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Is Marriage Bad for Mothers?
unpacking Amy Shearn's recent NYT piece, Kate Mangino's Equal Partners, and an episode of "Bluey"
A recent op-ed in The New York Times, “A Cure for the Existential Crisis of Married Motherhood,” by Amy Shearn gave me all the feels. She starts her essay with: “Married heterosexual motherhood in America, especially in the last two years, is a game no one wins.”
She’s not the only one making this argument. Anne Helen Petersen, author of the Substack Culture Study, wrote an entire book about pandemic motherhood called The Moms Are Not Alright. Reshma Saujani, author of Pay Up, says “we’re living through a war on moms.”
The online version of Shearn’s piece is titled “A 50/50 Custody Arrangement Could Save Your Marriage.” I’m always intrigued by the titles chosen for online and print versions and how each has a slightly different spin on the thesis of the piece it stands for. Both are apt for this particular essay. Shearn writes about hearing her married friends complain during the pandemic about the suffocating circumstances of their lives but individually feeling like she was fine. Because she was divorced. Because she split custody with her ex. Her essay speaks to the part in many mothers that feels smothered by responsibility, tasks, and the many roles that demand her attention. The part that longs for more space to herself, a night away in a bed free of bodies other than her own, a weekend of solitude and the ability to do whatever she wants with her time.
The benefits of “divorced motherhood” for Shearn are two-fold. The structure of part-time parenting means that she can carve out space for herself, plus it requires her ex-husband to take on his fair share. She talks about how, once required to manage a household of his own, her ex had no choice but to step up and learn to do all the things that had once been solely her purview. “As divorced dads, they are forced - not by dint of wifely nagging, not by the couple’s therapist, but by law and necessity - to manage a household, to take care of their children and themselves.”
“And remember: A husband who packs the kids’ lunches isn’t “helping” his wife. He’s parenting his children. A husband who does the laundry every other week isn’t “doing a chore” for his wife. He’s being an adult.” Amy Shearn
When I tweeted my support of this piece, I received an all-too common response from a man. He argued that the piece (and the headline) oversimplified the situation. This may have been the set up for this particular marriage, but not all marriages! There are good guys out there! Things aren’t as bad as this piece makes it seem!
But the sad thing is, they are. And excuse me for a moment while I share data that backs me up.
A recent Bureau of Labor Statistics survey reported that women spend 47 more minutes per day on housework than their spouses (and this number does not include childcare, grocery shopping, or errands). That equals 5 ½ hours per week that women lose just to household maintenance.
Claire Cain Miller’s recent article on unpaid labor in The New York Times reports:
“In the United States, women do an average 4.5 hours of such work a day, compared with 2.8 hours for men, according to data from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development … In Greece, women do 4.3 hours while men do an hour and a half. Even in the most gender-equal countries, like Sweden, women do 50 minutes more a day than men.”
Things got worse in the pandemic as Anne Helen Petersen reported for Bloomberg (citing the same study as Miller):
“A study from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development found that 61.5% of mothers of children under 12 reported taking on the majority or entirety of extra care work in 2020, compared with 22.4% of fathers….What’s more, the study found that even when the father was unemployed and the mother was employed, the mother still did more of the unpaid care work.”
Despite what well-meaning husbands try to argue, things are still very bleak:
“The gender gap in housework persists regardless of a couple’s other commitments. Among dual-career couples, women do more housework — even when they earn more money than their partners. Among retirees, women do more housework. Among non-employed men and women of prime working age, men spend the lion’s share of their waking hours watching TV. Women spend it on housework.”
This inequality starts early and is pervasive. In a 2016 UNICEF report, girls ages 5-9 spend 30% more time on chores than boys their age do. By the time girls are 10-14 years old, they spend 50% more time on domestic tasks than boys.
Kate Mangino, who authored the book Equal Partners: Improving Gender Equality at Home, reports that despite significant improvement from our grandparents generation, “the division of labor in the home has settled at around 65% performed by women and 35% performed by men.”
Finally, Sarah Green Carmichael writes in Bloomberg that women would need to stop doing all housework on August 29 in order to equal the load.
In the pursuit of a more equal partnership, a relationship can devolve into scorekeeping, as each partner tries to argue that they are doing more than their fair share. But despite what men may think about how much they are doing, things are still far from equal. Some of the disparity may be due to the fact that so much of the load that the mothers end up carrying is invisible (Erica Djossa, aka @happyasamother, has a great series of slides on this invisible load from Halloween to managing toys to being the social coordinator).
I seem to be seeing a lot of discourse about women striking, or even quiet quitting. Would our husbands step up if we stopped refilling the dish soap canister? Ensuring toilet paper is in the pantry? Making sure our children have costumes for Halloween in plenty of time so that we aren’t running to Target to see what is available the weekend before? So often the response husbands give to our frustration is that our standards are too high, or we are too particular about how things are done. That we are the only ones who care about the sheets being changed, the laundry being put away, having things secured in advance. And yes, maybe some of our meticulousness isn’t required. But I think if women stopped doing all the “noticing” as Kate Mangino calls it, it would catch up to us eventually.
