I grew up in a changing world. In the 1960s and ’70s, women were no longer expected to stay home to care for the house and children, but were told they could have it all: the fulfilling career and the family. The one thing that no one ever explained, though, was how it would all work.
Twenty-one years later, I am reflecting on the factors that influenced me when I first became a mother. Women fortunate enough to have a choice between working or staying home make a difficult, life-changing decision, and the factors leading to that decision have an impact on the lives of all women in the workplace.
‘The Second Shift’
When my husband and I were growing up, our mothers were waiting at home after school. We watched Carol Brady, Wilma Flintstone and Samantha Stevens happy at home, raising the children, since there were no married, working mothers on TV. So, while the gender revolution raged outside, inside our homes, role models had traditional duties.
Even my parents, who paid my way through college and law school, had their stamp of approval ready if I decided to stay home with my children. After all, like me, they were products of a traditional family environment.
Arlie Hochschild’s “The Second Shift,” hit the shelves in 1989, less than a year before I got pregnant. In the book, Hochschild revealed that many working mothers came home to face the “the second shift” — and had to take on the majority of housework and childcare not equally shared by their husbands.
This concept was eye-opening to me, because I presumed that the women’s movement created a clear road map for women who joined the ranks of working mothers. Nonetheless, we knew back in 1990 that employers expected fathers to focus all of their energy on their careers, even at the expense of their home lives.
Women are under closer scrutiny than men for skipping work for a school function. Further, according to author Gail Collins, most working women end up second-guessing themselves every time they pick work over family, or vice versa.
So, some women, like me, choose to stay home, knowing that they would otherwise be responsible for “the second shift,” while others remain at work, but take on the majority of childcare for the family. Either way, the dream of having the perfect career and equality on the home front is still out of reach.
In a 2011 study in the American Sociological Review, Dr. Barbara Schneider of Michigan State University and Dr. Shira Offer of Bar Ilan University found that working women spend 10 hours more per week than working men multitasking housework and childcare.
In contrast, the fathers’ multitasking usually involved playing with the children, while interacting with the office. The study analyzed data gathered between 1999 and 2000 from 500 families in middle-class suburban and urban communities.
The mothers found their multitasking experiences more stressful than the fathers’, and reported that it often led to domestic disputes.
The stresses from the home front and the workplace cause a work-life imbalance, leading to decreased psychological well-being, according to the study. These stresses include mothers’ “mental labor” involved in coordinating their families’ ever-complex schedules. The study also indicated that the work-family conflict is traditionally framed as a challenge only to women. This conclusion is reflective of the continuing stereotype of the working mother as the parent to summon in a childcare crisis, while fathers are generally believed to be free of such distractions at work.
Expectations and behavior
When I contacted Hochschild recently, she told me that she believes that the mothers of my generation have retreated in the battle for equality in the home front out of fear.
“In the 1970s, working women often married men who were unprepared for the new demands, and they took jobs traditionally designed for men,” she explained. These women struggled for parity at work, enduring long hours at the office, and their marriages took the hit. She told me that not much has changed for my generation, except that both marriages and jobs have become less secure.
I believe, to some extent, it is a matter of expectations. In “The Second Shift,” Hochschild recognized that many young women do not speak to their husbands about shared responsibility for child care and housework before it becomes an issue. But she thinks it goes well beyond the issue of expectations.
“It’s also a matter of behavior,” Hochschild says, in that many men are fearful of being branded as less committed to their careers if they spend more time with their children.
Collins notes that, as a result, many well-educated, high-achieving women who decided to stay home were accused of surrendering. Their critics were concerned that this could ultimately have an adverse effect on hard-won academic and work-related opportunities for women. Collins concluded that such accusations were unfounded despite this trend, because more women realized that they could not afford to stop working, and because businesses were starting to make changes to accommodate working mothers.
Men needed at home
So, has the women’s movement failed us? Hochschild, Schneider and Offer agree: it did not fail, it stalled. After all, women joined the ranks of men in numerous fields previously off limits, and men now participate in child rearing more than ever. Dads have stepped up, says Schneider, and their roles have changed.
Still, when Hochschild shared with me her new afterward for the 2012 edition of the “The Second Shift,” she stressed the need to place a deep value on care, noting that loving meals and emotional engagement with family is the root of a successful gender revolution.
“Without our noticing, over time, American capitalism embraced empowerment, and it sidetracked care,” she said. Men hand the caretaking duties over to women, who then hand them over to paid caregivers, who, in turn, hand their own children over to others for care. Hochschild concluded that the big challenge is to “value and share the duties of caring for loved ones.”
When I spoke with Schneider by phone, she implied that the revolution, on its face, seems to have been won, but has many layers.
“For ordinary persons, things are the same [as they have always been],” she explains, as we often do not pay attention to “hidden inequalities” in the home.
When speaking with Schneider, I realized that young, single women entering the workforce now may have an understanding of how far we have come, but often have no sense of how far we need to go.
The future for working mothers
So, what is the outlook for my daughter’s generation? Hochschild told me that our retreat may become “a cautionary tale to [the] next generation,” and women’s paychecks may become even more critical to the family budget.
Schneider said that it would not be any different for the next generation — unless we do something about it. She believes we need to recognize that there are still gender biases in the workplace and in social situations, and that gender expectations pervade every aspect of our lives. We need to wake up and realize that gender bias, which seemed to have been taken care of, is not really a thing of the past. We need to once again open a discussion and obtain a more nuanced view of family life, to better understand gender inequalities in the home. Schneider was mindful of the need to raise many fathers’ levels of engagement with their children and told me that until we pay closer attention to the mom’s burden, the quality of family time is at risk.
So, it appears as though the behavioral changes that need to be made within the home go hand-in-hand with the changes that need to be made at the office.
Hochschild looks forward to the day when we will catch up with European progressive policies, citing Norway’s wonderland of limited hours and family-friendly benefits. She believes many Americans resist government help in this area, until they think about the possibilities for paid family and medical leave; affordable, subsidized childcare; government incentives for flex-time; and job shares.
One organization that is hoping to ensure that family life takes priority in the workplace is A Better Balance: The Work and Family Legal Center in New York, a legal team that says it is “fighting to give American workers the time and flexibility they need to care for their families.” It hopes to transform the American workplace and elevate the job of caregiving by pushing family-friendly policies like the New York State Fair Pay Act and paid family leave.
Co-President Dina Bakst recently testified before the New York State Assembly concerning discrimination against pregnant women and mothers in the workplace, and inequitable pay for part-time workers (predominantly women).
Legal analyst and author Lis Wiehl suggests that an overwhelmed mother make a list of household tasks, discuss it with her husband, and tell him she needs help, thereby giving him the opportunity to pitch in and put the whole picture into focus.
To me, though, the idea of merely pitching in seems to defeat the goal of re-directing the full responsibility for some tasks to a husband.
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Change can come, but it will take time before more workplaces become fully supportive of working mothers. We still have a long way to go before all new mothers feel as though they need not sacrifice their careers, their home lives, or their sanity as they join the ranks of working mothers. We need to begin thinking beyond our current limitations and understand the possibilities of reawakening a dormant vision for the future.
Risa C. Doherty practiced law from 1986 to 1990 and has been a freelance writer since 1995. She received a Silver Award for Investigatory Reporting in March 2011 from the Parenting Media Association. Read more at www.risadoherty.com.