Chore Duty: Do Fathers Still Have It Easier Than Mothers?

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Photo-Illustrations by Peter Rad for TIME

In my TIME cover story, Chore Wars, I added up the latest statistics on paid labor and unpaid labor among people who are employed full-time and concluded that men and women have never before had more equal total workloads.

Even though women are still doing more housework and child care than men, the greater hours of paid work that men do counterbalance women’s additional hours of unpaid work. But judging from the personal nature of the comments elicited by the piece, it appears to have reopened a very touchy topic: who’s really more put-upon, Mom or Dad?

That particular battle of the sexes may never be over, no matter what the stats say, but many readers raised an important point: even if workloads have evened out, doesn’t paid work bring you money and status, while housework and child care bring you nada?

Joan Williams of the Center for WorkLife Law wrote:

TIME’s analysis of the data blithely ignores the different value given to work at home and in the office. In the abstract, this is actually encouraging — in an ideal world, both forms of work would be both equally compensated and equally valued. But we don’t live in an ideal world. Cooking, cleaning and child-rearing are still chores (as the article’s title signals, perhaps inadvertently). Paid work still happens outside the home, and it’s still the man’s domain.

Not sure what Williams means about paid work still being the man’s domain, since the whole focus of my piece was on women working full-time, but the question remains: can we equate one hour in the office with one hour wrangling a toddler?

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I would say that it depends on the job — and on the toddler. One aspect I didn’t address in my piece — in part because it’s very hard to measure — is the satisfaction people get from various activities, and how that impacts one’s perception of feeling overworked, whether at the office or at home. While doing paid work seems like a better deal, what if that work is laborious, dangerous, monotonous and pays very little? Wouldn’t taking care of your toddler for an hour be a lot more pleasurable and satisfying?

Now, that doesn’t mean that caring for young children is a walk in the park. In fact, the compulsory nature of it only adds to the pressure. But we also can’t assume that just because men are doing more paid work means that they’re getting the easier deal.

But many comments also pointed out another factor that is also hard to measure: even if work hours are similar, the spouse who is keeping track of everything that needs to be done at home often feels more exhausted and “time-poor” because of all the mental energy required to keep things running smoothly. Over at Lisa Belkin’s Motherlode blog at the New York Times, one working mother shared this story:

My husband is a medical resident and is home very little. Thus, most of the child (two kids, ages 3 and 5) and house care falls to me. It’s not that we don’t put in equal hours working — him at his residency and studying at home, me at my full-time job, caring for kids, caring for house — we do. Neither of us has a lot of free time. However, it’s a huge strain to be responsible for everything that needs to happen to keep our family running — job, kids, kids’ school, doctor appts, emergencies, clothes purchasing and altering, laundry, play dates, birthday parties, dance lessons, Sunday school, carpools, meals, etc. The person whose job allows the most flexible hours is usually the one who takes on the lion’s share of the responsibility.

Last year I had an emergency appendectomy. Husband was out of town, so my parents moved in to help with kids and house while I recovered for a week. Let me tell you, it was WONDERFUL… It was so relaxing to just have to think about one thing — go to work, come home — with all else taken care of for me. That inequality in responsibility, more than actual work hours, needs to be acknowledged and respected.

As far as I know, there have been no surveys or studies on whether women are more likely than men to take on this manager-of-the-household role — or why — but it would certainly be worth exploring.

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