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Book Review: The Second Shift. Also thoughts on the division of labor at home and “family-friendly” workplaces.

Quite a while ago I was feeling stressed and overworked and I picked up this book for $1 from the thrift store sale section, titled with a phrase I’ve heard before to describe working mothers’ home life: The Second Shift.

It’s been published in many editions, and the one I picked up looks like this:,204,203,200_.jpg

The book was published in 1989 and I think the author, Arlie Russell Hochschild, actually coined the term.

She looks at what was then considered a relatively new phenomenon of working mothers and asks, “If more mothers of young children are stepping into full-time jobs outside the home, and if most couples can’t afford household help, how much more are fathers doing at home?” She cites many studies indicating that women were basically doing a “double shift” with work outside and inside the home, working, according to studies done in the 1960s and ’70s, “an extra month of twenty-four-hour days a year” compared with men. She goes on to look at the different ways families divvy up home and work responsibilities and to explore the costs to women of the time gap.

The book is almost twenty-five years old at this point, and I think things have changed quite a bit. But a lot of the same problems still exist, and the way the author described some of them was interesting to me.

One issue that seems to be still ongoing for families is that even when home and childcare responsibilities are fairly equally divided, women tend to feel more responsible for them. It’s the woman’s job to make sure the kids have doctor appointments, healthy meals available, and gifts to take to birthday parties. I do think a lot of fathers might counter this by saying, sure, my wife worries about that stuff more, but I’ll get it done without worrying about it so much, and that’s a fair point. But then in my house I’d be asking, sure, he ate lunch, but did it include vegetables? Did you go out and spend money? Did it come out of a disposable plastic container that might be harming his health and is now going to sit in a landfill somewhere??? Did he practice using a fork or did you shovel it in his mouth? Did it involve a variety of flavors and textures so that he doesn’t become too picky? If we keep buying jars of baby food isn’t that going to turn into boxes of frozen processed meals down the road?? So, yes, I’m burdened under concerns my husband doesn’t share and we probably both need to move a bit toward some middle ground (and we are).

I appreciated the descriptions of frustrations that I share. She talks about the “speed-up” in families’ lives and how women have mostly “absorbed” it. Based on the author’s interviews, she writes, “more women felt torn between one sense of urgency and another… More women than men questioned how good they were as parents… More often than men, women alternated between living in their ambition and standing apart from it.” I feel like these issues are usually depicted in terms of the cost to women’s professional lives, but this book also emphasized the cost to women as mothers. The mothers become the ones rushing the kids around and being angry, frustrated, anxious, and impatient all the time. These sentences struck me more than any other part of the book at a time when I was feeling a lot of regret and resentment about having to go back to work (I read the book several months ago): “Sadly enough, women are more often the lightning rods for family aggressions aroused by the speed-up of work and family life. They are the ‘villains’ in a process of which they are also the primary victims. More than the longer hours, the sleeplessness, and feeling torn, this is the saddest cost to women of the extra month a year.” That’s what I was really worried about as a working mother: losing the joy of motherhood and the opportunity for my child to know me as a relaxed and joyful mother.

Earlier in that same chapter (it’s only the first one!), Hochschild describes how it’s not just the amount of time that women and men put in at home that differs, it’s the nature of that time, and how women’s is more fragmented than men’s, with men having “more control over when they make their contributions” because the women are making dinner every night and responding to household needs as they come up rather than doing something like car maintenance infrequently and at a time they choose. Women are also more often multi-tasking and men are more often doing the fun activities with the kids. These things are certainly changing, but they are factors to keep in mind when considering how responsibilities are shared and time is spent within a family. It comes into play for us when we’re both trying to relax in the evening or on a weekend or vacation day. Who notices the baby heading for the stairs and jumps up to retrieve him? Who responds when she fusses? I had an enlightening moment this year when we got back from our family vacation on which A. had way more fun and felt more relaxed than he had expected and I felt less so. I said, “I know I did fun and relaxing things but I don’t feel like a person who has had fun or relaxed.” A. asked me how that could be possible when we’d had so many family members taking care of Ari, and I responded that I was the one people came to if they wanted to know if they could feed him something. I helped set him up to eat and cleaned him up afterwards. I still changed a lot of diapers. I put him down for naps and at bedtime. I was still breastfeeding him. I felt guilty if someone else caught him heading for the stairs or if he bumped his head on the coffee table, as though I should have been watching him more closely. I was constantly on alert! For some reason A. seems to be able to switch all of that off and relax a lot easier. We go to the park and A. promptly lies down on the grass! I can’t even fathom doing that because then who is making sure Ari doesn’t poke his eye out with a stick? Shortly after that I figured out that while A. can sit and relax at home with Ari around, I cannot, and if I want to relax or get something done, I have to ask A. to take Ari on an outing somewhere. My life started to improve the day I figured that out, and I think the parenting journey is full of small discoveries like that!

