Monday, January 30, 2006

Protection is Housework, Too

There are many studies showing that women do more housework than men. Even when both husband and wife are working full time, as Arlie Hochschild famously demonstrated, women still do more of the "second shift" of cooking and cleaning and childcare.

Other studies have shown that husbands and fathers do more than their fathers did. In particular, many fathers today are much more involved in raising their children than was true in previous generations. Some more nuanced studies have further shown that in the widget-laden middle-class home, there is just less housework to do than there used to be.

There is a set of chores that men as still more likely to do – yard work, household and car maintenance, and the outside tasks in general. However, women are more likely to do the daily stuff, while men's household jobs are occasional. The equation is not quite balanced. Men come off looking like slackers in these studies, which bothers me.

Then I had a minor epiphany. There is another important category of housework that men do: protection. This includes the daily tasks of making sure the doors are locked, the longer-term upkeep of smoke detectors and floodlights, and dealing with the rarer dangers like termites and foundation cracks. Most especially, men get to deal with the Scary Noise in the Night. Many other tasks get swapped back and forth across gender lines, but in my experience, this one falls largely to husbands and fathers.

I find that I routinely engage in continuous threat assessment, especially when I am with my wife and kids. I automatically size up the dark street, the unfamiliar guy, the strange dog – anything that might endanger my family. Like most men, I don't like to sit with my back to the door or the crowd in a public place, which I believe comes from the same instinct.

Our lovely town is a safe place to live, but even here there are dangers. And, in a larger sense, providing the protection to society which makes our town safe, and (for the most part) makes our nation safe, too, is overwhelmingly the work of men.

So when we are making our accounts of housework, let's be sure to include protection as one of the valuable tasks of household life. I think that will go some way to balancing the books.


bookgirl said...

I find it quite interesting that you, as a man, find "protection" to be added in the plus column (as in, yeah for men--we are performing an essential function to continue, not only our daily existence, but also our survival) to somehow balance the inquity that still exists within familes and relationships. As a single woman, I find that I am quite capable and aware of doing those "daily tasks of making sure the doors are locked, the longer-term upkeep of smoke detectors and floodlights, and dealing with the rarer dangers like termites and foundation cracks. Most especially, men get to deal with the Scary Noise in the Night." I have cohabitated with my significant other for several years, and I can definitely say that although he does all of these things that you mention, I am still the one who does the majority of the housework. For the many years that I was a single woman living alone or with another female roommate, even while at Centre Dear, I performed those "tasks" more often than I do now. They still don't even come close to balancing out the equation. Those are things that are natural to do, when you live in the world that we do, however relatively safe it is, for both genders. Those things aren't necessarily comparative to the labor required in the primarily female tasks of doing dishes, laundry, making beds, cleaning kitchens, bathrooms, etc. With that being said, I do appreciate that I now don't have to get up in the middle of the night to check out that noise...but I would happily do it to avoid ever cleaning another toliet or bathtub. :)

SPorcupine said...

I'd ask a different question about the division of housework. I suspect that the definition of what needs doing comes from mainly from wives: the women (usally, with exceptions) make the choices about level of order, quality of cooking, and so on. In many cases (with exceptions), the husband would choose a lower maintenance approach if he was doing the deciding.

As a result, I think some of what is defined as houseWORK shifts into being more like "projects involving the home." She values it as part of making the home a great place to live, but I'm not sure that ihe has to match those projects for the work to be equitably divided.

I do suspect there's an inequality. I also suspect that it's overstated for many couples.

Anonymous said...

As for men making sure the door is locked or being observant, I think you are way off base. There are many things my husband does, but I am the one who locks doors, observes dark streets, and wakes to sounds in the night.

As bookgirl points out, the tasks that males do are probably not comprable. Changing a light bulb, for example, constitutes about five minutes a month.

I think porcupine made a valid point. And, I don't think my husband is a slacker since he is constantly doing something productive for our family.

Terri (I forgot to put my name on a previous oxygen comment)

Anonymous said...

(mine was the oxygen bar comment)

I think I'll reconsider my response to protection work since a wasp just flew out of some clothes and my husband said he'll check for possible entry places around the dryer.

Seems that a lot of the division of labor has to do with the particular things each of us is good at. Bottom line seems to be that we both spend all of our time doing things that benefit our family in some way. And when we have a break we can do something we enjoy, like read your blog : )


thisniss said...

"Protection" doesn't count as "housework," because "housework" means the three "C's": cooking, cleaning, and childcare -- with all the gendered baggage that inheres. Sorry. Killing bugs is major (and really, all the justification I need for keeping Matt around, since I live in an area with both Palmetto bugs and super creepy centipedes). But although he washes dishes and I fix things and we both work full time, the housework still skews pretty much along gender lines.

