Commentary Magazine


The Second Shift, by Arlie Hochschild

Who Scrubs the Tub?

The Second Shift: Working Parents and the Revolution at home.
by by Arlie Hoch
Schild With Anne Machung. Viking. 309 pp. $18.95

When I first read about this book in a Newsweek report, I gasped, “That’s us!” Arlie Hochschild, a sociology professor at the University of California at Berkeley, had spent eight years studying 50 two-career couples in the San Francisco Bay area, some working-class, some upper-middle-class, some academic like herself. She found that when each pair got home from work at the end of a long day, the wife alone began a “second shift,” wrestling with a hot stove while her husband relaxed with a cold beer. In only 18 percent of households did husbands split the work 50-50 with their wives: most did anywhere from a third down to a token task like feeding the dog.

Mrs. Hochschild’s findings were validated in an astonishing New York Times poll this last summer on the effects of twenty years of feminism on women’s lives. In the overwhelming majority of families with working wives, as well as in those with wives not in the work force, it is the wife who does most of the cooking, the housecleaning, the shopping for food, the caring for children, and the paying of bills. Forty-eight percent of the women questioned said that women had to give up too much in return for the gains in job opportunities the women’s movement had won for them. Only 25 percent thought that women’s organizations had done anything to make their lives better.

How true it must be. My husband and I both have full-time jobs. Here is how we “divide” the labor at home: I buy the groceries, cook 90 percent of the meals, make the bed, water the plants, do all the laundry, and scrub down the bathroom once a week. My husband carries the groceries upstairs for me, empties the trash, washes maye half the dishes, and keeps us stocked with a superb selection of medium-priced wines and Canadian beer. Once a month, or perhaps once every two months, he methodically vacuums the floor, leaving not a speck of dust. And every Friday night he cooks spaghetti with a delicious garlic-and-basil sauce he invented himself. It is one of the two dishes he knows how to make. The other is chili.

This is an arrangement that Arlie Hochschild would find most unfair. My husband does not “share”—her verb for the man who puts in from 45 to 50 percent of the housework. This means I ought to have what she calls a “sharing showdown,” in which I would walk out and refuse to return until my husband agreed to split the chores right down the middle. That is how Michael and Adrienne Sherman, two college professors who are the couple Arlie Hochschild admires most in her study, arrived at an egalitarian household. “Raised as a little king, Michael had never done housework before, but now in their modest apartment he did half,” Mrs. Hochschild writes. “Adrienne felt much happier, and so now did Michael.” There is much more in this book about the virtues of Michael, who, for instance, when Adrienne becomes pregnant, refers to “our pregnancy,” and who never has to be reminded to clean up after dinner.

Mrs. Hochschild’s hope is that one day we will become more like the Swedes, whose men are an improvement over American men rather in the way Swedish cars are better than American cars. Unfortunately she neglects to consider one thing—that men and women tend to have fundamentally different conceptions of the amount and the kind of “housework” necessary to keep a home functioning properly. Take the matter of making the bed. Here is my husband’s philosophy: “Making the bed is a complete waste of time. A few hours later you get back in and mess it up again.” Clean the bathroom? It too gets dirty again quickly, so why bother? But for me, a sparkling bathroom is one of those important small things that keeps your mind off the larger things that seldom get done, such as washing the windows. Similarly, I like regular changes of fresh sheets and towels, while my husband, when he was a bachelor, had a strict policy of never visiting a laundromat more than twice a year.

So, barring a sharing showdown, I can either clean the bathroom and change the sheets myself or start nagging my husband on Thursday in the hope that he might get the chore done by Sunday. And what if I forced my husband to do half the cooking? I love to cook myself, and I enjoy trying out new recipes and rotating dishes so that we never eat the same thing two nights in a row. If my husband cooked, we would have the same two things for dinner from now until the trumpet sounds.

In short, I am much more interested in my home than my husband is. And if he were like me, fussing over the towels and the napkin rings, I don’t think I’d want him for a husband. Adrienne Sherman may love her Michael, but if he were mine I’d be tempted to run off with the Devil’s Disciples. I am content to let my husband show his appreciation for the home I make him in other tangible and intangible ways. For one thing, although Mrs. Hochschild would not count it as housework, he contributes importantly to the stability of our household by managing our investments, a time-consuming task that he pursues with interest and agility. My complacency about our division of labor, moreover, is borne out by the New York Times poll, in which 61 percent of wives—the same wives who reported doing most of the housekeeping—maintained that their husbands were also doing their fair share.

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This is not to say that Mrs. Hochschild has written an entirely bad or silly book. Aside from some occasional cant, she writes well and is a shrewd and honest observer. More importantly, by reading between the lines one can learn a great deal from her about American family life these days, including about the amazingly indulgent way many American children are currently raised. In one two-career family, the Holts, four-year-old Joey rivets down his parents’ attention for three solid hours every night as they negotiate when and if he is going to bed.

