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Sun March 24, 2013

University of Kentucky Professor Asks: Are Men Doing Their Fair Share at Home?

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Earlier this month, Alexandra Bradner—a University of Kentucky philosophy professor—caused an Internet stir when The Atlantic Monthly's website published her piece, Some Theories on Why Men Don't do as Many Household Tasks.

Her argument, in a nutshell, is that working fathers in heterosexual relationships are doing more household tasks than their fathers, but their wives are still shouldering most of the work.  It's not simply cooking meals, washing dishes are spending quality time with the children, she argues, but "trivial" tasks that are still the domain of working mothers: "sick child duty, travel planning, photo organization, holiday preparation, emotional support work, hairstyling, online searches for sports equipment, et al."

This, in turn, has led to unhappiness among her friends who are working mothers. Bradner writes:

All of this means that mothers are important, in all of the ways in which socially conservative forces routinely note. But it could also mean that mothers—especially working mothers—are exploited. They are being used as a means by their partners, our institutions, and our economy in a system they did not design, to do more than their fair share of the family's work, all without compensation. No one yet has asked or empowered working mothers to reimagine and restructure their workplaces to suit their own ends. So the basic lack of self-governance and self-determination, combined with the unpaid labor, raises the specter of injustice.

Bradner offers theories on why working mothers, generally, are still handling more household tasks than their husbands and thoughts on what could be done to change it.

The piece set off a flurry of responses. About 400 comments have been written in the online story and blogger Andy Hinds wrote a response on The Atlantic's website titled, A Useful Rule for Dividing Household Tasks: Whoever Cares the Most Wins.

Since Bradner is a UK professor, I reached out to her to find out more of why she wrote the piece, to have her elaborate and to discuss how she felt about the reaction.

What spurred you to write this piece?

"Just anecdotally, most of my friends are just so unhappy. I mean, I have a lot of friends that are very ambitious and are working mothers and they have just sort of finished the baby period and now their kids are kind of like between 5 and 12 and they're just exhausted and unhappy and their marriages are stressed. It just seems so silly to me because with a little more understanding and couple changes to our workplace policies, I think our country would be in better shape.

"There's that, and just professionally the American Philosophical Association has started to encourage philosophers who are usually sitting and their desk chairs reading and thinking at universities to kind of extend themselves more and get involved and contribute to social discussions."

So what do you think of this idea that within couples with children, the parent who cares most about a particular task should handle it?

"That's the motivational hypothesis. So that's definitely one of the three possibilities out there—that men and women value different things and men don't see some tasks as interesting, important or valuable. Women, it's the other kinds of tasks that are interesting important or valuable.

"If that's the case—if that hypothesis is in fact true or confirmable in some way—it doesn't really solve the misery issues, which is that anecdotally, women are just so miserable. I tried to talk to working fathers, too, but most of my best friends are women. So it may be that men are miserable, too. But there's just such a visceral angst I think now among working women; just this sort of ripping feeling of failure at their job and failure to fulfill the needs of their children. I don't sense that kind of angst among the working fathers that I know—of course, some of them I do, but most of them I don't. So it may be that we could divide an conquer and just pursue the tasks that we feel are valuable, but I still think that this is going to leave the moms miserable."

Is it possible that men just don't recognize the value in tasks like organizing photos?

"Or it might be that women just think a lot more things need to be done and so they end up with the bulk of the work, because they actually think a lot more things need to be done. ... I think it's really important to remember that culturally a lot of this work has been hidden. Wealthy people pay people to do this work. Men who have been out in the public sphere haven't really seen the work involved in child-rearing. And, of course, working women in working classes have always sort of had this kind of insight, even though they've been out in the public sphere and understood the work involved in child-rearing.

"There's just a tremendous amount of working involved. And that's I think what we're finally seeing is just how much labor is involved in child-rearing. And because of that it really may be that men are only coming to value, you know, picking up your kid in person at the bus or spending 20 minutes checking over that homework when you really don't have to or listening for 30 minutes about the playground dispute or whatever. There's just all of this work that I think women have seen and know about that maybe men are just starting to understand."

What was the response to your Atlantic piece?

"I was actually shocked by the number of comments to the article and also the vitriol in the comments—like, the strong feelings surround them. I have to say I was very surprised by that. I knew this was an issue because it's an issue among the people I talk to. And it's a longstanding issue. ...

"What I felt it was was men saying working women are complainers and just suck it up, this is what life is like—it's hard. Work is hard. That kind of a thing. I think actually most women know that their husbands are doing more than their fathers did. So it's clear, I think, to the majority of working women that their husbands are trying their best to take on more of the responsibilities in ways that their fathers never did. My personal impression is that women are very appreciative of that.The angst comes more, I think, just from the women who feel like they can't succeed at their jobs at the level they'd like to while also fulfilling the needs of their kids. And they're not necessarily blaming their husbands for not doing these invisible tasks, but they just feel bad about it."

(Image via Shutterstock.)