproportionate share of housework. Surprisingly, women themselves sometimes interpreted day care as something other than work. Meg Garber, one of Margaret Nelson’s respondents, explained why she did all the housework: “Seven days out of the week, I’m the one who does it. … If I were working he would help” (Nelson 1990: 138). Furthermore, spouses usually maintained a traditional gender division of labor, most commonly women performed work inside the house while men took on the outside duties. As one woman noted: “I don’t do anything outdoors. I never ever have. And he’s the one that keeps the outside looking good so I basically do all the inside” (136).
Finally, in her conversations with providers, Nelson discovered an interesting distinction in gender relations between women who contributed relatively small and relatively large parts of household income. Modest contributors, she reports, had to request help from their husbands for any household work, whereas larger contributors could more confidently claim that help as an entitlement (for similar observations, see Grasmuck and Pessar 1992). Indeed, in the extreme cases, wives recruited their husbands to help with the care of their clients’ children.
In the same households, mothers also established economic relations with their children. Many of the women, for instance, reported their children’s household duties. Others, confident that work responsibilities taught children valuable skills, recruited their teenagers to assist with day-care duties, sometimes hiring them for pay. When the caregivers’ children themselves had children, an interesting new set of negotiations often occurred. The grandmother and her adult children had to decide whether or not the children should pay for their children’s care. Not all households ended up with the same arrangement; of the four grandmothers Nelson interviewed, one took care of her grandchild for free, two charged a lower rate, and the fourth collected the full amount.