Photo by Daniela Rey on Unsplash

Want to talk about the roles of husbands in the home, or wives at work? It’s a thorny issue. And not just for feminists. Women who do not strongly identify with that philosophy wrestle with what a fair share of domestic responsibilities should look like as well.

A recent article in The Economist argues that an uneven distribution in housework and parental responsibilities still exists in Western homes, with the larger load falling on the woman. It claims this inequity is the reason for the fact “women greatly outnumber men in lower-level jobs, such as clerical and administrative positions, whereas managerial and senior jobs are mostly held by men.”

Describing it as the “motherhood penalty,” the article notes that women’s careers suffer more than their husbands’ after children are added to the family. Interestingly though, it suggests that embarking on parenthood doesn’t account for those stats entirely. It highlights the importance of spouses’ need to adapt to a heavier workload in the home when children come along. The article suggests the husband’s failure to adapt to home work is partly the reason women are held back.

This all too familiar trope of feminist and economic theory is designed to push couples towards a 50-50 share of household work, including child care, so that the woman can pursue paid work on the same basis as her husband – an impractical goal when children are very young and, in fact, not what most women want. It is aimed at changing the attitudes of men, but is just as likely to change women’s attitude to motherhood – negatively. 

To describe the woman’s career as “suffering” because of a “motherhood penalty” can cause cognitive dissonance when it comes to desiring both children and career. It can even make women feel guilty or second-rate if they should so much as desire raising a family instead of continuing in their career path.

It is, understandably, difficult for women who do desire both career and family to resist the feeling that men seem to be able to achieve both more easily– not having to choose one at the expense of the other. Yet the gender difference, which makes pregnancy and breastfeeding impossible for a man (and evokes a preposterous image) is too often neglected.

By stopping short at the gender-gap tantrum, feminist theory disenables serious progress on how a woman can meet the challenge of integrating domestic, career and maternal roles in a creative way.

It’s a deep rabbit hole. But perhaps more practically, it’s a problem without a textbook solution. While this might be seen as unhelpful, perhaps it is liberating in one sense. If there’s no prototype for equal tasking when it comes to careers, housework and child rearing, then couples can invent their own pattern for it.

Perhaps she picks up the kids from school Monday-Wednesday, he does it Thursday-Friday. The laundry might be fully her domain while he is the resident vaccuumer. He might be cooking a family meal while she’s out doing the weekly grocery shop. Doing housework at the same time can give couples a strong sense of teamwork too.

A little innovation, much communication–and probably much compromise as well–a balance which both couples feel mutually happy about can be achieved. But that ideal will remain pie in the sky unless domestic standards are flexible and families forgo homemade pie more often.

Although modern marriages are edging further away from the traditional dynamic of man as breadwinner and woman as homemaker, the adage (from Homer, I believe – and no, not Homer Simpson) still holds good:

“There is nothing nobler or more admirable than when two people who see eye to eye keep house as man and wife, confounding their enemies and delighting their friends.”

Any marriage able to overcome the 21st century gender role crisis is a noble and admirable thing indeed.

Veronika Winkels is a freelance writer who lives in Melbourne and is married with two young children. She recently completed a thesis on the philosophy of science

Veronika Winkels

Veronika Winkels is married with four young children. She majored in History and History & Philosophy of Science at the University of Melbourne before becoming a freelance writer, published poet, and...