The uneven distribution of labor among couples has existed for decades. With many couples working together at home due to the COVID-19 pandemic in recent months, women, in particular, have taken on many jobs while they work from home, carry out distance-learning plans and continue to shoulder the emotional labor in their households.
Lindsay Weisner, Psy.D., a clinical psychologist in Long Island, New York, and author of “Ten Steps to Finding Happy: A Guide to Permanent Satisfaction,” agrees that women carry the majority of the burden of labor at home, although she adds that often their children do not seem to notice.
“I wake up at 5 a.m. so that I can work out before my kids wake up and guide them through their homeschool day. But my kids don’t see this. What they do see is Daddy going to work and coming home from work and that registers with them more,” says Weisner, citing an example from her own life as a working mother.
As a woman and a mother, I’ve noticed this in my own home as I have tried to meet the distance-learning needs of my four children and continue to work my 9–5 job. What worries me most isn’t the load that I carry or even the fact that my children don’t seem to notice. What worries me is passing these existing gender inequalities down to my children.
Growing up, I was tasked with far more than my brother, not only when it came to chores, but with schoolwork and other responsibilities, even though my brother was three years older. While I stayed home doing “women’s work” that included cleaning and other domestic duties on Saturdays, my brother helped on the family boat, which meant listening to the ballgame and occasionally digging for tools. I’ve often wondered whether I learned the intricacies of gender inequality from my parents.
Gemma Hartley, author of “Fed Up: Emotional Labor, Women, and the Way Forward,” understands the cultural notion that chores are “women’s work.” She worries about the toll of emotional labor, which she defines in her book as the unpaid, often invisible work that we do to keep those around us comfortable and happy. “We live in a culture that tells girls from a very young age that we are naturally better at emotional labor, and we watch women around us do this work all our lives,” says Hartley.
Not only is it important to provide our children with an equitable and unbiased division of labor among themselves, but it is also equally important for our kids to see those raising them doing the same.
Research supports Hartley’s assertion, finding that women spend more than twice as much time each week on unpaid work, such as household chores and child care, as their male counterparts. Unfair labor expectations for our children carry a burden that extends beyond simple childhood chores and can have lifelong implications. “We expect girls to help and be communal and to take on domestic work, reinforcing this idea that they are naturally suited to emotional and domestic labors,” says Hartley. She believes this may help to explain a disturbing phenomenon: the chore pay gap between girls and boys.
While it is easy to push aside the notion that we risk passing the inequalities that exist in our homes on to our children just as our parents may have done with us, the evidence suggests otherwise. Boys are up to 15 percent more likely than girls of the same age to get an allowance for household chores and make more for doing less. This proves that the pay gap and division of labor based on gender exist and that it begins early.
This is the exact reason why it is so important to treat our sons and daughters equally when it comes to their division of labor, including chores and schoolwork expectations, and why equal pay for allowances is essential. Both will go a long way in teaching them that they are valued equally, setting the stage for adulthood and creating fair and equitable relationships and expectations that extend even into the workplace and their own domestic partnerships.
Another advantage of chore equality and pay is that it teaches our daughters how to talk about money. Teaching them to negotiate a fair and equitable allowance can have lasting outcomes that would follow them into the working world, showing them that they deserve just as much money and respect as their male co-workers. This lesson is an important one. According to a recent analysis by the Pew Research Center, in 2018 women earned 85 percent of what men earned. Of course, to foster change this same message must extend to our sons. “Our sons should understand that you should get paid for what you do, not for what is between your legs,” says Weisner.
Hartley agrees that expectations for equality start in the home. While splitting chores and paying for them equally is important, Hartley believes that “the most impactful way we can set our kids up for success is to model a healthy balance of emotional labor in the home.” That means that both parents must take onus in the household division of labor by figuring out how to parse responsibility in a way that doesn’t have mom consistently leading the charge.
It is also important that our children not see us doing certain chores based on our gender, or assigning them in such a way. “With very few exceptions, there is no logical reason for chores to be assigned by gender, and yet if we allow our children to think that Mommy cooks and sews and Daddy mows the lawn, they will feel limited by a floor plan that they grew up believing to be true,” says Weisner. Not only is it important to provide our children with an equitable and unbiased division of labor among themselves, but it is also equally important for our kids to see those raising them doing the same.
What can cisgender heterosexual couples learn from same-sex couples when it comes to a fairer division of labor? Weisner notes that parents who have already broken through the social norm in their sexuality could logically be more likely to break other social norms and have a more even distribution of emotional labor and unpaid household labor. Research findings from one study published in early 2020 supports this view; for same-sex couples, the division of unpaid labor was reported to be much more egalitarian in nature. “It is clear from this study that LGBTQ couples do not divide labor along binary gender lines, and so there appears to be more choice in the matter, which would mean even if the division isn't exactly equal, it is likely to be a happier one,” says Weisner.
Hartley has another suggestion for pushing the conversation beyond monetary reward for chores. She suggests centering talks surrounding domestic labor around personal and communal responsibility, stressing that everyone has to do their part. The value in doing this is that it emphasizes equality, not only across gender but across generations, with the whole family carrying a bit of the load.
There are several other things we can do to promote fairness and equality for our children at home. We can talk to them about sexism and define what that might look like in their own lives. Demonstrating chore equality in our marriage is also a simple way to model what equitable relationships look like. The most important thing though is to continue the conversation with our children, while making sure the lessons surrounding equality at home are consistent and constant.