Sunday, May 27, 2012

Divisions of Labor (from the Archives)




When I was in undergrad, I took a class called "Sociology of Gender." It was only one semester long, so it wasn't in any way comprehensive, but it provided an interesting overview of how gender socialization- primarily based on apparent sex assignment- affects everything we do, from the language we use to the clothes we wear to the way we structure our lives. One discussion that still stands out in my mind, several years later, was one in which we discussed the implications of heterosexual marriage terms- specifically, referring to each other as "husband" and "wife." Our class brought up heterosexual domestic partnerships, and our professor cited a study- which I regret to say I can't find right now- in which heterosexual cohabiting partners tracked divisions of labour before and after choosing to have a formal marriage ceremony. The results were interesting: even when the partners had relatively equal divisions of labour prior to becoming formally married, their post-marital divisions tended to shift over time to mimic the divisions of labour displayed in heterosexual couples who had never cohabitated prior to marriage. Even more interesting was that this state, as you might guess, was one in which the female partner did upwards of 80% of the household labour. Let that sink in for a moment: even when a heterosexual couple had been fairly evenhanded when doing household chores for a decent portion of their shared history, that took a drastic slide after the relationship was formalized legally.

The reason I'm bringing this up is that, as a married person nowadays, I'm starting to see this trend in my own household. And I'm pissed.

Initially, we had an informal, verbal deal going: if you cook, I clean (and vice-versa). No dirty dishes in the sink overnight. We'll split chores while we're doing them on Saturday mornings. We can go grocery shopping together. Whoever's out of the bathroom first in the mornings will get lunches made (or, when my partner started working nights, it became simpler: I made lunch for his worknights, and he made it for my workdays). On and on, always with the recognition in mind that we both work full-time and both have interests beyond housework.

In the last six or so weeks, however, I've noticed that we've shifted away from this more-or-less equal division of labour and that I've been picking up the slack. When I get home from work, my first action is to head to the kitchen and start cutting up vegetables and packing away food for Nick to eat that night. In the mornings, Nick collapses into bed and I have to cajole him into getting up long enough to help me get ready- if he doesn't fall asleep immediately. I've been grocery shopping alone for the past six weeks. When our household goods arrived from Germany, Nick spent an hour or two helping me unpack and unload- and since then, I've been the one responsible for unpacking, arranging, assembling, and otherwise nesting. More often that not, regardless of who cooked, I find that I'm the one elbows-deep in soapsuds afterwards. In short, we've transitioned into the gendered patterns of behaviour that were observed by social scientists years ago: as the woman in this relationship, the domestic sphere is my responsibility.

Part of this, of course, falls under the same limitations as most studies. I've always been anal-retentive about keeping things clean (especially the kitchen) and I like to be in control in my home, while Nick has always been more laid-back. Having Nick on mids means that he's simply not awake on a timetable that makes many chores- particularly ones involving 9-5 business hours- feasible. In addition, while we work the same number of hours per pay period, my shifts are ten hours while his are twelve. It's thus understandable that, for the time period in which Nick works nights, I take on a bit more household responsibility than he does.

These factors, however, do not preclude a number of ways in which domestic chores could be more evenly divided. While many things might be difficult for Nick to do at night, others- scrubbing toilets, cooking bulk meals for the week, unpacking or cleaning on the first floor- are more than readily accommodated. The challenge, moreover, isn't that Nick is unwilling to do any of these things. Whenever we discuss household responsibilities, he's always ready to find ways to make a more even division of the chores. The challenge lies in who notices it first. Truth be told, the household division of labour is never addressed as an issue unless I'm feeling put upon- because Nick, as of yet, never winds up being the one taking on the bulk of the chores without comment.

As I mentioned, I'm much more "type A" than he is, and things like clutter and dust get under my skin long before they get under his. I wonder, though, how much this aspect of my personality is the result of being socialized to believe- however unconsciously- that these things are ultimately my job and a reflection on me as a person and as a woman, and not a result of some intrinsic trait. I find it interesting that the pile of ironing we started three weeks ago still hasn't been dealt with, even though we have equal numbers of shirts and pants in there that we need for work. I doubt that Nick looks at it and consciously decides not to do it because, as his wife, it's my job to keep the house clean and thus the ironing will be done without bothering him. Rather, I think he simply sees past it because- as the anal-retentive one in the relationship- I will be the one to take the initiative, iron the clothes, and get that chore out of the way first. The question I start asking, though, is: is there a difference between the two? Is there a difference between my partner- my husband- not doing the ironing because it's my wifely duty to do so, and my husband not doing the ironing because he's slowly becoming accustomed to his wife opting to do it first? In the long run, the end result is the same: the expectation evolves to be that I will take on the majority of household chores. The only difference is the underlying justification.

That raises another question for me. As a feminist in a marital relationship, how much activism is required to prevent such a slide from occurring? While I would love to think that Nick has had his consciousness raised to the point where he'll see the same patterns developing that I see, and thus proactively take on chores such as ironing to help prevent the gradual slide into chore inequality, the evidence suggests otherwise. It's a beautiful illustration of how subtle patterns of discrimination- for example, the ones that enhanced my need to keep a clean house- are far harder to spot when you're their beneficiary. Nick's behaviour may not be motivated by deliberate, conscious feelings of gender superiority, but in the end he won't be the first one to spot how gendered our household behaviour is. When I go crazy with the need to have unwrinkled clothes and just do the ironing with minimal comment, how much am I feeding into this division? Or, even more subtly, when I ask Nick to do the ironing, how much does that reinforce the idea that the running of the household- whether I do the chores or simply notice that they need to be done and assign them- is my responsibility? In addition, how much closer does that take me to the stereotype of the nagging shrew? How spectacular for patriarchal divisions of labour that women can't ask for equality without falling into yet another trap?

I don't mean to paint Nick as ill-intentioned in this post, or to say that he's opposed to an active effort to equalize household responsibilities. I do mean to point out, however, that this is an effort that I've had the greater burden of enforcing...and that, of the two of us, I have the most to lose.

Erica originally published this post last year.

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