One particularly fascinating feature of Mrs. Hochschild’s subjects is that although most subscribe to egalitarian principles worthy of Saint-Juste, all but the poorest employ servants: housekeepers, babysitters, nannies, cleaning women, family therapists. The highest-income woman in her study, Jessica Stein, a lawyer married to another lawyer, the workaholic Seth Stein, has almost as many servants as a medieval chatelaine. In her household work Carmelita, the Salvadoran housekeeper; Filipa, Carmelita’s sixteen-year-old daughter, who fills in for her mother while Carmelita works at a second housekeeping job elsewhere; Martha, an old high-school friend of Jessica’s who shops for her, does her typing and bookkeeping, and drives the Steins’ elder son, Victor, to classes; Bill, a college student who plays ball with little Victor, and Bill’s sleepover girlfriend. “On Saturday afternoons,” records Mrs. Hochschild, “Jessica wrote checks to pay Carmelita and Filipa; Martha; Bill; the gardener; and other occasional helpers such as plumbers, tree-trimmers, and tax accountants.”

Half-buried in the book is still another interesting fact: few of Mrs. Hochschild’s female subjects, mothers all, actually work a complete eight-hour “first shift” outside the home as a prelude to the second shift inside it. Most have tried the have-it-all life, but after a few years have thrown in the towel. Whether they are lawyers, academics, accountants, secretaries, or day-care workers, their participation in the cash economy is now strictly part-time. They have already figured out what feminists long insisted was not so: mothering is a demanding, and valuable, job in itself. Where only yesterday it was considered chic and fulfilling for upscale mothers to hire Swiss nannies for their babies or drop them off at day-care centers while they competed with men on the fast track, nowadays, in Mrs. Hochschild’s book as in life, the only women who work full time while raising children are those driven by sheer economic necessity: no father in the home, or a father whose earnings alone cannot provide a decent standard of living.

Some, like Jessica Stein, who has a twenty-five-hour-a-week family-law practice, have turned even their second shift into a part-time job, with most of the child care taken care of by a staff. “I think I didn’t look hard enough for a housekeeper that would really talk to the kids when they got home, would be sure they remembered their sweaters or their permission slips from school, would remember birthday parties or to sign the children up for field trips so that they’re not late—like Victor was this morning,” she tells Mrs. Hochschild. Once a week Jessica flies to Seattle for an overnight mini-vacation of shopping, lunching with friends, and visiting her favorite psychiatrist. Although she complains that Seth’s inattentive-ness at home is what prevents her from pursuing her legal career more aggressively, in fact she has plenty of leisure, more than most full-time housewives in lower socioeconomic groups. She has simply decided to devote her ample free time to recreation.

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What then is the point of Mrs. Hochschild’s book? Almost every middle-class mother she interviewed has already figured out that two shifts are one shift too many. As for women who cannot afford to abandon their full-time jobs, Mrs. Hochschild’s own evidence provides the basis of an excellent argument in favor of “pro-family” government policies such as tax breaks or even cash subsidies for working families with children in order to relieve the crushing economic burdens which many low-and moderate-income women and their husbands currently bear.

But allowing women to spend more time at home is not, of course, on Mrs. Hochschild’s agenda. Her goal instead is to force men to spend more time at home—or rather, to do the housework of women. She wants “the government and society” to “shape a new gender strategy” in which men, presumably, would learn to love scrubbing the tub and crocheting Granny squares. This is actually not so much a formula for equality of the sexes as for letting one sex dominate by defining the other’s domestic duties.

In the old feminist ideology, housework was supposed to be so demeaning, so disgusting, so trivial, so boring, that it would be only fair to make men do half of it. “Second-generation” feminists like Mrs. Hochschild appear to be making the opposite argument: housework (and child-rearing) is so important and valuable that men should not be allowed to miss it. But Mrs. Hochschild does not really believe this. Echoing earlier feminists, she describes traditional domestic life in faintly snide language: “a culture of homemade apple pie, home-sewn Halloween costumes, hand-ironed shirts.” Like the feminists of old, she measures the value of woman’s work strictly by what she is paid in the marketplace.

It used to be said that it takes a woman’s hand and heart to make a house a home. The saying went out of fashion thirty years ago with the women’s-liberation movement. Women now feel obliged for all their working lives to lie down on the Procrustean bed of a man’s long, often tedious and stressful work day. When they come home, however, they have a choice: they can lie down for a second shift on the Procrustean bed of a man’s idea of how to eat (out of a can) and how to sleep (on last week’s sheets); or they can have a sharing showdown and try to force their man to act like a woman around the house; or they can try to make the place comfortable and attractive on their own terms. Or they can even follow the example of several lucky women I know, some with children, some without, who have quietly and contentedly sneaked all the way off the first shift.

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