Thursday, March 18, 2010

The Second Shift

Berkeley sociologist Arlie Hochschild has an extraordinary book, The Second Shift addressing the street smart reality of what raising a family in the United States has become. Denoting the aggregate duties associated with parenting/homemaking, she examines how real couples organize to perform this function. Based on detailed observations over years, she uncovers rich and powerful distinctions including a solid, although ballpark, figure for its quantity, a solid month of work every year. For this job, and it is a job, she coins the phrase, "The Second Shift."

One of the first and most powerful distinctions involves each person’s “gender strategy.” Our family backgrounds equip us with a vast set of views as we start our own family, views about who should do what and how regarding the second shift. Naturally, the "traditional" gender strategy sees the man as the breadwinner and the woman as the homemaker/primary parent, a perfectly acceptable arrangement provided there is plenty of bread. The last decade’s gutting of the middle class has all but eliminated the traditional family with a stay at home mom.

Since both work, now what? Obviously, couples organize to handle the second shift, and here is where one’s gender strategy emerges. It is the framework inside of which one negotiates with one’s spouse the roles that each will play. Economic pressures do not change deeply embedded views about family, so many still retain the traditional strategy (both genders), hence the birth of the "Supermom" with the briefcase in one hand and the child in the other.

The "transitional" gender strategy recognizes the flaws of expecting an employed mother to shoulder almost the entire second shift. Note that control issues permeate all of this. Plenty of traditional women remain and don’t want men on their turf. Transitional men are more willing to really help. Transitional women are more willing to let them. Mom gets Johnny out of bed AM and dad puts Johnny back PM. She cooks while he sets the table and he washes dishes. Still, with transitionals mom remains the second shift captain. He goes to Safeway, but she wrote the list. He takes the kids to the Day Care Center – the one she selected.

The "egalitarian" gender strategy involves true gender neutrality and approaches the division of labor without regard for traditional gender roles. She may work longer hours to earn twice as much and drive the “good car.” He works part time and handles the diapers.

Sorry for the long set up, but now it gets interesting. Yes, we know our obvious opinions, but on the court in real time in real life, the gender strategy is almost entirely undistinguished, a vast sea of outlooks creating a framework for what we see and how we see it. A transitional woman, having worked just as long as her traditional husband that day, suppresses rage as he channel surfs while she struggles against exhaustion tending to the children. A transitional dad may do some laundry while mom has the kids at choir practice. When traditional mom gets back and sees the folded clothes, she is annoyed at the gross violation of turf, violently grabs her own clothes and refolds them, "Who taught you to fold a shirt?!!"

This never happens.

Consider how a traditional man with an egalitarian woman might play out, or an egalitarian man with a traditional woman. If you are married, can you identify your gender strategy? Don’t be so sure.

When I read the book and then played the tape, my marriage looked like one of the case studies. I am a transitional. I married a traditional who (I only learned years later) wanted to stay at home but never said so in a way that occurred as serious (she also wanted to lose weight, see Europe, look better..). She had a job, but she deeply resented having to work. We were doomed.

Hochschild’s work goes a long way in explaining what is crippling marriages in this country. Economics have forced mothers into the workplace with increasingly demanding jobs. They cannot handle the second shift alone, and couples must negotiate new ways of being a family. This book explores the real ways that this happens with real people. Those considering marriage, and in particular having children, should consider The Second Shift MUST read material.



Anonymous Observer said...

Interesting. I lucked out. My wife and I are definitely transitional, and I get what you mean about how transitional still leaves the woman in charge of the home itself. When it comes to things domestic, she’s management. In my experience it changes over time. We were fortunate to have the option of my wife not working for quite awhile after each birth.

What I don’t get is why a wife would still stay home once the kids are fully in school.

Bummer about your situation. Obviously I wasn’t there, but I bet the copper company closing was a factor, too. As you a TON of those people got divorced.

3/18/2010 11:11 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

When people get divorced, they always talk about the various stuff going wrong with the romance, but when time passes and hindsight kicks in, everyone I know who's been divorced admits that things went south because of conflict over money, money, money, things being fair, sex, money, things being fair, money, money, things being fair, and money.

And when it's about sex, the lack of sex is because they're upset about money.

3/18/2010 5:26 PM  
Anonymous Anon said...

