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The Two-Paycheck Family: Balancing Jobs, Kids, and Household Tasks

It’s been over a decade since the publication of Arlie Hochschild’s book Second Shift: Working Parents and the Revolution at Home (Avon Books, Reprinted 2003). A well-researched book on the two-earner family and the distribution of childcare and housework, it crystallized the tensions in many American families. Reading the book frequently made women angry and men resentful. The women found validation for their perception that, no matter how many hours they were working at a job, they were still largely responsible for managing the family and for doing an unequal share of the housework. Men, who were generally doing far more around the house than their fathers ever did, felt unappreciated when their wives pointed out that “more” doesn’t mean “equal” or “enough.”

Although two paychecks per family is more and more the norm, social supports to make it manageable are still minimal. Daycare is still seen as a “women’s issue.” School still starts at 9 and ends by 3. Kid taxiing is still seen as an individual family problem. The percentage of enlightened employers who support flex time, job sharing, or working at home is still quite small. Very little has changed in our communities to make it possible for good workers to also be good parents.

Meanwhile, on the home front, the average male still thinks that changing the oil every few months, fixing things as they need it, and coaching a child’s sports team on Saturdays is equal to the cooking, cleaning, and general organizing of the family that their wives do daily and routinely. More important, women still feel more responsible for making sure that everything gets done. Few men worry about whether the kids get to lessons on time, whether there is dust in the living room, whether meals are nutritional, or whether relatives get birthday cards somewhere near their birthdays.

Whether self-imposed or expected by their mates, it is the burden of that responsibility, as much as the actual work, that leaves many women stressed and exhausted. Somehow, in the need for both partners to pitch in by earning money while maintaining kids and home, women have added “work” demands to their loads far more quickly than men have added “home” demands to theirs.

In my practice, I see men and women who are stretched and exhausted as they work too hard, sleep too little, and try to parent responsibly. Frequently they come into treatment because they are arguing about time, money, or childcare decisions. Not understanding the larger social issues and their own gender biases, they blame each other for their lack of spontaneity, joy, and satisfaction.

Of course, sometimes they are right. It is possible to marry a person who won’t gracefully shoulder his or her share once children are on the scene. But often enough, the real problem is the combination of a crushing set of responsibilities the couple is trying to manage, coupled with their own set of stereotypes about what each should do. Unable to cope, and locked into gender-based ideas about who should do what, the couple starts to blame each other instead of the problem. My first job as a therapist is to get them back on the same team. Part of our work centers on making agreements around the following themes:

Defining Roles. The fact is, there are many, many ways to be married. The Huxtables are no more the norm than Ozzie and Harriet. Almost any arrangement that is respectful of both people will work — as long as both agree on the roles. A couple can adopt a 50’s model male as wage earner, woman keeping home division of labor; they may also choose the reverse. Partners can divide the work of earning money, cleaning, and childcare right down the middle. Or they can trade off various tasks (“You do the inside of the house, I do the outside;” “You do the laundry, I do kids’ baths”). Or they can take turns (“I get to stay home with the kids this year; you get to do it next year”).

Part of this discussion has to be a good, hard look at the role models each partner had while growing up. However much we like to believe that we are each an individual, we all absorbed some ideas about what men and women are expected to do from the adults around us when we were children. Even very smart people can be unaware of their deeply held convictions about what it takes to be a “real man” or a “real woman.” There’s no right answer, of course. But bringing those convictions out into the open can be an important contribution to freeing up people’s creativity and making change possible.

Whatever arrangements the couple may decide on, however, the key to satisfaction is that both partners fully embrace and support what they are both doing. It won’t work if one member of the couple secretly (or not so secretly) resents the arrangement. It won’t work if one person is in denial about the other’s unhappiness. It won’t work if one person is feeling like a martyr (or even a saint). Roles need to be talked about clearly and genuinely agreed upon.

Defining Equality. Equality doesn’t have to mean sameness. Frank discussion is again the key. A couple doesn’t need to work side-by-side at every task to feel equal. But they do each need to feel that there is a fair division of both the pleasurable jobs and the more unpleasant tasks. Further, they need to feel that they have equal say around issues of power and control. It doesn’t work if one partner has control over all the money or one person makes all the important decisions for the household.

I once heard a joke that went something like this:

A reporter interviewed a woman about who did what in her household. She responded, “Oh my husband makes all the important decisions.”

“What decisions do you make, then?” asked the reporter.

“Let’s see. I decide how we will spend the money, where we should live, what schools the kids should go to, what job my husband ought to take, where we go on vacations — things like that,” replied the woman.

“If that’s the case, what important decisions does your husband make?” said the perplexed newsman.

“Things like whether the United States should trade with Indonesia, where the Olympics should be held, or whether the drinking age should be changed.”

This kind of one-sidedness in control of family life is usually a prescription for disaster.

Defining Standards. Coming to agreement on who should do what is only the beginning. An even tougher part of the work is agreeing on a standard of excellence for each job. How good is “good enough?” What level of completion does the couple agree is getting the job done? Which jobs matter a lot and need an “A+” effort? Which jobs really can be kept at a “C-” level and both agree this is fine?

The couple’s division of labor won’t work if one person’s idea of taking care of the kids in the evening is reading to them and the other’s idea is reading the newspaper. It won’t work if one person cleans the baseboards with a toothbrush on her or his night to clean up and the other stacks the dishes in the sink. There’s certainly room for difference, but only if the partners feel okay about these differences or find a way to make them endearing. Felix and Oscar of Odd Couple fame are funny on Broadway but, at home, no one’s laughing.

Expressing Appreciation. Managing jobs, home, kids, finances, and, oh yes, remembering the person you are married to in the midst of it all, is indeed taxing in the best of circumstances. Add a run of chickenpox, a family emergency, a crisis at work, or a major house repair to the mix, and it can truly feel impossible. Yet, most of us are doing the impossible almost every day.

It’s important to acknowledge (at least to each other) that problems often result from the job itself being way too big; this fact in no way implies that the people trying to do it are in some way too small. An important ingredient to survival, if not the experience of outright joy, is to not feel taken for granted while doing our best to manage. As partners, our most important job is to appreciate and love each other and to tell each other so — often.

The Two-Paycheck Family: Balancing Jobs, Kids, and Household Tasks

Marie Hartwell-Walker, Ed.D.

Marie Hartwell-WalkerDr. Marie Hartwell-Walker is licensed as both a psychologist and marriage and family counselor. She specializes in couples and family therapy and parent education. She writes regularly for Psych Central as well as Psych Central's Ask the Therapist feature. She is author of the insightful parenting e-book, Tending the Family Heart.

Check out her book, Unlocking the Secrets of Self-Esteem.

APA Reference
Hartwell-Walker, M. (2020). The Two-Paycheck Family: Balancing Jobs, Kids, and Household Tasks. Psych Central. Retrieved on February 22, 2020, from https://psychcentral.com/lib/the-two-paycheck-family-balancing-jobs-kids-and-household-tasks/
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 14 Jan 2020 (Originally: 17 May 2016)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 14 Jan 2020
Published on Psych Central.com. All rights reserved.