A coworker’s wife and I were recently discussing the challenges of having both a career and a family.
I was explaining that, like most people in Telluride, the change in season signals a change in employment for my husband and me. In the winter, we both work for the Telluride Ski Patrol (where I am a supervisor) and in the summer, we both work for his landscaping company (where I manage the maintenance department.)
“So, who stays home when your kids are sick?” this woman asked me – code for “whose job is more important?”
This question, which both Craig and I are asked frequently, reveals a deeper inquiry into a shifting dynamic among American families. It seems as though our family has what many would still consider a rare work/family structure, in that my husband and I both work full-time while sharing childcare and household responsibilities equally. Or, more accurately, we strive for that nebulous goal of being “equal” as breadwinners and caregivers – a goal that many of our contemporaries are also striving for, despite some of the often-unnoticed societal roadblocks in our way.
As if to exemplify some of these unconsciously held beliefs about what a “normal” American working family looks like, my mom told Craig just last week that she respects what he does in caring for our girls (since I have to work weekends on the mountain during the winter, Craig stays home with both of our children every Saturday and Sunday, all season long.)
“I brag to my friends about how much you share the childcare responsibilities,” she told him.
While it was nice to know that my mom brags about how her son-in-law hosts tea parties and folds stacks of princess-covered panties on weekends, it occurred to me that this comment wouldn’t likely be made to a mother. Women are expected to stay home and take care of the children and do the laundry, despite the fact that more mothers are in the workforce than ever before. Perhaps this is merely a consequence of nature: Women are physiologically better equipped to fulfill an infant’s basic needs (hooray for boobies!).Research has shown, however, that while more women are working outside of the home, proportionately less men are doing their fair share inside of it.
The social research journal Social Forces published a study showing that when a husband and wife are both employed full-time, the mother does 40 percent more childcare and 30 percent more housework than the father, despite the fact that studies from around the world show time and again that children whose fathers provide routine care have higher levels of psychological well-being and better cognitive abilities, and that couples are overall happier when they share childrearing and other responsibilities.
So what gives?
In her nationally bestselling book Lean In; Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, Facebook CEO Sheryl Sandberg analyzes the societal factors that keep women out of leadership positions in the workforce, and even out of the workforce entirely. As she points out, women have made tremendous strides educationally, with girls consistently outperforming boys in the classroom and women earning about 57 percent of the undergraduate degrees and 60 percent of the master’s degrees in the U.S. Yet, as Sandberg so aptly puts it, “Men still run the world.” Of the 195 independent countries in the world, only 17 are led by women. In the U.S., women hold a mere 14 percent of executive officer positions, and constitute only 18 percent of our elected congressional officials.
Sandberg argues that this lopsided division of power at the top of corporate and legislative America is made possible by, among other things, the lopsided division of labor within American homes. This division is reinforced not just culturally, but also structurally, with employment policies at most American companies offering little to no time off for paternity leave.
Craig and I didn’t come to our current career/caregiver arrangement organically, nor did we come to it with (dare I say) feminist ideals in mind: We share work and home responsibilities because we are simply happier that way. Research has proven that what our family has discovered – that everyone is happier if mom gets to go to work sometimes, and dad gets to clean the toilets sometimes – is also true for most dual-earner couples. A 2006 study published by the American Journal of Sociology found that when husbands do more housework, wives are less depressed, marital conflicts decrease, and satisfaction rises. When a wife earns half the income and a husband does half the housework, the risk of divorce is reduced by about half. And, in what may provide the most motivating reason for husbands to pick up the toilet wand now and again, research shows that couples who share domestic responsibilities have more sex.
It seems clear to me that what Sandberg posits is essential for helping to support a healthier, happier contemporary American family dynamic: Men need to take on more responsibilities at home, thus giving women more equal access to higher-paying and more satisfying careers. The traditional American Family Portrait, which has for generations been depicted as one in which the husband works full-time and the wife stays home to care for the home and children, only perpetuates outdated gender roles that hinder women’s abilities to be successful as both mothers and wage-earners.
In Sandberg’s words, “A truly equal world would be one where women ran half our countries and men ran half our homes.”
So, when asked “Whose job is more important?” I have to say, “Both of ours.”