Let's turn first to those who highlight familiar themes of marital equality, themes that resonate with existing research. Still, as familiar as these are, notice that respondents elaborate upon them in idiosyncratic ways.
Lucy's Account: "If he would only do the things I can't."
At the time I met her, Lucy was a thirty-seven-year-old homemaker who had been married to her husband, Sam, for fifteen years.2 As a full-time mom to her two teenage children, Lucy described herself as busy but fairly happy
2 I have given pseudonyms to all of my respondents and their spouses. I should also note that in the excerpts that follow, I use bracketed elipses ([...]) to indicate that I have deleted portions of the conversation, regular elipses (...) to indicate pauses, and dashes to indicate abrupt stops and starts.
with her marriage. There were definitely things that frustrated her about her relationship, however, and those things took center stage during the interview. Lucy told me at the outset that she had "really strong feelings" about the "jobs and responsibilities" held by men and women. This let me know that her marital tale would likely be one about the division of labor. She immediately confirmed what she had told me on the phone, that her marriage was "pretty unequal." As she put it in the interview:
My husband works really hard, he's a carpenter. And he's always worked— he has a physical, hard job. And I understand but... I have a physical hard job and uh, an emotionally kinda hard job. When he comes home from work he says "OK I want, I want a little time to myself" and regroup and whatever, and I never get that.
Right away Lucy framed her marriage as an unequal partnership because of her and Sam's respective workloads. Sam earned money outside the home; she took care of the household. While Lucy characterized both roles as demanding, she also implied that hers entailed an emotional component that was absent from Sam's. Lucy further claimed to "never" get any time for herself, while Sam was more or less off duty once he came home from his carpentry job. Teenagers are not like two-year-olds, she explained, because you can't "lock them in a room" or give them a "time-out." Thus, as Lucy constructed a comparison of her and her husbands' workloads, she simultaneously articulated an ad hoc evaluation of mothering younger versus older children: Because raising teenagers is as tough or tougher than raising two-year-olds, she argued, her nonstop workload was tougher than her husbands' was.
Lucy proceeded to describe some of the various ways that Sam could have contributed more around the house. She suggested repeatedly that while Sam put out a great deal of effort at his carpentry job, as soon as he returned home he was virtually on holiday. Making dinner, doing the laundry, cleaning the bathroom, chauffeuring the kids around town, helping with homework—in all of these areas Lucy found Sam's contributions to be missing or deficient. Lucy even went so far as to doubt whether her husband even knew the dates of his children's birthdays. While this might signal many things, in the context of her account it was cast as yet another example of Sam not doing his part around the house. Eventually, Lucy focused on an area where she felt her husband really ought to help more. She discussed home improvements requiring his special skills, as in this quote: "He's a carpenter but our house is like falling apart. Our house is the very last house on the list. He does this all day long, and I can understand that. But I can't paint the house, you know. I mean I can mow the lawn but I can't paint the house."
On and on Lucy's story went, with one after another task taking its turn as the source of her ire. For example, Lucy suggested it had been five years since Sam had cleaned a bathroom, then contrasted that example with his tendency to "lay around all weekend and watch TV and drink some beer." When I asked Lucy what specific improvements she would like to see in her marriage, she reacted pessimistically about the prospects for change. Then she returned to her husband's refusal to apply his special skills to his own home. Lucy was especially bothered by one of their bathrooms, which Sam had torn apart two years earlier but had never finished remodeling.
He's a skilled carpenter; he's like the best, the best in his field. So why is my bathroom unfinished? You know, because he doesn't use—we have two bathrooms. We have a down—downstairs bathroom, we have an upstairs bathroom. He uses the upstairs the bathroom. The kids use the upstairs bathroom. Nobody wants to use that [downstairs] bathroom, you know? And I'm like ... It would probably take just a weekend to finish it. A weekend, a full weekend of work, you know, of getting it in gear and doing it. And there's things that. . . that I can't do, I can't do that. Because I don't know how to put a floor in. [ . . . ] I would be really happy if I, if he just did those type of jobs I can't do. I mean the daily, the daily grind is not that bad. [. . . ] If he would just do things around the house that I can't do. [ . . . ] Oh that would be, I would be happy. That would be it, that would be it, you know?
In the context of Lucy's account, then, the idea that "an hour is an hour is an hour" did not seem to apply. Some hours of housework can mean a great deal more than others, Lucy seemed to tell me. If Sam were to spend a weekend cooking and cleaning, it would not be nearly as helpful—nor bring their relationship as close to equality—as would a weekend of bathroom remodeling.
Meg's Account: "Just take them bills!"
Another respondent, Meg, also told me a story about her marriage that seemed to invoke the conventional theme of "sharing the labor." A mother of three children (four, seven, and eleven years old), Meg's days were certainly full. She not only worked as a certified nurse's aide but also sold Mary Kay products in her spare time. When I met her, Meg and her husband Chuck (a car wash manager) had been married for thirteen years.
As with Lucy, Meg argued that her marriage was less than fair and that her husband could contribute much more around the house. Unlike Lucy, however, her biggest complaint revolved around their finances rather than carpentry or home improvement.
