Growing up, during Thanksgiving and Christmas, it was the women who rushed around and cooked all day, the women who prepped the table, and even the women who cleaned up the mess.
And yet, I've found myself perpetuating these behaviors as well. It's true that we love our families so much that it brings joy to see our loved ones together enjoying delicious food, even if the women of the family exhaust themselves in the process. As a mother, I've often had to check myself of these self-sacrificing and martyr-like ways. There were a few years that I unconsciously overloaded myself overzealously preparing food for a large gathering without asking my husband for help--he would have been equally thrilled if we did take out. To his credit, there were a few years when he did all of the overzealous prep without asking me for help too. And my father-in-law must have some inkling of our strivings as this Thanksgiving he surprised us by pre-ordering the entire Thanksgiving feast as take out.
But here's the thing: it's not just on holidays and special events where we work so much harder than the men--we do it everyday. In fact, about 41 percent of mothers earn the majority of their family's income while another 23 percent of mothers are co–breadwinners, contributing at leased a quarter of the family's earnings.1 These numbers are dramatically higher in Hispanic and African-American families where 27% of Latino children and 51% of African-American children are being raised by a single mother.2
Despite the fact that we are working outside the home, we are also working much more in the home as well--and doing so alone. In heterosexual homes, women do approximately 80% more housework and cooking than the men. I met a mother recently who wakes at 5:00am everyday to make her children's lunches, clean the house, and prepare dinner for later that evening. Her husband sleeps until 7:00am. I asked her why her husband gets to sleep in until 7:00am while she has to wake up in the dark, "I have to make the lunches and dinner," she repeated as if I didn't hear her the first time. “Yes, but, can't he help you?” I insisted. "Oh, that's just the way it is. I'm not sure he would even know how to make the lunches and it's not worth the stress." This is not an unusual scenario.
It’s not that men are a**holes, it's that they grew up with their mothers doing all of the housework and it's all they know. Then they grow up and their wives continue to do the housework. And it's not that the women want to be martyrs either, it's that it's what they have been programed to do since they ate their first meal (that their mother made--by herself). We are all doing our best to figure out gender roles and marriage. Who does what and how? It can be confusing for sure. But over time, repeating traditional gender roles in the home with non-traditional gender roles at work sends a message: that women's time is worth less, that men have more of a right to relax and take a break, and that women's needs come last.
My husband and I have been together for 23 years and we are still deeply in love. When people ask how we manage to keep the spark alive, we often admit to hiring a housekeeper. Instead of squabbling over whose turn it is to clean the toilet, in college, we paid $30 a week to have someone come in and do it for us. Not that we were rich…we made this happen when I was paying $350/month for a basement apartment where water seeped in through the walls when it rained. For those who would prefer to spend their money on upgrading their rental instead of a housekeeper, I cannot emphasize enough the importance of sharing housework. It's the least sexy job. And believe me, contrary to popular myth, women are not inherently cleaner or more organized, it's simply due to constant societal pressure. Plus, there are immense benefits to sharing housework. When husbands do more housework, couples are happier, wives are less depressed, and marital conflicts decrease.
So, I ask you to make the unconscious conscious: what message are you sending to your children by segregating the cooking and housework according to gender? More importantly: what message are you sending to yourself? I say it’s time we liberate ourselves of expectations and dive into a life of true equality, even if it does mean take-out on Thanksgiving and a toilet no one cleans—we’ll find our way.
1 Sarah Jane Glynn, Breadwinning Mothers: Then and Now, Center for American Progress (June 2014), 6. In 2012, 40.9 percent of mothers were sole primary breadwinners for their families and another 22.4 percent were co-breadwinners."
2 Child Trends Data Bank, Family Structure: Indicators on Children and Youth, (March 2015),4,http://www.childtrends.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/03/59_Family_Structure.pdf.
3 Sharon Meers and Joanna Streber, Getting to 50/50: How working Couples Can Have It All by Sharing It All (New York: Bantam Books, 2009).