Why? Because I know how to do certain things, like cook and sew and clean, and he doesn't. I was brought up by a smart and determined single mom, so I learned to do all of her jobs and many of "his" jobs, too (household and minor automotive repairs, other of your protective tasks). I think the real question is whether we will continue to enculture a gendered division of housework that isn't necessarily rational given our current division of labor, or whether we will move toward models that reflect the fact that both men and women work outside the home (thereby equalizing time spent on housework across gender). Based on the increasing parity in my generation, I suspect my son will grow up to do more housework than his dad, and way more than his grandfathers did. He'd better!

I still think Thorstein Veblen had the best ideas when it comes to housework -- if it's purely ceremonial and you don't really care (e.g., bedmaking), don't do it. He was maybe a little too crazy in advocating disposable paper clothes, but there are those laundry days when I think perhaps his true genius remains unrecognized?

Anonymous said...

The new division of labor in our society certainly makes it seem irrational that women should do more housework than men, but perhaps there’s something far more potent working against that. I know I was raised by a strong single mother who could change the oil, scare off intruders, and cook dinner, but now she’s married to my step-father and even though she can do a lot of those “manly” things, she doesn’t anymore.

The book I’m reading, “Why Men Don’t Listen and Women Can’t Read Maps,” suggests that the feelings that Beau was commenting on (not sitting with one’s back to the door, sizing up the stranger, etc…) are genetically imprinted on men through evolution. The authors go so far as to set up a scenario to illustrate their point (I’ll paraphrase). A man and woman can walk into a room with 20 different couples and within 10 minutes the woman will be able to assess the status of the couples (whether they’re fighting, married, dating) by noting minute details that men are not wired to readily notice. In the same 10 minutes a man will have mapped out the closest escapes in case of emergency, and identified all the potential threats in the room.

I have spoken with other men who agreed that they regularly find themselves identifying weapons in everyday situations…just in case. These, I feel, are things that we are hard-wired to do. Women can do it if it proves necessary, but don’t by nature. Should this be classified “work,” I don’t know, but I certainly feel that it’s the man’s “job” in the majority of relationships.

Another thought, in every couple that I know the man always drives the car when they ride together. The women all can and do drive on their own, but the man does the driving when they are together. I would be interested to hear about anyone who knows where the opposite is true and the woman in the relationship does the majority of the driving. Is this rampant sexism? This book put forward that perhaps men are wired for spatial and directional aptitude and thus everyone is more comfortable with a man driving, but I would be open to other interpretation.

Gruntled said...

I am all for people knowing how do to all kinds of things, and couples dividing labor on the basis of who does what best, maintaining rough parity. I think that, left to their own devices, there are regular sex-linked divisions that most couples will choose. In this set of comments, I read several women saying that they can do all the protection jobs, and did when they were single, but now that they live with a man, they don't. This sounds ok to me -- I think it proves my point.

My bigger point, though, was not that men do more housework than they usually get credit for, but that protection really is a kind of housework, whoever does it.

Anonymous said...

It struck me that most of the tasks that you point out that men generally do (yardwork, house and car maintenance) depend on a particular kind of lifestyle. This type of "housework" assumes that the family lives in a house rather than an apartment (which they own rather than rent) and possess a car. Certainly this is the case in Danville, but not in the center of Moscow. In contrast, cooking, cleaning and childcare have to be done whether you live in a mansion or a cardboard box.
The same can be said of protection. Neither I nor my husband can control if the lights in the entryway to our building are replaced, if the electronic code box on the front door is broken, or if the building even has fire safety measures, much less if they are maintained. Living in a large apartment block also desensitizes reactions to potentially frightening noises - generally the scary noise in the night is my upstairs neighbor's dog.
Now this is not to belittle my husband, who does laundry, changes diapers, and gives 75% of baths, but his role is different than yours.
I think that it's important to keep in mind that most assessments possess some kind of cultural bias of which we still need to be aware.

Gruntled said...

That is fair enough. I would think that in Moscow, where the threats are more numerous and obvious than in Danville, somebody would need to do protection work on a daily basis. When you and your husband are out with the kids, for example, I would guess that he is automatically and routinely sizing up everyone that comes along, and keeps a running assessment of potential weapons and escape routes, just in case. Is that right?

Anonymous said...

Feeling safe in Moscow, as anywhere, doesn't require much more than common sense. Obviously you're not going to let your child pet the stray dog or get too close to the drunk hanging out in the subway.
But, to be perfectly honest, Russians are very fatalistic and there is good reason for that. Sometimes getting mugged is simply a matter of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. I feel safer than my husband because here men are more likely to get beaten up and/or mugged than women - especially women accompanied by children. So, to answer your question, yes - we are observant of our surroundings, but not overly so.
And, more to the point, I don't think that taking care of the protection function here - even if it is more dangerous than Danville - balances out the triumverate of daily household duties.

SPorcupine said...

I think a lot of the "protection" is not entirely needed, but I think the same is true of a lot of American "housework."

However, the idea does have its uses. Very early this winter morning, I leaned over to Gruntled and said "So, does this protection stuff apply dangerous ice on my windshield?" At least today, it did: when I'd packed my briefcase, the car was toasty warm and the ice was all gone.