A Speed-up in the Family
he is not the same woman in each magazine advertisement, but she is the same idea. She has that working-mother look as she strides forward, briefcase in one hand, smiling child in the other. Literally and figuratively, she is moving ahead. Her hair, if long, tosses behind her; if it is short, it sweeps back at the sides, suggesting mobility and progress. There is nothing shy or passive about her. She is confident, active, “liberated.” She wears a dark tailored suit, but with a silk bow or colorful frill that says, “I’m really feminine underneath.” She has made it in a mans world without sacrificing her femininity. And she has done this on her own. By some personal miracle, this image suggests, she has managed to combine what 150 years of industrialization have split wide apart—child and job, frill and suit, female culture and male.
When I showed a photograph of a supermom like this to the working mothers I talked to in the course of researching this book, many responded with an outright laugh. One day-care worker and mother of two, ages three and five, threw back her head: “Ha! TheyVe got to be kidding about her. Look at me, hair a mess, nails jagged, twenty pounds overweight. Mornings, I’m getting my kids dressed, the dog fed, the lunches made, the shopping list done. That ladys got a maid.” Even working mothers who did have maids couldn’t imagine combining work and family in such a carefree way: “Do you know what a baby does to your life, the two
o’clock feedings, the four o’clock feedings?” Another mother of two said: “They don’t show it, but she’s whistling”—she imitated a whistling woman, eyes to the sky—“so she can’t hear the din.” They envied the apparent ease of the woman with the flying hair, but she didn’t remind them of anyone they knew.
The women I interviewed—lawyers, corporate executives, word processors, garment pattern cutters, day-care workers—and most of their husbands, too—felt differently about some issues: how right it is for a mother of young children to work a full-time job, or how much a husband should be responsible for the home. But they all agreed that it was hard to work two full-time jobs and raise young children. ‘ .
How well do couples do it? The more women work outside the home, the more central this question. The number of women in paid work has risen steadily since before the turn of the century, but since 1950 the rise has been staggering. In 1950, 30 percent of American women were in the labor force; by 2002, that had doubled to 60 percent. Over two-thirds of mothers, married or single, now work; in fact more mothers than non-mothers are in the workforce. Women now make up 47 percent of the labor force and two-job marriages now make up 63 percent of all marriages with children.
But the biggest rise by far has been among mothers with small children. In 1975, 45 percent of mothers with a youngest child between ages three and five were in the labor force; by 2000, 72 percent of such mothers were doing paid work. In 1975, 34 percent of mothers with children three and under were in the labor force, by 2000 that had risen to 61 percent. And it was the same story for mothers of children age one and under; that rate rose from 31 percent in 1976 to 58 percent in 2000.
Since more mothers of small children are now in the labor force, we might expect more to work part time. Instead, of all the mothers of children three and under who worked in 1990 and in 2001, 69 percent worked full time. And of all the moms of children one and under who worked in 1994, 66 percent worked full time; in 2001, that number had risen to 68 percent.1
If more mothers of young children are stepping into full-time jobs outside the home, and if most couples cant afford household help, how much more are fathers doing at home? As I began exploring this question I found many studies on the hours working men and women devote to housework and child care. One national random sample of 1,243 working parents in forty-four American cities, conducted in 1965-66 by Alexander Szalai and his coworkers, for example, found that working women averaged three hours a day on housework while men averaged 17 minutes; women spent fifty minutes a day of time exclusively with their children; men spent twelve minutes. On the other side of the coin, working fathers watched television an hour longer than their working wives, and slept a half hour longer each night. A comparison of this American sample with eleven other industrial countries in Eastern and Western Europe revealed the same difference between working women and working men in those countries as well.2 In a 1983 study of white middle-class families in greater Boston, Grace Baruch and R. C. Barnett found that working men married to working women spent only three-quarters of an hour longer each week with their kindergarten-aged children than did men married to housewives.3
Szalai s landmark study documented the now familiar but still alarming story of the working womans “double day,” but it left me wondering how men and women actually felt about all this. He and his coworkers studied how people used time, but not, say, how a father felt about his twelve minutes with his child, or how his wife felt about it. Szalai’s study revealed the visible surface of what I discovered to be a set of deeply emotional issues: What should a man and woman contribute to the family? How appreciated does each feel? How does each respond to subtle changes in the balance of marital power? How does each develop an unconscious “gender strategy” for coping with the work at home, with marriage, and, indeed, with life itself? These were the underlying issues.
But I began with the measurable issue of time. Adding together the time it takes to do a paid job and to do housework and child care, I averaged estimates from the major studies on time use done in the 1960s and 1970s, and discovered that women worked roughly fifteen hours longer each week than men. Over a year, they worked an extra month of twenty-four-hour days. Over a dozen years, it was an extra year of twenty-four-hour days. Most women without children spend much more time than men on housework; with children, they devote more time to both housework and child care. Just as there is a wage gap between men and women in the workplace, there is a “leisure gap” between them at home. Most women work one shift at the office or factory and a “second shift” at home.
Studies show that working mothers have higher self-esteem and get less depressed than housewives, but compared to their husbands, they re more tired and get sick more often. In Peggy Thoits’s 1985 analysis of two large-scale surveys, each of about a thousand men and women, people were asked how often in the preceding week they’d experienced each of twenty-three symptoms of anxiety (such as dizziness or hallucinations). According to the researchers’ criteria, working mothers were more likely than any other group to be “anxious.”
In light of these studies, the image of the woman with the flying hair seems like an upbeat “cover” for a grim reality, like those pictures of Soviet tractor drivers smiling radiantly into the distance as they think about the ten-year plan. The Szalai study was conducted in 1965-66.1 wanted to know whether the leisure gap he found in 1965 persists, or whether it has disappeared. Since most married couples work two jobs, since more will in the future, since most wives in these couples work the extra month a year, I wanted to understand what the wife’s extra month a year meant for each person, and what it does for love and marriage in an age of high divorce.