Pretty much sums up every fight I've had. My wife's a transitional. She transitions things just perfect.

3/18/2010 8:39 PM  
Blogger Liza said...

Reading this almost makes me long for my first husband, or at least some aspects of his personality.

We were both egalitarian. We were in agreement about what needed to get done, and we just simply took care of things. I cannot recall having even a single argument about chores or even a discussion, for that matter.

I must have had it too good because I wasn't prepared for the second (current) husband. I wouldn't say that he is traditional because he is willing to do things around the house, but he is not self directed. The one exception is shopping including grocery shopping. He loves to shop.

For quite a few years I thought we could end up on "American Justice" or "Dateline" as it seemed increasingly likely I could become homicidal the millionth time I had to ask him to wipe off the kitchen counter.

Instead, I've finally just let it go. It would be easier to change the direction of the wind.

I can't even imagine how people with children get through this when they have different beliefs about how the home life should be managed. I suppose that the ones who make it just kind of see the light at the end of the tunnel and realize that it's not forever, only 25 or 30 years.

3/19/2010 7:11 PM  
Blogger The Navigator said...

Great to hear from you again! We were wondering. Yes, you are more likely to change the direction of the wind. The guy will smile and nod and agree with you in the argument just to survive the conversation, and then nothing changes. Millions of women know that song by heart.

Reading this post really took me back to my marriage and raised a poignant moment. We struggled with exactly these kinds of issues, but fortunately we were able to communicate. We swore to each other early on that we would hold the other accountable for our own happiness. X4mr is right that it is a countless number of micro ideas, opinions, and attitudes of which we are mostly unaware. We marry so unbelievably blind.

My wife was really liberal and probably egalitarian. We distributed the chores according to who was best or cared the most. Now that I think about it, though, truth be told, she was good at everything, so like a transitional, I became her assistant and did pretty much what she asked. I was happy to help. Some of what x4mr wrote was right out of my marriage. I bought the food per her list. She cooked, and I set the table and cleaned up. I did all the laundry, vacuumed, the easy stuff.

Not seeking sympathy, for it has been many years, but if there's a reason I sound sad, it's because I'm a widower (cancer). I won't remarry.

3/19/2010 8:20 PM  
Blogger The Navigator said...

I said the opposite of what I meant to say about being responsible for our own happiness. Insert a big NOT in that sentence. I hope that makes sense.

3/19/2010 9:57 PM  
Blogger x4mr said...

First, while you don't want sympathy, let me just say, ohhh. It was a jolt to learn this after all of our interaction. I had no idea. I want to ask questions but won't. Divorce was horrible, but losing a spouse to cancer...ohhh.

I understand your typo. I actually knew what you meant because of the way it was worded. In some respect your typo was good in that your correction draws attention to what I think is important. Holding someone else responsible for our own state is, frankly, childish. It sounds like you had something great, only to have it taken. I'm humbled.

The closing of the copper company did accelerate the dynamics. That catastrophe destroyed a lot of families. The conservatives chase the wrong demons when they pretend to defend “traditional family values.”

Good to hear from you again. Welcome back.

3/19/2010 10:23 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is an interesting blog. X4mr did not go into the real essence of the book, which is the detailed and elaborate psychological and sociological dynamics that occur in the different compositions of couples from Nancy/Evan, Frank/Carmen, Peter/Nina, Ann/Robert, Seth/Jessica, Ray/Anita and the rest. Each individual in each couple creates a world view to rationalize their situation. What I found very interesting was how many women grow up determined NOT to become their mothers.

There is a Second Shift website. What this is ultimately addressing is a profound social injustice inflicted on women.

Women have suffered social injustice as long as history itself and still do, and it seems like it's two steps forward two steps back as every inch of progress comes at a price. I used to really hate men about all of this until I realized (and this took a long time) that most men (when you really meet them one at a time) do love women. Yes, there are disgusting misogynists (Rush Limbaugh), but most men want to get along. Put another way, aside from religious fanaticism, what is happening in the United States or the even more socially advanced Western Europe is not the result of organized men on a mission to oppress women.

Canada and Western Europe, in particular Sweden, are socially ahead of the United States. Consider labor laws (maternity leave, etc..) in those countries. I wonder when the US will join the civilized world. With some luck, tomorrow it will take a big step.

3/20/2010 9:24 AM  

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