In defense of men

When we finally get around to eliminating stereotypes, perhaps the one portraying men as disinterested fathers, sitting on a couch waiting for someone to fetch a beer can get on the list.

Today’s Midmorning — headlined “Men Are Stepping Up at Home” — may have succumbed to the assertion. It’s based on a study from the Council of Contemporary Families that seems to say because of the poor economy, men have no choice but “but to take more responsibility for home chores and parenting.”

Reader/listener Mike from Minneapolis points out the obvious flaw in the assertion:

The major problem with the work studies dating back to the 1960s is that work required to maintain the ‘house’ has been defined in terms of weekly maintenance work like cooking and laundry. Questions about upkeep of the physical dimensions of the house like painting, fixing things, paying bills, and upkeep of the community aspects like participating in community relationships, social and service groups have been excluded from these studies. So, the outcomes of the research are predetermined and therefore not very informative. Creating, supporting, and maintaining a family is much more complex than the three chores, laundry, cooking, and cleaning.

As for us, my wife works 50 – 60 hours a week and I work many fewer hours. If we were to have participated in these studies, our shared workload analysis would fit in the average range. However, I would say that I spend more time on the full household management issues than does my wife. ( the exception is now that I am teaching spring term in Mexico, she has all the responsibilities and is to date very overwhelmed) . We have never fully agreed on what constitutes balanced teamwork. Neither have we fully agreed on what constitutes daily and weekly maintenance activities. But that is also true in the work force. I would hope that future studies are able to better capture the complexities of household maintenance.

If there were a Pulitzer Prize for reader comments, that one would be a candidate.

Some of the e-mailed comments to the show are particularly interesting. Some pointed out their husbands have “stepped up,” because they’ve become stay-at-home dads. It’s great that couples agree on such an arrangement, but how big a step forward is it to define “stepping up” as staying home?

A listener in Waconia writes:

I am a working mom with a stay-at-home dad. The worst critics are other woman. My husband’s ex-wife constantly calls my husband (father of 2) “unemployed.” Female co-workers ask how can I “do it” and leave the kids each week. I work out of town 2-3 days a week. Woman are not supporting this dynamic. I make 2.5 times as much as my husband did and can only do it because of his sacrifice.

Flip the genders, and the discussion could be happening in 1968.

As near as I can tell, today’s show cherry-picked a relatively small statistic out of a large report that actually wasn’t about who does what at home, but what the effect the recession has had on families. The report indicated that it’s men who have born the brunt of the recession, but families who feel the effect. But it found more than that:

Reaction to the recession has not been all bad. Many families are rethinking their material priorities. Volunteerism is up. Community gardens and other forms of neighborhood cooperation and sharing are on the increase. And some studies show that in the long run people raised in adversity become more sensitive to social inequity and less inclined to blame others for their misfortunes.

But when social adversity is accompanied by marked social inequality, it often leads to resentment and scapegoating.

We’re there.

By the way, I wrote this while taking a break from cleaning the bathroom.

  • Marianne Combs
  • Kate

    While I appreciate the Pulitzer-worthy comment by one listener, I think there are two things that are missing. One is the acknowledgment of the drudgery factor. If both halves of the couple are expending the same amount of time on maintaining the household in the global sense that the gentleman so aptly identified, doesn’t it matter that cleaning the bathroom or doing the laundry is an epic drag in comparison to participating in social groups or getting out into the workforce to pay the bills? I think so long as both men and women feel satisfied by their unique division of labor, that’s fine, but I wonder if your listener has ever asked her wife if she likes always having the responsibility of doing the laundry, cooking and cleaning.

    And, secondly, the qualities of the “chores” don’t end there. Working to pay the bills, joining social organizations or charities, etc. have secondary benefits to the person who engages in them. It enhances your reputation, builds social capital, and might actually make you feel good and enhance your self-esteem. Not to mention, it might actually help you in your career. Does doing the dishes do that? Probably not. The real problem as I see it is that women are having to sacrifice their career and earnings potential to maintain the domestic realm. Is that fair?

    Betty Friedan identified the problem over thirty years ago: when the power dynamic between men and women becomes equal, and women are permitted equal access to the world outside the home, individuals and families will be happier and healthier. And, I think she’s turning out to be right!

  • Bob Collins

    It would seem to be one solution for the problem you describe is for couples to talk a little more before they have their kids, not later. Also, marry better.

    People who are feeling stressed and pressured tend to accept it as a matter of gender and culture. I reject that on the basis of the only reality I know.

    I don’t cook. I don’t do the grocery shopping. I do some cleaning etc. But I don’t keep score or a logbook and neither does Mrs. News Cut. Some weeks I probably do more than her. Some weeks I probably do less. If things get out of balance. She’ll let me know. And I’ll let her know.

    The writer is absolutely correct that an otherwise intelligent conversation is neutered by the definitions upon which it’s based. One of the guests wrote a book called “The Lazy Husband, how to get your husband to do more work around the house,” and the definition of work around the house is incomplete. It’s a definition designed with the conclusion in mind — that if you’re not doing a limited description of chores — you are by definition lazy. That’s nonsense.

    Re: Parenting. The other thing that is interesting is when we talk “parenting,” people are usually using a VERY small number of years in the big scheme of thing — usually about 10 years. But when junior has a flat tire by the side of the road, it’s probably dad who’s going to get out of bed to go solve the problem. Is it the same? Is it equal? Probably not. But I have a significant problem with narrow definitions like “around the house” and “parenting.”

    If I’m to be judged by how often I do the laundry, you get to be judged by how often you mow the lawn. (g)

    In the end, I go back to an old piece of advice. Marriage is a merger, not a takeover. Nobody should enter into it — or parenthood — stupidly. What makes this hard for people isn’t that it’s hard; it’s that it’s hard for couples to talk to each other. They’re doomed.