The best book I read in February was Arlie Russell Hochschild’s The Second Shift

My really good reading streak terminated awhile ago (with Great Expectations). Since then, I’ve had a whole month of books that were only semi-satisfying:  Adventures Of Hucklebery Finn; The Performance of Self In Everyday Life; Put Out More Flags; and a few others. The month was really only rescued by two books. The first was The Power And The Glory and the second was Arlie Russell Hochschild’s best-selling 1989 book-length study  The Second Shift.

Unlike most feminist polemics (The Feminine Mystique; The Beauty Myth; The Female Eunuch; The Second Sex), Hochshild’s book is not a polemic (not that there’s anything wrong with polemics). It’s an anthropological study. Over a period of ten years,  Hochshild observed fifty or so households in which both parents had paid employment and had young children. The purpose of the study was to observe the ways in which men and women divided up the routine household work: fixing things, paying bills, cleaning, cooking, and childcare.

Even before this study came out, a number of time-use studies had shown that even when both husband and wife worked full-time jobs, women did the majority of the household labor. After averaging these studies, Hochshild concluded that, when household work and paid labor were added together, wives worked fifteen more hours per week than their husbands. This added up to an additional month of twenty-four hour days every year. Hochschild called this additional labor “the second shift”. The idea was that women work one shift at their job and then they come home and work another shift at home.

So Hochschild was not even close to being the first person to demonstrate this inequity. Her study was about something different. She wanted to get right into the nitty-gritty of marriages and look at how husbands and wives went about rationalizing this inequitable split in labor.

By the time Hochschild was writing, several waves of women’s liberation had come and gone. At least half the families she surveyed said that household work should be split evenly. Most of the rest said that the men should do at least one third of the household work. However, she found that only in very few of these households were these principles being born out in practice.

She observed husbands and wives in order to see how they, in fact, split the labor. And then she questioned them in order to figure out what she thought about that split. And then she selected ten case studies that she thought best represented the trends she’d observed and presented them in considerable detail.

The result is some spell-binding storytelling. This book is like nothing I’ve ever read. If it was a short-story collection, it would win the Pulitzer prize. There are many stories about the psychology of domestic tedium, but there are few stories that delve so insightfully into the compromises that are required to make a house keep running.

For instance, her first case study is about a couple–Nancy and Evan Holt–who have recently had a major dispute over labor-sharing. Nancy and Evan both have fairly decent jobs (he is a social worker, I forget what he does). And Nancy had given an ultimatum to her husband. He needed to start cooking. He needed to start cleaning. He needed to start doing half of everything. She built schedules. She made plans. He agreed to them. Then he ignored them. He didn’t cook or clean when he was supposed to. He let everything fall apart until Nancy did it.

At this point, most of the women in Hochschild’s study would have just quietly started doing the extra work. But Nancy stepped in and fought over this for several years. Finally, however, they came to a compromise that stuck. Evan would be responsible for the “downstairs” and Nancy would be responsible for the “upstairs”.

The “upstairs” included the living room, dining room, kitchen, and bedrooms. The downstairs consisted of Evan’s basement workroom (and the dog). They created a myth of equitable sharing that basically entailed Nancy doing everything (except walk the dog).

However, Hochschild felt that Nancy was quietly working on getting her revenge. She was winding up their son Joey and making him excited at night, so he’d have a hard time going to sleep, and so she’d be taken from the marital bed to coax him to sleep, every night. As a result, she’d stopped having sex with her husband. She’d also basically excluded her husband from any active involvement in their son’s life.

This was also the pattern with the Steins. In this case, two married lawyers used their money to buy their way out of almost every chore, except a few hours of childcare. But those hours were put in by the mother, Jessica and not by the father, Seth. Seth comes to resent Jessica because she has no time for him, and she resents him because he has no time for their children (time that would relieve her from some of the burden of childcare). As a result, she slowly, and unconsciously, estranges the children from their father.

I could go on and on. This book is full of amazing stories. And these stories are not rare. These are not horror stories. And most of these families would not be considered unhappy families. This book is not about some weird, crazy, fucked-up subset of families…no, to some extent, almost every family in America that had two working parents (i.e. your family, my family, and the happiest family that you can think of) fell prey to some of these pathologies.

In her afterward, Hochschild reviews some of the latest research and concludes that the work-gap has narrowed. Now, women only work, on average, seven more hours per week than their husbands. The second shift has gotten shorter, but it has not disappeared.