Thursday, 23 September 2010

the second shift

HOW many batteries does the average family get through? Judging by how often a toy is yanked from its box only to find it's missing four AAs, probably a fair few. But not ten a week. Which is the number of lunchboxes a two-child family consumes between Monday and Friday.
The comparison is illuminating because according to this survey of 3,000 couples, battery changing is a daddy job in most homes and lunchbox-packing a mummy job. Other stuff couples apparently think is dad's responsibility includes teaching children to ride their bikes, playing sports, disiplining children: mothers, meanwhile are washing, ironing, doing the school run. Look at that list and watch the last 40 years melt away like it never happened: there is little on either that the average Seventies dad, in all his unreconstructed glory, or Seventies housewife wouldn't have done.
This list puzzles me, because we all know families who aren't like that (plenty of them read and comment on this blog). Perhaps all the families in which daddy makes the sandwiches while mummy is out addressing the United Nations were just too busy to do the questionnaire. Perhaps fathers aren't quite comfortable admitting to doing what was traditionally women's work.
But these findings suggest that at least in some families, social change hasn't run very deep at all. Men do more of the 'hero' jobs - fix the beloved toy when it breaks, to a chorus of adulation - and women more of the 'taken for granted' ones. Men take care of the one-off or infrequent tasks - building a treehouse, anyone? - and women the chores that get done several times a day, like cooking. (Interestingly, cleaning isn't on either sex's list: are they nobly scrubbing the loo together, or delegating to the au pair?)
Both sexes end up with an equally long list of chores, which might look fair, but they're not putting in an equal number of hours. Yet seven in ten mothers apparently thought this was a fair deal: why?
One reason could be that mothers are more likely than fathers to work part-time or not work, so might think it's reasonable for them to do more of the so-called 'second shift' at home. But if so, that raises an interesting chicken and egg question. Which comes first: women's desire to spend less time in the office (leading them to do more at home) or women's getting lumbered with more at home (leaving them too knackered to work long hours)?


  1. A lot of those jobs are actually fancy names for "driving the kids around in the car" aren't they?

    The survey, by the parenting advice site, asked 3,000 mothers and fathers to list roles they believed were either theirs, or their partner's responsibility.

    That's an odd way of asking the question isn't it? - and it's likely to give the stereotype driven results it did. It would be better instead of asking what mums & dad's "responsibilities" are, to ask what they actually do, and for how long each week they do it. I have a feeling that this would be asking too much of a bit of self-promotional pretend research from a website tho....

  2. Great post! I have certainly noticed the "hero tasks" effect, but you have gone into it more deeply.

  3. I think it's a case of coming across a job that Dad is willing to do without too much protesting/faux-inability that we just blooming welcome it and get on with doing the rest of the things that need doing.

  4. tricky one. i often begrudge the fact that it's me thinking about the 2yo's meals; washing his sheets; making sure he has clothes; etc etc. and i make that point known. but then again, i'm the one only working a 3-day week. (that said, i think my OH would swap in an instant with me if i'd let him, so i haven't really got a leg to stand on if i wanted to complain...)

  5. Gaby, further to my slightly idealistic suggestion about higher rate tax payers opting out of child benefit - could the issue of dual earning families (total income 2x£44k plus CB) /one working parent (income £44K but no CB)be addressed by paying the CB to the mother? No big deal in terms of bureaucratic means testing, as seems to be the current excuse. Would just be payable to mum or main carer unless s/he earned more than £44k. Please shout loudly about this issue - the CB money is a significant ingredient in my and most of my friends' family budgets. We have gin to buy (that's a joke of course). thanks. Louise

  6. hi Louise - child benefit is actually now payable in majority of cases to mother (in some cases to father where he is the main carer). The government could have chosen to just restrict it to couples where the mother pays higher rate tax but that would mean much smaller savings, and another potential unfairness where a single mother earning £45k loses it while the non-earning wife of a squillionaire gets it.
    The means testing point refers to the argument that to be really fair, you need to assess on a couple's income together - and as we have individual taxation here (your earnings are yours and taxed as yours, you're not longer just added on to your husband's income) that would have to be pulled apart so we all know whose spouse earns what.
    As you can see, no easy way to do any of it Which is why previous governments have looked at taxing child benefit and backed away (Gordon Brown privately did so in 1997 and wanted to do it, but was overruled by Tony Blair).