The Modern Marriage Test

I’m going to take a break from the acrimony of our politics and take on a nice safe topic: men, women and modern marriage. (Trigger warning: the end of this post poses a daunting math problem, so prepare to get your math brain up and running.)

What follows is my wonkish attempt to devise a formula that will help adults in families with kids see more clearly the vexing American issue of who does what, gender-wise, in the contemporary American family -- aka, the raw deal women get, aka, Honey, I Shrunk Your Week!

The question reflects obvious changes in the gestalt of the American family over the past fifty years. When I was a kid, relatively few of my friends’ mothers worked outside the home; and while this reality varied by location and social stratum, we know that the one-paycheck family was far more prevalent in the U.S. then than now. In the half-century between 1956 and 2006, the percentage of women aged 25 to 55 either working or actively seeking work rose from 40% to over 70%, and the average amount of time women in families spent doing paid work outside the home tripled.

What are the consequences of this big paradigm shift?

Census Bureau and other data show that the flood of women into the job market has not come at the cost of their children. In fact, in 2003 working mothers spent one hour more per week in child care than stay-at-home moms did thirty years earlier! Instead, studies have shown, working moms with kids at home simply work more overall, stealing time from other parts of their day. They do less housework. They have less time for social life.

And they sleep less. I’ve got a file of newspaper stories collected over the last decade or so, with titles like “Why Women Can’t Sleep: The Quest for Rest” or “Potholes on the Road to Gender Equality.” They describing a veritable epidemic of sleeplessness among American women, tracing it partly to the complexity of modern women’s lives -- “overcrowded lives,” says the New York Times, which are “stretching the daily challenge facing many mothers toward a breaking point.” “What happened on the road to gender equality?” asks a Maryland sociologist who studies how women use their time. “A lot of work happened.”

A lot of work. In theory, American women are freer than ever before to balance career and family. In the real world, however, balancing career and family hardly looks like freedom. Modern feminism envisioned a woman’s career as many things: a right; a challenge to the existing order; a path to financial independence; an existential project. But postmodern life has made it a bulwark of family finance. Darling, more and more men are saying, I love you… and your paycheck too. And thus have women been “liberated” into doing more work than before. Women today earn their bread, and still bake it too. Having it all looks more like doing it all.

Whatever you might say about the benighted sexual politics of the old marriage regime (and, of course, there’s a lot to say about it), that regime ran on an efficient division of labor. Dad did his thing at work, Mom did her thing at home, and by the time evening swung around, the family scene was pretty relaxed. Family life today is way more hectic, and part of that hectic quality, it’s my impression, is due to the overlap in roles. Today, both Mom and Dad do some of a lot of the same things. This overlap might look like equality, but when you get down to the nitty-gritty, it’s more like the opposite. Where men and women once worked equally hard at different tasks, nowadays we increasingly share the same tasks – unequally.

That fact turns our scrutiny on men, and how they have profited from the changes in American family structure. Some years back I checked in with an old college friend. Married fifteen years, she had four kids and was earning more than her husband. Basically, she was doing two-thirds of the family’s earning – plus two-thirds of the housework, and two-thirds of the childrearing. Was it surprising that she felt chronically harried and inadequate? I pointed out that her family’s setup required her, in effect, to be twice the person her husband is.

“But Jack is great,” she insisted, “he really helps out a lot.”

And there’s the crunch. When it comes to housework and parenting, men are judged by the old system and get accolades — after all, anything we do is more than our fathers did. Moms with full-time careers, on the other hand, don’t get accolades; they just get overwhelmed. My own mother was never required to be 133% of a person.

And now comes the wonky math part. To find out how you and your spouse measure up in the modern family, I’ve devised a little test. It may seem arcane, but if you follow it, you’ll get an interesting, and perhaps chastening, result. The test is designed to reveal what percentage of an equally contributing partner you are in your family’s economy.

First, divide all the work of running your family – from job to shopping to doing the dishes to feeding the dog -- into three categories: Paycheck Work; House Work; and Childrearing Work. With scrupulous honesty (men, this means you!), calculate how many hours per week each of you spends doing these things; then add the two totals together. For instance, if Husband’s numbers are 45 hrs + 5 hrs + 10 hrs = 60 hrs total, and Wife’s are 40 + 21 + 21 = 82, then the combined total family work hours = 142. Now divide your individual numbers by the total to get the percentage of total work that each of you does: in this case, 60/142 = 42% (He), and 82/142 = 58% (She). Finally, multiply your respective percentages by two. The resulting final percentage compares you with the theoretical full contributor. Think of it as the percentage person your family setup is requiring you to be — or allowing you to be. In my hypothetical case, for instance, the husband is 84% of a fully contributing person, while his wife is 116%.

If you think that difference isn’t so whopping, consider the difference between paying $360,000 for a house… or $500,000. Or between driving 84 mph or 116 mph. That would be dangerous, wouldn’t it? Actually, just so do many women careen through their lives, pedal pressed to the metal, with little or no letup — while we husbands trail behind.

We men like numbers. So, guys, how do you measure up in your family’s economy? Are you a full contributor, or a closet freeloader? Are you making your wife’s day… or shrinking her week?  Take the test, and find out who’s really liberated in your family.

Rand Richards Cooper is a contributing editor to Commonweal. His fiction has appeared in Harper’s, GQ, Esquire, the Atlantic, and many other magazines, as well as in Best American Short Stories. His novel, The Last to Go, was produced for television by ABC, and he has been a writer-in-residence at Amherst and Emerson colleges. 

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