A little post to get the year off to an uncontroversial start!
I mentioned a book I’ve read – “Children of the Lucky Country” below. Here is a quote from it relating to the division of labour at home between the genders (p. 83).
In the past, the way society arranged for the care of children was to ensure that women had little choice but to take on almost the whole of this work. They could not be financially independent, so they had to rely on their husbands for their income. In return, their husbands expected them to take full responsibility for the domestic work and caring for the children (whether or not they actually liked this role). Now women can earn their own incomes, and a majority choose to do so. Who, then takes care of the children? At present the assumption is that this responsibility still rests largely with women.
There’s a particular barrow being pushed here. Note how the expectations (and I guess the collusive power) of men shape the first world. No doubt there’s some truth to that. But there’s some truth to lots of presentations of complex phenomena. Undoubtedly some women actively resisted the institutions in the way the past was organised. No doubt many resented requirements for women to give up many respectable professional jobs once they married. But plenty of women wouldn’t have resented the rules and would have accepted the way things were set up. So why put the point in such a loaded way? Especially when it’s not necessary to point of the book which is a heartfelt plea for children’s interests to be more fully represented in our social thinking and our institutions. (a cause with which I could not agree more by the way hence my reading the book).
Most women and men agree today that the kinds of rules that came under attack in the 1960s and 70s and which have been swept away are unacceptable. So it seems to be adding gratuitous (gender political) baggage to one’s cause to set out ‘the past’ as rigged by one side.
Now read the description of the state of the world today. I assume what everyone reports, namely that women do substantially more work around the house even when they do as much work as their male partners. Why is that? The authors say its ‘an assumption’ that the responsibility still largely rests with women. I read (between the lines and perhaps conditioned by the earlier content of the para) that these assumptions are being made by men. (It seems odd that they’d be made by women, because it seems to be a pretty understandable bugbear of women that men don’t do more of that work.) So the problem is being driven by men’s ‘assumptions’.
I wonder what readers think of an alternative cause for the same phenomenon. (Note: as is the way with such things, the two explanations are unlikely to be mutually exclusive I suspect they each reinforce the other). In my experience women are generally more fastidious about the state of a house than men are. (Since writing this I’ve road tested it on about five people and they all agree though no doubt some wouldn’t and like all such generalisations, there will be plenty of exceptions). There’s an explanation for why they do more housework right there! Men might be trenchant about it “if she wants a tidy house she can damn well tidy it herself, I’d rather watch the Rugby or read”. Or it might simply evolve from least resistances. Women are prompted by the discomfort of dirt and untidiness before men are, and as a result they end up addressing their own discomfort. In this explanation men are not ‘expecting’ their partners to do it. But their partners do end up spending more time of these tasks.
I don’t know whether one would characterise this as unfair or as some dereliction of duty by men. I expect men spend more time on organising the financial affairs of the family. I doubt that in most cases this counterbalances the additional work women do, but if it is true, it illustrates my point (or rather the assertion I’m tentatively offering) that to some substantial extent work follows temperament and that as experienced, the division of labour emerges from temperamental choices by both parties.
The situation regarding children can be explained in a similar way although many men would be more loath to let themselves off quite as lightly from some obligation of equal participation. My own observation is that men are less patient with kids, more quickly and easily bored by them especially younger ones. They enjoy playing with their kids but at some stage reach for the paper. I don’t particularly want to defend this though to the extent that it emerges from temperamental dispositions that are genetic, it would be well to try to discuss the issue with that in mind. And to the extent that it is culturally driven men may not be much easier to change at least in this generation.
Wanting men to share equally in the upbringing of their kids seems like a good idea. But if we are going against preferences that are fairly deeply ingrained, it must surely be worth keeping that in mind. And the words of the authors of the book are of relevance. Their comment that the unfortunate situation where women looked after the kids “whether or not they actually liked this role” is a reminder that, though fairness between adult partners is important, another issue of great importance is that parenting roles are also responsive to the respective temperament and inclinations of each of the parents. This is of importance for fairness between the parents, but it also goes to something of greater importance again the welfare of the kids.