What Can We do About Unpaid Labor

If you’ve read anything about the wage gap or even browsed a feminist blog, you’re probably familiar with the fact that women perform a lot more unpaid work than men. Usually this unpaid labor is related to housework and child rearing. When we have discussions about inequality and the wage gap, it is important to acknowledge that this unpaid labor is work too. Unfortunately, this work is often ignored because it is consciously or unconsciously seen as part of a woman’s daily life. Most would not even consider this work. I know I didn’t until I read some articles that contextualized housework and child rearing as part of the inequality between men and women.

What I did know was that in all my relationships I had always felt something unfair was going on when it came to housework. The way I saw it, housework was the responsibility of everyone living in the house. When I talked to my partners about this they would also agree that housework should be handled by everyone in the house. But when it came down to actually getting the housework done, it seemed like I was doing a disproportionate amount of the work. When I talked to my partners about this they would always say something about being tired and having worked hard and that they intended to do it at some nebulous “later” time. I always countered with the fact that I was also tired and that I had also worked hard. Though they consciously knew this to be true, their actions seemed to indicate that my hard work and fatigue was less than theirs.

Here’s the weird thing: I wasn’t dating misogynistic guys. Based on their actions you would assume I was, but I wasn’t. If you asked any of them whether they expected a household to be run by traditional gender roles they all would have said no. If you asked them if they believed that women should do all the housework and take care of the kids on top of their jobs, they would all say no. In theory they all believed that housework should be split 50/50 without attention to gender. However, as I already stated, this was not being put in to practice.

So where does this disparity come in? Why do so many men reject traditional gender roles with their words and then accept them with their actions? I believe the answer comes down to unconscious programming. Men are conditioned to believe that their time is very valuable. They may not realize that they believe their time is more valuable than a woman’s time, but this is what they are taught. So, men intend to help with the unpaid labor, but it never seems important enough to take up their time. There is also a lingering bias that housework and child rearing is a woman’s domain and therefore they like to perform these tasks. Let me be clear: I hate cleaning the bathroom just as much as any man. I don’t have kids yet, but I know that as much as new moms love their babies, getting up in the middle of the night gets just as exhausting and annoying for moms as it does for dads. Though there are certain exceptions, my guess is that most women do not like household tasks as their male partners believe they do.

The problem of unpaid labor is being talked about a lot more and men are stepping up in a lot of cases, especially child rearing. Luckily the Internet seems to be perpetuating the idea that it’s cool to be a dad these days and men are accepting that role more generously. However, there’s still a lot to be done to truly even up the unpaid labor that goes on at home. Men need to change diapers just a frequently as their partners. Men need to take the kids out for the day while their partner goes to the spa. Men need to pitch in with the housework, and I’m not talking about cleaning the bathroom once. You don’t deserve a medal for cleaning the bathroom one or two times in the span of your marriage. When you’ve cleaned the bathroom twice a month for six months maybe we’ll talk.

My husband and I got to the point where dividing the housework was a real thorn in our relationship. I’m not proud to admit it, but we’ve had many shouting matches over who has to clean the bathroom before company comes. It got so bad that we sat down and brainstormed ways to make the division of labor more fair, especially since we both hate housework. It sounds juvenile, but we actually made a chores list.

We alternate weeks for the responsibility of doing the dishes. This week is my week, so all dishes in the house are my responsibility through Saturday. On Sunday he gets dishes for the week. Theoretically, twice a month we alternate who cleans the upstairs and who cleans the downstairs. We’re each responsible for one floor of the house and we alternate so the same person doesn’t have to clean the big bathroom each time. I say theoretically because we haven’t made a single month where we’ve cleaned twice yet, but the division of labor is set for when we do. We are both responsible for picking up our own dishes and bringing them to the sink as well as picking up any clutter we’ve created. Like I said, it sounds super basic and juvenile, but it has actually helped our relationship a lot. I don’t feel like I’m stuck doing everything anymore. I feel like we’re finally one of those progressive couples who truly shares the work. And we have the skills to have another conversation about division of labor when we have a kiddo.

In order to solve the problem of unpaid labor everyone needs to step up, not just men. Men have to be willing to do more to make the division of labor fair, but women have to be willing to advocate for themselves. I bet your partner isn’t even aware that the division of labor bothers you or that he isn’t doing as much as you. Without conversations, in each household and nationally, the problem will never be solved. Take responsibility and have a conversation ASAP.


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