It’s also not just about women vs. men, it’s about the kinds of demands that have to be negotiated within any couple when a child is added to the equation; issues that are hard to think about before you have a child, and that are hard to pinpoint even after you become a parent.

They’re not even issues that exist only when both parents are working outside the home. The never-ending nature of a stay-at-home mom’s day has been increasingly acknowledged recently, I feel, and men are being expected to pitch in more at home even after a day at work, which I think is a good and necessary development! All couples also have to negotiate how they will divide and share responsibilities for home and childcare.

Anyway, back to the book. A phrase the author repeats again and again is “the stalled revolution” – meaning the workplace was changing with more women in it, but life at home wasn’t changing as much to accommodate women being away at work. Also, the workplace changed enough to allow women to enter it but not enough to allow parents of both sexes to better balance their work with their family lives.

This leads to another of my favorite paragraphs in the book (in the second chapter, now!):

“A society which did not suffer from this stall would be a society humanely adapted to the fact that most women work outside the home. The workplace would allow parents to work part time, to share jobs, to work flexible hours, to take parental leaves to give birth, tend a sick child, or care for a well one. As Delores Hayden has envisioned in Redesigning the American Dream, it would include affordable housing closer to places of work, and perhaps community-based meal and laundry services. It would include men whose notion of manhood encouraged them to be active parents and share at home. In contrast, a stalled revolution lacks social arrangements that ease life for working parents, and lacks men who share the second shift.”

Twenty-five years later, I think we’re getting there but we’re not there yet. For some reason, other countries seem to have been able to change much faster than ours has. (Why???) Check out this article and infographic, which reports that the U.S., Lesotho (huh?), Swaziland, and Papua New Guinea are now the only countries in the world that do not mandate paid maternity leave, and in many countries men are mandated access to paid leave for a new baby’s arrival as well. This article makes the case that paternity leave is good for women (well, duh…) and even mentions Arlie Hochschild and the second shift!

Although the U.S. doesn’t mandate any paid parental leave, more companies are offering it, even for men. But informally it seems to me that paid leave for mothers or, especially, for fathers is far more likely to be offered in higher paid positions, meaning it’s probably more often white, upper middle-class people who get it (and all the benefits to families and to children’s development that go along with it), which further disadvantages the poor in America.

Okay, I think that’s about all I can write for now. Ari’s about to wake up from his nap! The rest of the book includes profiles of different families and the different arrangements they’ve worked out, and the author’s thoughts on trends that she noted. One interesting point she made was that she had expected that in couples where the man made less money than the woman, the man would do more at home. What she found, instead, was that if the woman made less, she would indeed usually do more because she was seen as contributing less to the family economically. But if the man made less, often the woman would still do more at home in order to restore the balance in some way and help preserve their husbands’ sense of manliness. She writes that a man’s higher income would “buy” him more leisure time, but a woman’s higher income didn’t work the same way.

She also acknowledged that often women – deliberately or not – “edge” men out of the home and childcare spheres by becoming sort of the first responders. I can definitely relate to that! Women often have more experience with babies than men do – in my case, that was true from babysitting jobs – and more confidence and more of a cultural sense that they are “naturally” inclined to take care of a baby, along with the fact that if they were pregnant and gave birth, their bodies have changed to be ready to take care of a baby. If they are breastfeeding, they definitely provide something the father can’t. Babies may not respect their parents’ intentions to share things equally, either, and may show a clear preference for their mother when they want to be comforted. So, it’s not easy! Plenty of other people have written about ways to work through those obstacles to equal parenting, so I’m not going to get into it here.

In our family, I don’t work as many hours as A. does outside the home, so I think it’s fair for me to do more – but not all – of the housework and childcare and dog care. We share different aspects of the job of arranging childcare for when we are working. I definitely obsess about it more. But if our nanny calls in sick at the last minute, A. stays home from work until he has made other arrangements for Ari, because his job can be a little more flexible with timing, whereas I absolutely have to show up by 7:00 am. (I can call in for an ill child, but not for an ill nanny! And if I do call in sick, I’m supposed to do it by 3am.) When I was working nights, A. was on his own with Ari all night, and when I work weekends, he’s on his own with him all weekend.

Our arrangements are still a work in progress, and so is American society, but I am encouraged. I hear women at work saying they refuse to start trying to have a baby until their husband does an equal amount of housework (although I’m not sure they’ll hold to that as the years go by…). I see men taking parental leaves and being more involved with their kids. For that matter, I see men leaving work entirely to be stay-at-home dads. I love that we live in a city where I feel that family time, a peaceful home life, and doing what you love are generally viewed as more important than making money (and riding a bicycle is better than speeding around in a car). We’re making things work in the way that is right for us. I just wish it were easier to do so, for everybody!

2 thoughts on “Book Review: The Second Shift. Also thoughts on the division of labor at home and “family-friendly” workplaces.

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