Monday, November 27, 2006

Thinking About the Division of Labor

A friend posted on a message board about a dilemma she has. She is going to school so that she can share in paid work with her husband. The schooling causes a time crunch which means she has less time and energy for her daughters. She is also uncertain about the career path chosen.

But really, I'm not thinking about those things. As long as I have known her, this mama has shared parenting duties with her DH, and when her first daughter was born he arranged his schedule to be home as much as possible. They sold their house and bought somewhere much less expensive so that her DH could take a sabbatical and be with the family.

I have always admired this. In my mind, I created the goal that DH might someday be able to reduce his hours at work. We are already partners in so much, and this would be one of the final puzzle pieces.

However, on the post, someone criticized my friend's DH for not wanting to shoulder the full financial responsibility for his family. I wanted to respond, to defend both his feelings and her choice, but it wasn't mine to defend.

I don't know many mamas who don't think that a little help would be nice. We recognize that being a mama and a homemaker is a huge task. Depending on how the home labor is divided a mama may find herself doing the cooking, the provisioning, the cleaning, the laundry, the finances, the day-to-day child rearing, the kin and holiday work, the educating, and much, much more. In general, the attitude I get from mamas is that they have a hard job, and that their partners should pitch in and do some of it. To be expected to do it all is putting us into a 1950s housewife role.

At the same time, however, many mamas expect their partners to support them financially. There are many reasons for this, one being the idea that children thrive best when they are raised by a parent that stays out of the paid workforce and devotes a significant amount of time to the children each day. In the beginning, when babies are newborn, it works out best biologically for the breastfeeding mother to be the one that stays home with the baby. Also, we may have come a long way baby, but most women with the same education as a man still make less than 75% of what a man does for the same job. These two things together usually result in the breastfeeding mama staying out of the paid workforce in the children's early years.

We don't to be subjugated, we don't want to have to do it all, but we want our partners to stick with the 1950s breadwinner role. Society still looks down on the man who doesn't choose to work full time. Men who are financially supported by their partners are regarded as lazy.

It's crazy, really. We're wrapped up in some way for thinking that hasn't even applied to most of the human race for more than 100 years, and even now it doesn't apply to most of the human race. Men and women (or men and men or women and women) have always worked together, dividing the labor in ways that made sense. Once the use of money replaced bartering most women still needed to find ways to produce income. It might have been a cottage industry, or factory work, or service (taking in washing, etc.), or selling off surplus eggs and butter.

Families have to work together. Recently my sister was teasing her mother's helper (now foster daughter) about how she really liked the baby only because she got paid to care for her. The girl told her, "No, I really like the baby. I had to give the money to my mother." That's life, that is reality. Everyone pulls together.

We've been reading/re-reading the Little House books. The family works together. The days are long, and sometimes Pa is so tired he can't tell stories or play his fiddle. But mostly there is time for stories and music. Pa is home nearly everday for breakfast, dinner, and supper. They all work together, at first it is mostly Ma and Pa, but the girls have things they do that help. Later, as Laura gets older, she works hard and her money is put away so her sister can go to college. Can you imagine a 12 year old now doing that? Well, she wouldn't be allowed to labor in the same way, but certainly many middle class tweens expect any money they earn to be theirs.

Women work. Men work. There is no law out there that says a man is required to financially provide for his partner. I applaud a man who wants to spend more time with his children, and I admire a woman who is willing to step aside and let him truly share that role in the children's lives, and who will even seek paid work so that it can happen.

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