There is a great exploration of this trope in the children’s TV show “Bluey,” the Australian cartoon show on Disney+ about a family of dogs. Episodes clock in at about 8 minutes, and it is a joy for both kids and parents to watch. The creators layer in messages for the adults in the background of each episode. In one episode, the parents are clearly hungover and trying to figure out how to “play” with their kids without losing it (it’s called “Whale Watching”). Another is about the sheer madness of letting your kids do things on their own (it’s called “Omelet”). But my absolute favorite episode is called “Pool.” In it, Bandit, the dad, takes his two young daughters to the pool. Mom is going to have some time to herself. She tries to remind Bandit about what to take before he leaves, and he brushes her off - yeah, yeah, I got it!
But then they arrive at the pool and the kids didn't wear flip flops. The ground is too hot for their feet. He has to carry them both across the scorching pavement. They prepare to get in the water and realize they didn’t bring any sunscreen. So they have to stay on the shady side of the pool (an area that gets smaller and smaller as the day progresses). Bandit didn’t bring the goggles. Or the floaties. Or snacks. Or towels.
Eventually, mom shows up with her bag of supplies and everyone celebrates.
I know that many dads roll their eyes at what their wives pack, thinking it unnecessary. This episode shows what a difference it makes.
In Equal Partners, Mangino distinguishes between a “hands on husband,” who helps with tasks versus an “Equal Partner” who shares the responsibilities and mental load equally. Some men think they are an equal partner, but they are really a hands on husband. Many people think a hands on husband is as good as it gets. But it isn’t. She features 40 men in her book who are truly equal partners in their relationships and interviews them to see how it happened and to extract ideas for how this could become the norm in our society. In this conversation with sociologist Allison Daminger, she says: “we are all recovering from gender socialization.” And it matters that we take our socialization to task. When discussing the 65/35 split, she writes:
“Imagine all the extra hours men in this study can invest in other activities…While his female partner continues to do housework for twenty, twenty-six, thirty-one more hours — he can devote this time to hobbies, relaxation, exercise, hanging out with friends, sleep, work and/or continued education. Essentially, he has the opportunity to do so much more with his life than she does.”
So back to Shearn and her argument for 50/50 custody. She writes:
“Before my divorce, I hadn’t had more than a few hours alone for over a decade. Since, I’ve had every other weekend to myself. So has my ex-husband. I’ve spent these free weekends sleeping, writing, seeing friends and never making a sensible dinner. I feel absolutely restored to myself.”
What mother wouldn’t want this? To get this in marriage, you have to be willing to go to the mat. You have to be willing to buy books like Eve Rodsky’s Fair Play and sit down and negotiate who does what. You have to have a partner who is willing to engage in the discussion, who is willing to see the running of the household as just as much their responsibility as yours, no matter how much money you each make.
Because it cannot come down to whomever pulls in more cash gets more leeway in household responsibility. Systemically, mothers make less than men - 58 cents to the dollar. The gender pay gap isn’t really about gender. It’s about motherhood. A college educated woman in her 20’s makes 90% of what her male peers earn. While a college educated woman in her 40’s makes 55% of what her male peers earn.
Now I’m not arguing that we should all go out and get divorced, and neither is Shearn. But she does suggest that incorporating some elements of split custody in your marriage might actually save it. Laura Danger (aka @@thatdarnchat who posts genius takedowns of patriarchal gender socialization in her feed) has her own take below.
Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about all that mother rage we felt during the pandemic and wondering how much of it was due to feeling like we did not consent to the terms and yet they were forced upon us. That the pandemic triggered us; reminded us of all the ways we’ve had to just accept things as women, even if things did not feel fair, or just, or like something we even wanted. It was an assault on our autonomy. And sometimes, motherhood feels this way as well. Heck, being a woman in America feels this way right now.
This is not just about chores. This is not even about fairness. This is about agency. This is about the power to say no. Listen, you may be thinking, no one wants to put away the laundry or take out the trash or do the grocery shopping. Some of this is just adulting and as adults we have to take responsibility and do things we do not want to do. I agree. But when mothers feel like they get so much of the parenting and adulting dumped on them as the default parent, it seems only natural that at some point they would rebel. Because our pleas for help don’t seem to matter. They are lost in the void where all those primal screams went during the pandemic. We feel powerless to change our situation unless we pull the plug. Say “I quit.” We cannot quit our kids. So we quit the conditions that imprison us. And sadly, that is sometimes heterosexual marriage.
“Why Did People Freak Out About A Comic About Peaches?” An interview with Mary Catherine Starr, the artist behind Mom Life Comics (who I frequently feature in my posts) about a comic that received lots of negative attention. On Now We’re Talking with Doree Shafrir.
“Sexually, I was always a caretaker first.” This interview with my friend Amanda Montei and author Rebecca Woolf on divorce, death, and desire, (plus sex as caretaking) was so thought-provoking. On Mad Moms. Rebecca’s book is called All of This. I highly recommend it.
“What to actually do about an unequal partnership,” an interview with Kate Mangino on Culture Study by Anne Helen Petersen.