Ward and June Cleaver revisited

Back in December 2004, I wrote a post over at my old blog site about how difficult life is in the 21st Century for June Cleaver. Since Blogger posts, after a certain period of time, lose all formatting, I’ll reprint it here, in an easy to read format:

I’ve been looking around at friends’ marriages, and wondering what makes some happy and some unhappy. And I keep thinking of Ward and June Cleaver, who have always typified for me the classic American division of male/female roles in a “married with children” relationship. She maintains the house; he pays the bills. They are polite to each other. She is the first line of defense for matters involving the children, but he is the final word, and all defer to him.

One could argue that, at least from the woman’s point of view, it’s a dreadful division, since she works hard, but he holds ultimate power. What’s weird, though, is that the couples I know who have returned to a Ward and June life-style have very happy marriages. Each knows his or her area of responsibility within the relationship, and that seems to take away from, rather than to add to, stress.

The other happy couples I know are those where they’ve truly mixed-and-matched the Ward and June roles. That is, both work, but both share equally in household management. Each seems to respect the other and there is a health give-and-take for responsibility. I know only two couples who have achieved this, so it seems to be a real rarity, at least in my circles.

The most angry marriages are those where the man clings to the Ward role, but expects his wife to be both June (household manager) and Ward (breadwinner). These are the households where the woman holds a full- or part-time job, and is also the primary caregiver for the children (when they’re not in school), as well as the chief shopper, cook, laundress, and house cleaner. Sadly, this is also the dominant model in my community, and I think it goes a long way to explaining the very resentful women I know.

The problem I’m observing is nothing new. Fifteen years ago, Arlie Hochschild wrote a book called The Second Shift, which examined relationships in which both man and woman work. I haven’t read the book since its publication, but my memory is that the women who carried the heaviest load were the yuppie wives whose husbands paid lip-service to an “equal” relationship in the marriage — a dynamic that precisely describes the married couples in my world.

What Hochschild discovered is that those husbands — even while claiming that, just as their wives added the Ward role to their June role, they too added the June role to their Ward role — were creating an elaborate fiction themselves. Their “equal” role in the house amounted to toting out the garbage once a week, or picking up the occasional milk. Those who laid claim to all responsibilities outside the house’s walls (that is, yard work), essentially mowed the lawn weekly. Meanwhile, their wives, who also held paying jobs, were handling shopping, cooking, cleaning, childcare, and all other miscellaneous stuff.

Ironically, those husbands who were most likely to provide real help around the house were the old-fashioned men who bitterly resented the economic necessity that forced their wives into the workplace. It was they who placed the most value on their wives’ work, and were therefore most likely to recognize the women’s sacrifice in leaving the home for the workplace. “Modern men,” with their views of equality, seemed to see traditional women’s work as valueless and were unwilling to sully their hands with it.

It’s interesting that, 15 years after I read that book as an unencumbered single, I look around my world and see that the book could just as easily have been written today, ’cause nothing’s changed. Apparently Ward and June were on to something….

It turns out Arlie Hochschild’s 18 year old conclusions and my three year old observations are still right on the money. More and more research is showing that, while men still enjoy a Ward Cleaver level of “life is good” satisfaction, augmented by more gadgets and better health than Ward could ever imagine, women are increasingly unhappy because of the burdens their Ward and June expectations impose on them:

Two new research papers, using very different methods, have both come to this conclusion. Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers, economists at the University of Pennsylvania (and a couple), have looked at the traditional happiness data, in which people are simply asked how satisfied they are with their overall lives. In the early 1970s, women reported being slightly happier than men. Today, the two have switched places.

Mr. Krueger, analyzing time-use studies over the last four decades, has found an even starker pattern. Since the 1960s, men have gradually cut back on activities they find unpleasant. They now work less and relax more.

Over the same span, women have replaced housework with paid work — and, as a result, are spending almost as much time doing things they don’t enjoy as in the past. Forty years ago, a typical woman spent about 23 hours a week in an activity considered unpleasant, or 40 more minutes than a typical man. Today, with men working less, the gap is 90 minutes.

These trends are reminiscent of the idea of “the second shift,” the name of a 1989 book by the sociologist Arlie Hochschild, arguing that modern women effectively had to hold down two jobs. The first shift was at the office, and the second at home.

But researchers who have looked at time-use data say the second-shift theory misses an important detail. Women are not actually working more than they were 30 or 40 years ago. They are instead doing different kinds of work. They’re spending more time on paid work and less on cleaning and cooking.

What has changed — and what seems to be the most likely explanation for the happiness trends — is that women now have a much longer to-do list than they once did (including helping their aging parents). They can’t possibly get it all done, and many end up feeling as if they are somehow falling short.

Mr. Krueger’s data, for instance, shows that the average time devoted to dusting has fallen significantly in recent decades. There haven’t been any dust-related technological breakthroughs, so houses are probably just dirtier than they used to be. I imagine that the new American dustiness affects women’s happiness more than men’s.

For women, it seems to be damned if you don’t have the choices and damned if you do.  Either way, the to-do list is too long, and the rewards for effort are too small.

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  • http://phillips.blogs.com Michael Phillips

    Alan Krueger is a superb and honest researcher. Anything he publishes deserves respect and appreciation.

  • expat

    I wonder how much the element of control has to do with women’s dissatisfaction. June Cleaver could decide when to do laundry. She could prepare a time-consuming meal that her family loved. She could choose to grow roses and pick them for the house. Today, she would be driven by the children’s overpacked schedules and would probably buy prepared foods because she didn’ t have time to bake from scratch.

    I used to think the word homemaker was strange, but I’ve come to realize that women used to actually do quite a bit to actually make a home. Today’s working woman probably feels more like a housekeper.

  • http://bookwormroom.wordpress.com/ Bookworm

    Too right, Expat. I am constantly on the run, and never get the luxury of doing anything really well or graciously. I think that’s one of the reasons Martha Stewart became so popular — she gave women a fantasy, not about clothes or romance, but about the perfectly run home.

  • Gringo

    From observation, not from citing a scientific study, I would agree that men have a higher tolerance for dirt and clutter than women do. Thus the lowered housekeeping standards would have more of a negative effect on women’s peace of mind than on men’s peace of mind.

  • http://soccerdad.baltiblogs.com soccer dad

    A critique of Alan Krueger (and David Card)

    So what should be made of the new minimum wage research? Each of the four studies examines a different piece of the minimum wage/employment relationship. Three of them consider a single state, and two of them look at only a handful of firms in one industry. From these isolated findings Card and Krueger paint a big picture wherein increased minimum wages do not decrease, and may increase, employment. Our view is that there is something wrong with this picture. Artificial increases in the price of unskilled laborers inevitably lead to their reduced employment; the conventional wisdom remains intact.

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