Are You Working The Second Shift?

Em Unravelling

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels

Since the pandemic hit, I have been working from home a whole lot more. Well, no. What’s new is me working from home, full stop.

Before Covid-19 stopped the world in its tracks, I worked from one of my firm’s 4 offices for every single day of the working week. Now, I work 2 days a week from the office, and spend the other 3 at my house, sitting with my laptop and phone at a tiny desk in a dim corner of the room that used to be my kids’ playroom.

My husband, too, is working from home more. He, too, used to be at the office every day. This means that one of us is at home, in our house, every weekday.

And I can’t help but notice that we each have a very different attitude to being at home during the day.

After breakfast, the blissful lack of a 45-minute commute means that I’ve got time to stack the dishwasher and set it running; wipe the table and kitchen surfaces; sweep the floor and move all the random shoes and coats from various locations around the ground floor to their proper homes.

My husband? He’ll put his plate in the dishwasher like he always did, but then he’ll just skip upstairs and log in to his laptop a handy 40 minutes earlier than he used to.

At lunchtime, no longer lured by quaint little cafes in the streets near my office or tempted by takeaway sushi packs from the shops nearby, I’ll make myself something to eat and at the same time, I will often prepare something to cook later for dinner. If I’m making a salad and the chopping board is out, I might prep the vegetables for a curry I’ll cook later on. Or I’ll put a pan of lentils on to soak. I might even nip through to the utility room and move some laundry from the washing machine into the drier.

My husband will just put his plate, glass, and cutlery into the dishwasher. He rarely even wipes the work surface free of sandwich crumbs.

When the postman knocks, I’ll open the handful of letters that still arrive that way rather than electronically and if there’s something to do — insurance to renew, a bill to pay — chances are I’ll get that done before I do my next work-related task. It’s inevitably a quick job, and my laptop’s open anyway, so why not?

My husband — yeah. You know where this is going by now. If he opens the mail at all, he’ll leave it in a pile on the hallway bench.

Don’t misunderstand me. This is not a “my life is so unfair!” anti-men rant. I don’t think that my husband is lazy, or that we bear the brunt of housework or of life admin particularly unevenly. He’s a good man, a decent man, and he steps up. He more than does his bit.

He just doesn’t see what I see when I look around the house.

In “The Second Shift”, published in 1989, Arlie Hothschild highlighted for the first time the fact that a newly emancipated generation of women were still finding themselves enslaved, disproportionately, to the domestic tasks they’d traditionally been responsible for (such as childcare and cleaning).

Women were working outside the home and being treated more equally in the workplace, but they were doing a “double day,” coming home in the evening and doing all the home-based tasks as well. Not surprisingly, they resented this.

That was over thirty years ago. Women’s equality has come on in leaps and bounds since then. But a 25-year review, in 2014, proved through research that the gap between what men and women were doing in terms of childcare and housework was still tangible. Women were doing nearly twice as much as men, still.

We had made groundbreaking strides in the workplace, but not out of it.

Hothschild believed that the solution to this continued effort gap would be for employers, and the government, to step up in terms of support for both halves of a heterosexual couple experiencing the problems she had itemised in 1989. Rather than offer flexible working to mothers returning from maternity leave, why not offer it to fathers too? If men and women could work flexibly, she argued, then they would be more easily able to share the exhausting “life admin” that bogs us all down.

My experience, and the anecdotal experience of many friends, proves it’s not that simple.

My husband and I both have similar flexible working patterns now. We are both at home for fairly equal amounts of time. But I’m still carrying the can. (And the bags of groceries, and the laundry basket).

A fascinating Atlantic article from 7 years ago looked more deeply into why otherwise perfectly “woke,” generous, kind, and eager-to-please men seemed so regularly to be told they weren’t bearing an equal weight of household tasks.

The three theories are, broadly:

  1. Epistemic. Maybe men really can’t see what needs to be done, either because their own father didn’t do these tasks and their mother performed them without mentioning them, or because they have different “cognitive architecture” and genuinely don’t see the cues (I might see a pile of crumbs as a cue to wipe a table; my husband might just scoop those crumbs into his hand, leaving the table still in need of wiping).
  2. Motivational. They see what needs doing, but they don’t think it’s important enough to do or to do yet. Or they may fear criticism from their partner for “doing it wrong”. (Fairly valid, actually — I’ve been known to sigh passive-aggressively at a badly made bed).
  3. Structural. They want to help, but can’t, because of inflexible working hours or the nature of the job they do (a farmer, harvesting until 11 pm, cannot collect a child from school at 3 pm, for example).

In my house, we can discount the structural argument as we have similar working patterns so that’s not relevant. But I really can believe that it’s a blend of the first two.

My husband genuinely doesn’t see some of the things I see. Newspapers strewn across a coffee table don’t make his teeth itch in the way they do mine. And while he can probably see that the dishwasher needs to be emptied or the kitchen floor swept, he will tell himself that his day job matters more and put the household tasks off till later (by which point, let’s face it, they’ll most likely have been done by me).

We don’t have young children. We manage, generally, to share out tasks fairly evenly between us, even if a lot of the sharing-out is directed by me. As I said at the start, this is not so much a rant as a baffled observation: why is the second shift still such a thing, and so often the responsibility of the woman in a setup like mine?

Turns out, my first instinct is most likely the right one. The tasks fall to me just because I see them first. I’m keener than my husband is on having an orderly house, and more willing to fit into my own paid working hours the tasks that will make that happen. I either grit my teeth and wait for him to see what needs doing, or I remind him of what I’m doing or what needs doing (and feel like a nag), or I quietly do it myself.

For now, I’ll probably keep doing it myself. But I’m keeping the nagging as a Plan B. Besides, it’s not nagging, it’s helping my husband to reset his cognitive architecture.

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A lover of horizons, hills, and words. Likes to write about uncomfortable things because too many people steer round those parts of life.


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