Musings on (Working) Motherhood: What if you could do less housework?
I’m staying at mum’s house for ten days. Mum is a four hour plane flight away from us, and regularly spends time with us (for a few weeks at a time) and I take the kids to her place about three times a year. When she’s with us, it’s great, but I still feel that I am running a household. She helps out a lot with childcare, and recently has been doing my laundry and a bit of cleaning, but she leaves the business of organising our weekly routine and meals to me. As a result, I am often in the kitchen cooking for five people, while she entertains the kids in her room. Lots of laughter in Mum’s room, and not much in the kitchen I can tell you!
When I’m at Mum’s, it’s like being at a resort. She immediately takes over all the household stuff. My laundry, and the kids’ laundry, is washed and folded. Meals are taken care of. Cleaning up after meals – done. Grocery shopping – done. All I really have to do is be with the kids – and even this is shared between us, though admittedly she has less time to spend with them when she is busy cooking, doing the grocery shopping, and vacuuming.
We’ve only just got here and I am immediately more relaxed. I am enjoying the children and have infinitely more patience (and time) to just be with them. Yesterday we sat at the piano and they both pounded the keys and laughed heartily. I laughed too. We sat outside in the afternoon and they both enjoyed some waterplay while I enjoyed a quiet sunny moment. Today I suggested they make a mountain of cushions on the floor and roll around. Which they loved. We sat on the couch together and cuddled. I never laugh with them like this at home. Usually my days “off” begin with laundry, cleaning up in the kitchen, breakfast and cleanup, lunch and cleanup, folding and keeping of the laundry, preparing dinner… The repetition and drudgery depresses and irritates me, and the kids get cranky and the baby starts crying when I don’t spend quality time with them. Which I don’t when I’m sweeping the crumbs off the floor for the umpteenth time. And their crankiness and crying irritates me even more. By the end of the day I am wishing I had gone to work instead.
I often wonder – what if you could outsource all the non-mother bits to someone else? You know, the stuff that doesn’t define motherhood. After all, doesn’t everyone have to do laundry, cook meals, pay the bills – regardless of whether or not they are a parent? Would this make being a working mother, or a mother in any case, an easier and happier experience?
Working mothers are often seen as taking on a “double burden”, with the majority of housework still being done by women, regardless of employment status. Is this fair?! we might ask. Shouldn’t men chip in, do more, now that we have achieved “equal rights”? Wouldn’t doing less housework mean that the path to work-life balance is smoother?
The evidence suggests otherwise. Researchers who hypothesised that having a partner who did not share housework responsibilities would increase work-family conflict – but then found this to be untrue. Additionally, studies indicate that men are actually doing more housework than before (compared to, say, the 1970s) and women are doing less! Yes, ladies, I fear I am going to be rather unpopular with you and more popular with the men after posting this, but hear me out….
Despite an increased participation by men in domestic duties and decrease in women’s absolute and relative participation, women’s sense work-family conflict has not decreased as a result. (However, our free time has decreased proportionately more…) Does this point to (gasp) the fact that we expect too much? Should we, instead of seeking to outsource and do less, change our mindset instead?
Studies suggest that increased domestic work done by men will only decrease work-family conflict if the woman feels satisfied. And this satisfaction needs to come from us, as men are actually feeling more obligated to help us out, and are following through with their intentions. But, it seems, this isn’t enough for us. Perhaps we feel resentful that we still shoulder the majority of the domestic duties (cooking, shopping, cleaning, childcare) – this is certainly the case across all countries, that women still do the vast majority of housework and caring, decades after the feminist revolution. Where’s our equality, we say!
Here, I am going to present a few thoughts that may be unpopular, but just consider them for a wee moment:
- Gender differences exist, despite the feminist ideals that we all grew up with. Men and women are fundamentally different. And women do expect men to “be a man”, but increasingly we are refusing to behave like women. Oh, I don’t mean by wielding a broom, but we certainly aren’t the gentler sex sometimes. We can be crude, aggressive, hostile, generally unpleasant, but men are still expected to bring us flowers and pay us compliments. (Cue aplopectic fit from most of you regarding gender stereotypes… but… you know this is true!)
- Over and over again, the research shows that it is not actually women’s absolute participation in domestic duties, but the attitude that is adopted, that determines happiness and work-family conflict. For example, in countries like Portugal and Greece where women traditionally do almost all housework, and where women spend far more hours doing housework than women in other European countries, and the prevailing sentiment is that this is what women do, the burden of unpaid domestic labour does not decrease happiness or increase work-family conflict.
- Conversely, in countries like France where there is a discrepancy between expectations in the home and broader societal values such as liberty and equality (with French men contributing very little to domestic duties), housework increases work-family conflict. In fact, when we look at it carefully, French women’s high rates of participation in the workforce (the majority of them work full-time) are a result of careful national policies to encourage French women to have more babies rather than an expression of equal rights for women.
- Despite advances in life circumstances for women over the past few decades (increase participation in the workforce, financial freedom, increased educational attainment, decrease in housework time due to electrical appliances) women are unhappier than before (“The Paradox of declining female happiness”).
- The “Set Point theory of happiness” proposes that beyond a certain point, an increase in positive circumstances (eg more money) does not produce a corresponding increase in happiness. Authors of a 2010 paper entitled “Happiness, Housework and Gender Inequality in Europe” suggest that “the reason why the level of adaptation differs with respect to life domains is found by considering different reactions of individuals’ aspirations to changes in life events. When aspirations and actual circumstances change in tandem (as it often seems to be case for upward movements in income), one typically observes complete adaptation where individuals return to the original set point of happiness“. That is, we expect more and more, and hence we aren’t any happier.
- Tax-deductible domestic outsourcing in France (yes, this actually exists!!!) was taken up by surprisingly few working families (15%), indicating that the majority of domestic duties still need to be performed on a daily basis by someone in the household, and that women in France did not see this as an enormous improvement to their lifestyles.
So, for those of you who have recovered from your post-modern feminist apoplectic fit (hey, I am as feminist as all of you, but keep an open mind) here is what I propose…
That managing work-family conflict may be a product of expectations and mindset rather than actual practical circumstances. That reducing the time we spend on caring for children and housework may not increase our well-being or happiness, if we are grumpy and resentful. That harping on about how we shouldn’t be doing housework isn’t helpful to anyone. Everyone has to do housework. Men do more than they used to. We do less, but still do most of it. Period. Someone will always do more, so let’s get on with it. Men, we appreciate your help, and please don’t stop helping us out. We promise to be more grateful, if you promise not to say inflammatory things like “Isn’t that your job?” or assume that you can put your feet up while we bath the kids every night. (This is NOT your licence to be a pig!) Most of all, we want you to see us as more than a housekeeper. And we will try to behave less like a harried housekeeper and more like a happy woman who enjoys caring for her family while also enjoying the personal satisfaction of pursuing a career and bringing in an income. I’ll call this the Working Mummy’s Mindset. We should avoid the Set Point Happiness effect, and be grateful for our life now, with all its improved opportunities, and stop raising our expectations far beyond what is helpful (like not doing any housework or childcare, ever). I am not saying that men shouldn’t help with domestic chores. My point is that this doesn’t seem to the the key to happiness for women (despite what we think…) and certainly isn’t the key to having a better work-life balance. I’ll expand more on what will increase balance in the weeks and months to come so stay with me! You can bet I’m still going to outsource as much as I can (me, iron?!) and take my little holidays at Mum’s place… :)