As a reporter, I often travel on assignment. When my children were small, the prospect of my leaving town for a few days typically elicited great alarm from our family’s nearest and dearest. “Who will take care of the children!” they exclaimed, as if the little darlings had only one parent. When I replied that their father would doubtless make sure they didn’t starve to death while I was away, everyone from my women friends to my mother would simper adoringly, “Oh, you’re so lucky! Jeremy is soooo wonderful!”
Like my husband and me, our upstairs neighbors during those years, Amy and Nick, were both working journalists with complicated schedules, as well as children and a dog. When Amy saw my husband hauling groceries into our apartment one day, she asked me what on earth he was doing.
Since the bags were overflowing with the usual staples of family life, from breakfast cereal to toilet paper, the answer seemed pretty obvious. But instead of questioning Amy’s observational skills, I explained that twice a month Jeremy bought large quantities of household supplies, thereby reducing the number of necessities I had to lug home every day. Duh.
Amy looked as if she were about to swoon. “Oh, you’re so lucky!” she moaned, her voice trembling with an unnatural fervor so exaggerated as to suggest I had just won the MegaMillions lottery. “My husband would never do that! Jeremy is soooo wonderful!”
When the big holidays roll around, the sainted Jeremy and I always have a houseful of guests. I spend days planning, shopping, and cooking lavish meals for ridiculous numbers of friends and relatives. I do everything from the flower-arranging to the silver-polishing to the table-setting.
After eating themselves into a stupor, one or two people usually rouse themselves long enough to make halfhearted, visibly insincere offers to help clean up. We tell them not to worry about it; Jeremy does the clean-up.
Sinking back into torpor, they sigh with relief. “Oh, you’re so lucky!” they murmur. “Jeremy is soooo wonderful!”
Although both Jeremy and I work full-time, I do all the cooking, and I have always taken care of considerably more child-rearing tasks and domestic drudge-work than my husband. In this regard, we resemble most other two-career American couples.
According to the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan, women spent an average of 27 hours a week on housework in 2002, while men spent 16 hours (which at least represents an improvement over the 16 seconds or so a lot of them spent a generation ago). Even today, married men perform little more than a third of household labor, whether or not their wives are in the paid labor force. And women spend more than twice as much time as men do on child care.
Ask your typical American dad what size shoes his children wear, and you will likely draw a blank stare. He has no idea. Guess who makes sure the kids’ toes aren’t poking through their sneakers?
My own husband claims that any imbalance in our household contributions derives solely from the fact that he has to go to an office while I work at home, a luxury that permits me to take care of many domestic tasks during my workday. This disparity in our schedules may explain why I make dinner every night—because I’m home to stir the pot on the stove—but it does not explain why our weekends begin with him enjoying a third cup of coffee over the morning newspapers while I rush around making breakfast, cleaning up the house, and organizing the children’s day. I’m the one everyone asks when they want to know when the next orthodontist appointment is, what the cross-country meet schedule is, or where the birthday party is being held (yes, I remembered to buy a present; yes, it’s wrapped and ready to go).
And yet everyone acts as if Jeremy deserves some kind of medal just for making a run to the supermarket. No one has ever suggested that I’m a heroine for doing the things every mother is expected to do. I admit that my husband helps out more than many men, but here’s another news flash: It isn’t because he’s such a fabulously enlightened being. Left to his own devices, he would doubtless park himself in front of the TV like some sitcom male-chauvinist couch potato while I did all the work. The reason Jeremy “helps” as much as he does (an offensive terminology that itself suggests who’s really being held responsible) is simple: He doesn’t have a choice.
From the beginning of our relationship, I made it very clear that I wasn’t going to be any husband’s unpaid servant. If Jeremy wanted to be—and stay—married to me, let alone have kids, he couldn’t stick me with all the boring, mundane stuff nobody wants to do. We were going to share the work, or we were going to forget the whole deal.Unlike my first husband, who announced after our wedding that he didn’t like the way the French laundry did his shirts and he now expected me, the Wife, to wash and iron all of them, Jeremy recognized both the righteousness of the principle involved and the intransigence of the woman he’d married, and proceeded to pitch in.
That was 17 years ago, and while we haven’t exactly achieved equity, we’ve come a lot closer to it than most of our peers, judging by all the dreary surveys proving that men are slugs and their wives are superwomen. So how have I accomplished this? By holding my husband’s feet to the fire every single day of our lives, of course.
