What Does Division of Labor Look Like In Your Household?

How feminist are we really?

This year, my son turned six, and I had a crisis of motherhood. Which is weird, because I thought that sort of self-questioning was supposed to be reserved for parents of infants.

But after his transitional kindergarten year at a Title 1 school where most families were overworked and underpaid, my kid started kindergarten at a (still Title 1) public school, but one that had an increasingly large subset of upper middle class families #gentrification. And then the email requests started coming. They were really important requests, on behalf of a school district that is overloaded and underfunded. They included a weekly hour spent collating papers for teachers, chaperoning field trips, providing extra classroom support, greeting families when they arrive at school, attending committee meetings, and much more. There were so many requests, and they all were for such a good cause… and yet. I couldn’t do much with them, because I work from nine to five, and the vast majority of activities they needed help with took place during the workday, or when I was madly getting ready for the workday, with some taking place when I was exhausted at the end of a workday.

As the requests kept coming, other mothers kept stepping up to the plate. And I didn’t. Couldn’t, really. I wrote checks—and we all know money is really important in these situations. But I had to decline one volunteer opportunity after another. I increasingly felt overwhelmed, guilty, and not good enough. Everybody else worked nine to five! And yet they could volunteer so much time at school! What was I doing wrong?

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The funny thing was, when I talked to David, he had none of the same guilt. “I work,” he said. “I can’t volunteer at school in the middle of the day. You work too. Why do you feel bad?” And the answer was, I felt bad because it seemed like so many other moms were doing all this work at school (and y’all, it’s important work), and working full time jobs, and I just couldn’t seem to figure it out. That saying that is all over Pinterest? That we expect womxn to work like they don’t have kids, and raise their kids like they don’t work? It’s true. And it’s an impossible standard that none of us can live up to.

How Egalitarian Are We, Really?

But also, I started realizing that the way we present as egalitarian families who have moved past traditional division of labor is not always the way we live. After you get through lack of maternity leaves, lack of affordable childcare and preschool, the fact that men statistically out-earn womxn, and the way we punish résumé gaps, we are not always able to live out feminist ideals in the way we imagined that we would. We’re often left with a situation where, in a mixed gender household, the dad makes the bulk of the income, and the mom is the primary person managing kids and the home. Sometimes this is a choice womxn really want to make; sometimes it’s one womxn feel stuck with. But regardless, it’s not the way we’re told it should be, so it’s not the story we tell.

Fun fact. Studies show that even among couples that expect an equal division of labor when they get married, womxn shoulder much more of the burden after kids arrive. There are so many reason this happens. Public policy. Society-wide ideas of gender roles that we can’t escape. Decisions we make.

All of this leads me back to this question: How equal is the division of labor in our households, really? When we drop the front that we live in a brave new feminist age, do we really? Or are womxn still shouldering most of the household and child-rearing burden, while men escape the house and make most of the money? What’s really happening behind all those closed doors? Are we making choices we want to make, or choices we feel we have to make? And are we happy with it, or not?

What does division of labor look like in your household and in the households around you?

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