Meg seemed to arrive at our interview ready with a mental checklist of her husband's unfair attitudes and behavior in her marriage. Initially, these centered on the division of household chores. Meg quickly rattled off a series of tasks that Chuck either neglected, avoided, or outright refused to do: changing diapers, cleaning the house, and hiring babysitters. At the beginning of their marriage, Chuck had even expected that Meg would make his lunch every day; he had also expressed a desire to have recreational time by himself, without having to look after the children. Neither of these expectations seemed fair to Meg, since no one made her lunch and her time off always included supervising the children.
When I asked what it would take for her marriage to be more equal, Meg's answer again revolved around Chuck's contributions to, and his mindset toward, the household workload. On the face of it, this resonates with a familiar theme in current research. Meg said she wanted Chuck to be more "active," in the sense of doing more and not waiting to be told what to do. What would be nice, Meg suggested, would be for Chuck to take the initiative and say, "This is what I've planned for us to have for dinner" rather than relying on her all the time. Usually, she suggested, when Chuck got home from work, he stopped moving while she kept going and going. "He lays down, plops, and dies" was how she put it.
Eventually, Meg honed in on one particular way that Chuck could have been a more active household participant. She was adamant that Chuck could do much more to assist her in managing their finances. While some scholars and laypersons might view "controlling the money" as a privilege and a sign of power, in Meg's account it was framed as an overwhelming and unwanted responsibility. The following excerpt is illustrative:
I feel like I have the weight of the world on my shoulders. [ . . . ] I'm the one who worries about when they get paid—sure he's helping pay for them, but I'm the one that gets "Oh God, I gotta pay this bill by this date, I gotta pay this." It's just like when he hands over his check, he's handing over all the responsibilities of worrying about what goes where, and how much, and this and that. [ . . . ] Because I got all this stuff. You know I've got all the bills, and going and talking to the landlord, and making sure the car payments and the bills are paid, and then on top of that "What are we having for dinner?" the kids are "Aaaahh!" [makes a screaming noise], you know, it's like "Aaaahh!" [Meg makes another screaming noise for herself and pulls on her hair.] I want to take it [makes a gesture as if throwing something away] and say that's enough. You take over for awhile. But I think he would pop. I personally don't think he could handle the stress of paying all the bills. It scares me. It scares me to—I would be afraid to death to hand him my paycheck and say "Here. Take care of the bills." [ . . . ] I would be stressed out, I'd be going "Oh my God, are the lights gonna be on tomorrow?"
Meg was in a real bind. Handling the finances was a tough chore that she desperately wanted to share with her husband, but that option was out of the question because (according to Meg) Chuck was both uninterested and incapable of correctly paying the bills and balancing their accounts.
I don't want to give the impression that Meg was only interested in the division of labor. Our interview lasted well over an hour and covered an array of topics. Meg explained that Chuck didn't permit her to go shopping alone after dark, but suggested that he was not nearly as controlling as many other husbands and boyfriends she had known; she told me that she had been physically abused in a past relationship, but she was confident this would never happen with Chuck. And she (rhetorically) asked me why men seem to feel that it's acceptable for them to wake up their wives in the middle of the night in order to make sexual advances, but get cranky whenever their wives do the same to them.
However, the division of labor did seem to be the subject that most preoccupied Meg, and within that area the task of "paying the bills" seemed most prominent. She repeatedly stated or implied that she envied Chuck's "freedom," his ability to "just come home and sit back" and relax. She wanted to periodically share in the comfortable feeling that "everything's paid for, everything's taken care of." In fact, at the conclusion of the interview, Meg helped wrap up our conversation by summarizing her thoughts on her marriage in this way:
MEG: The main thing that sticks out in my head is them bills. "Take them bills. I don't want to see 'em. I don't want to see 'em. None of 'em. You get the mail, you pay the bills, you worry about it for a while—"
SCOTT: You think that's like the biggest inequality in your marriage or...
MEG: I think so, oh definitely. I mean that's just kinda petty, but to me, you know, when you've got numbers in front of you, and you're trying to figure out what he's making, you know, that you got to put it with yours to get it, I'd just—I'd like to just take forty dollars out of my pay check, stick it in my pocket, say "Here ya go honey. Take care of the bills for this month." But then again that scares the crap out of me.
Lucy and Meg both offered accounts that centered on the division of labor, though the experiences they highlighted within that theme were somewhat idiosyncratic. Lucy lamented the unequal contributions her husband made around the house, but suggested that her relationship would have been "close enough" to equal if her husband would have just done one category of tasks: work that she couldn't do but that he was trained by trade to do. Sam's reluctance to apply his carpentry skills to their own ailing home overshadowed all the other tasks with which she wished he would help her. Meg's account also depicted an unfair division of chores, but she seemed most concerned with monetary challenges. Meg didn't claim that Chuck was earning or spending more than his fair share of income; it was that he left it up to her to ensure that all the bills were paid on time and that their accounts were all in order.
Lucy's and Meg's views show that two individuals can share a common concern with "equality as sharing the workload" even though the theme takes on distinct subjective meanings in each case. These meanings can be distorted by a research methodology that merely counts up the total number of hours that husbands and wives spend on housework and childcare.
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