Inside the Extra Month a Year
The women I interviewed seemed to be far more deeply torn between the demands of work and family than were their husbands. They talked with more animation and at greater length than their husbands about the abiding conflict between them. Busy as they were, women more often brightened at the idea of yet another interviewing session. They felt the second shift was their issue and most of their husbands agreed. When I telephoned one husband to arrange an interview with him, explaining that I wanted to ask him about how he managed work and family life, he replied genially, “Oh, this will really interest my wife.”
It was a woman who first proposed to me the metaphor, borrowed from industrial life, of the “second shift.” She strongly resisted the idea that homemaking was a “shift.” Her family was her life and she didn’t want it reduced to a job. But as she put it, “You’re on duty at work. You come home, and you’re on duty. Then you go back to work arid you’re on duty.” After eight hours of adjusting insurance claims, she came home to put on the rice for dinner, care for her children, and wash laundry. Despite her resistance, her home life felt like a second shift. That was the real story and that was the real problem.
Men who shared the load at home seemed just as pressed for time as their wives, and as torn between the demands of career and small children, as the stories of Michael Sherman and Art Winfield will show. But the majority of men did not share the load at home. Some refused outright. Others refused more passively, often offering a loving shoulder to lean on, an understanding ear as their working wife faced the conflict they both saw as hers. At first it seemed to me that the problem of the second shift was hers. But I came to realize that those husbands who helped very little at home were often indirectly just as deeply affected as their wives by the need to do that work, through the resentment their wives feel toward them, and through their need to steel themselves against that resentment. Evan Holt, a warehouse furniture salesman described in Chapter 4, did very little housework and played with his four-year-old son, Joey, at his convenience. Juggling the demands of work with family at first seemed a problem for his wife. But Evan himself suffered enormously from the side effects of “her” problem. His wife did the second shift, but she resented it keenly, and half-consciously expressed her frustration and rage by losing interest in sex and becoming overly absorbed with Joey. One way or another, most men I talked with do suffer the severe repercussions of what I think is a transitional phase in American family life.
One reason women took a deeper interest than men in the problems of juggling work with family life is that even when husbands happily shared the hours of work, their wives felt more responsible for home and children. More women kept track of doctors’ appointments and arranged for playmates to come over. More mothers than fathers worried about the tail on a child’s Halloween costume or a birthday present for a school friend. They were more likely to think about their children while at work and to check in by phone with the baby-sitter.
Partly because of this, more women felt torn between one sense of urgency and another, between the need to soothe a child’s fear of being left at day-care, and the need to show the boss she’s “serious” at work. More women than men questioned how good they were as parents, or if they did not, they questioned why they weren’t questioning it. More often than men, women alternated between living in their ambition and standing apart from it.
As masses of women have moved into the economy, families have been hit by a “speed-up” in work and family life. There is no more time in the day than there was when wives stayed home, but there is twice as much to get done. It is mainly women who absorb this “speed-up.” Twenty percent of the men in my study shared housework equally. Seventy percent of men did a substantial amount (less than half but more than a third), and 10 percent did less than a third. Even when couples share more equitably in the work at home, women do two-thirds of the daily jobs at home, like cooking and cleaning up—jobs that fix them into a rigid routine. Most women cook dinner and most men change the oil in the family car. But, as one mother pointed out, dinner needs to be prepared every evening around six o’clock, whereas the car oil needs to be changed every six months, any day around that time, any time that day. Women do more child-care than men, and men repair more household appliances. A child needs to be tended daily while the repair of household appliances can often wait “until I have time.” Men thus have more control over when they make their contributions than women do. They may be very busy with family chores but, like the executive who tells his secretary to “hold my calls,” the man has more control over his time. The job of the working mother, like that of the secretary, is usually to “take the calls.”
Another reason women may feel more strained than men is that women more often do two things at once—for example, write checks and return phone calls, vacuum and keep an eye on a three – year-old, fold laundry and think out the shopping list. Men more often cook dinner or take a child to the park. Indeed, women more often juggle three spheres—job, children, and housework—while most men juggle two—job and children. For women, two activities compete with their time with children, not just one.
Beyond doing more at home, women also devote proportionately more of their time at home to housework and proportionately less of it to child-care. Of all the time men spend working at home, more of it goes to child-care. That is, working wives spend relatively more time “mothering the house”; husbands spend more time “mothering” the children. Since most parents prefer to tend to their children than clean house, men do more of what they’d rather do. More men than women take their children on “fun” outings to the park, the zoo, the movies. Women spend more time on maintenance, such as feeding and bathing children, enjoyable activities to be sure, but often less leisurely or “special” than going to the zoo. Men also do fewer of the “undesirable” household chores: fewer wash toilets and scrub the bathroom.
As a result, women tend to talk more intently about being overtired, sick, and “emotionally drained.” Many women I could not tear away from the topic of sleep. They talked about how much they could “get by on” … six and a half, seven, seven and a half, less, more. They talked about who they knew who needed more or less. Some apologized for how much sleep they needed—“Fm afraid I need eight hours of sleep”—as if eight was “too much.” They talked about the effect of a change in baby-sitter, the birth of a second child, or a business trip on their child’s pattern of sleep. They talked about how to avoid fully waking up when a child called them at night, and how to get back to sleep. These women talked about sleep the way a hungry person talks about food.
All in all, if in this period of American history, the two-job family is suffering from a speed-up of work and family life, working mothers are its primary victims. It is ironic, then, that often it falls to women to be the “time and motion expert” of family life. Watching inside homes, I noticed it was often the mother who rushed children, saying, “Hurry up! Its time to go,” “Finish your cereal now,” “You can do that later,” “Lets go!” When a bath was crammed into a slot between 7:45 and 8:00 it was often the mother who called out, “Lets see who can take their bath the quickest!” Often a younger child will rush out, scurrying to be first in bed, while the older and wiser one stalls, resistant, sometimes resentful: “Mother is always rushing us.” Sadly enough, women are more often the lightning rods for family aggressions aroused by the speed-up of work and family life. They are the “villains” in a process of which they are also the primary victims. More than the longer hours, the sleeplessness, and feeling torn, this is the saddest cost to women of the extra month a year.