Men pitch in more at home

April 22, 2008|By SUSAN REIMER

A report prepared for the Council on Contemporary Families suggests that men's contribution to housework has doubled over the past 40 years, and they tripled the amount of time spent with the kids.

The report, which is to be presented at the council's annual conference this week in Chicago, links these developments to marital health and a decreased likelihood of divorce. There is even the suggestion that the more husbands pitch in, the more willing wives will be to have sex.

The key factor in the division of household chores seems to be her employment. There was an assumption, the researchers say, that when women entered the work force in great numbers 30 years ago, the institution of marriage would undergo a revolutionary transformation.

In fact, change has been painfully incremental. But there has been change, the researchers report.

"Men and women may not be fully equal yet, but the rules of the game have been profoundly and irreversibly changed," wrote researchers Oriel Sullivan of Ben Gurion University and Scott Coltrane of the University of California, Riverside.

In addition, the report concluded, gender equity in families is increasingly acceptable, so this trend should continue no matter how many hours a week she is putting in at the office. If for no other reason, he is getting used to it.

"Whatever a man's original resistance to sharing, we have found that men's contributions to family work increase over time: The longer their female partners have been in paid employment, the more family work they are likely to do," the report said.

A couple of interesting sub-texts emerged in the comments appended to this report, which should make for interesting discussion at the convention Friday and Saturday.

A man whose wages are falling and whose job security is uncertain is likely to feel his masculinity threatened and is less likely to pick up a dust rag, suggested Stephanie Coontz, author of Marriage, A History.

"This may explain," she said, "why marriages are becoming more stable for college-educated and economically secure couples but less stable for poorly educated and economically struggling men and women."

And it is likely that she is using her wages to pay for household help, or to justify the hiring of that help, in a way that he would not be expected to do, according to Sanjiv Gupta, associate professor of sociology at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

He writes that this suggests that "families still feel it is a woman's responsibility to either do -- or arrange for someone else to do -- the bulk of household chores."

And finally, Pamela Smock, professor of sociology at the University of Michigan, says that no matter how much housework he does, she is still responsible for the invisible work of family life, what Smock calls the "emotional labor."

She decides which matters need to be discussed or resolved, she also does the household planning and scheduling, and she does what Smock calls the "kin work," arranging for family gatherings, sending cards and gifts and keeping in touch.

But the perfectly egalitarian marriages do exist, and Barbara Risman, chair of the sociology department at the University of Illinois at Chicago, has seen them.

She says that such marriages are marked by "exceptionally strong friendship between husband and wife, equal status outside the home, in the labor market, and, at least for the fathers, flexible jobs."

I am not sure when it happened, but the division of household chores has become the leading indicator of marital happiness in this country.

You'd think it would be shared beliefs and common goals, but somehow we have replaced all the important stuff with who cooks and who cleans up.

I understand why these things can be sand in the gears of a marriage -- 25 years and my husband still doesn't remember that the recycling has to go out Monday night.

But I wish couples were negotiating more important matters -- like how much debt is realistic for Junior's college education, or which one of them is going to do the heavy lifting in the area of sex education.

I guess this would take time -- an increasingly scarce element in the busy lives of families in which both spouses work and there are all those household chores to be done.

susan.reimer@baltsun.com

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