Yes, dear readers, it’s true: Maintaining some semblance of parity in your marriage requires you to deploy the same kinds of nasty tactics you swore you would never stoop to as a parent but nonetheless found yourself using the minute you actually had a kid. Bribery and punishment work; so do yelling and complaining. Threats are also effective, as long as everyone knows you mean business. With husbands, tender blandishments and nooky are particularly useful, as is the withholding of the aforementioned.
These strategies admittedly take a lot of energy, but not as much as performing all the functions necessary to maintain home and family by yourself. When my husband has lingered too long over the sports section and I’m feeling overwhelmed by the number of errands that must be run, I hand him a list.
“This is what I need you to do today,” I say in a tone of voice that brooks no equivocation. He may moan and groan, but the jobs get done. And while I still have to mastermind the operation — somehow he is never the one who remembers that our son needs new mosquito netting, baseball cleats, and basketball shoes for sleepaway camp — I’m not the only one schlepping around town checking items off the To Do list.
What I don’t understand is why my insistence on some approximation of equality is unusual. I live in Manhattan, which is full of smart, educated, successful women who are juggling the responsibilities of family and career with extraordinary competence. And yet most of them will readily admit that their husbands don’t do half of anything remotely domestic.
Go to any school event for parents and you will find it crowded with working women who have taken time out of their busy professional schedules to meet with teachers or sit in on classes or attend the fourth-grade play. My children’s school sponsors a regular forum where parents gather to discuss such pressing issues as curfews, homework, and the social mores of hormone-addled teen-agers. At every single one, the room is full of women — doctors, lawyers, and CEOs, as well as stay-at-home moms. The only man who ever attends is a widower who admits his son never tells him anything, so he comes to the discussion groups in hopes of learning what his kid is up to from his classmates’ moms.
Where are the other fathers? In their offices, no doubt. Before you start protesting that this is exactly where those big strong male breadwinners belong, let me make one thing crystal clear: In many of the families I’m talking about, the wife is actually the major breadwinner. This seems to have no effect whatsoever on the husband’s willingness to be an equal partner — or on the wife’s readiness to demand that he become one. Although almost half of all working women provide at least half of the family income, and women are the major breadwinners in nearly a third of all American households, they remain far more likely to take time off from work when their children are sick. Needless to say, one survey after another shows that men also have more leisure time. Ask most working mothers what they do with their leisure time and you’re lucky if they don’t hit you.
The fact that guys, when left to their own devices, rarely rush to offer more toilet-scrubbing and diaper-changing is not in itself surprising. As Martin Luther King Jr. once observed, “We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.”
So why aren't women demanding something closer to parity? While many are resigned to seething in silence, the stakes are far higher than they seem to realize. When wives permit their husbands to shirk a fair share of the homemaking and parenting, not only do they themselves suffer, but chances are good that they’re also sentencing their children to a similar fate. When you have kids, everything you do teaches them how to live their own lives when they grow up. Unfortunately, all too many women are still teaching their children that “woman is the nigger of the world,” as John Lennon and Yoko Ono put it so memorably in a song lyric years ago. And what too many fathers teach their sons and daughters is that men can get away with dumping the scut work on their wives, and that women will grit their teeth and put up with it.
So all I can say to my fellow wives and mothers is: Rise up — you have nothing to lose but your unjust share of the burden. I know what you’re thinking: “I’ve tried to get him to help out more, but he won’t! What am I supposed to do?”
You’re supposed to insist, that’s what you’re supposed to do. It’s not as if women don’t have leverage these days; despite the stereotype of the middle-aged guy running off with the secretary half his age, two thirds of all divorces among Americans over 40 are initiated by women, not men. What does this tell us about their relative levels of satisfaction within marriage?
And while I recognize that gender stereotypes are risky, in my experience husbands are a lot like children. They will get away with whatever they can get away with. When you put your foot down and make it clear that you won’t take no for an answer, somehow the kids’ rooms get cleaned, the groceries bought, the laundry folded. It really does work, I promise.
Leslie Bennetts is the author of "The Feminine Mistake" and has been a contributing editor at Vanity Fair since 1988, writing on subjects that have ranged from movie stars to U.S. terrorism policy.