A new book explores how women are outpacing men in the workforce, while also being saddled with a “second shift” to fulfill household duties.
The ambition of millennial women has long been lauded, from their girl-power childhoods to their PhDs. Women are now the backbone of the workforce: In 2018, 74 men earned bachelor
degrees for every 100 women. Some 64% of women are now bread-winners or equal earners in their households. And no wonder: They’ve grown up being told that women are able to do and be anything.
Until they become mothers.
At that point, many of their partners apparently expect them to turn into June Cleaver on “Leave it to Beaver.” Lara Bazelon’s new book “Ambitious Like a Mother,” explores how working mothers get tasked with a “second shift” — i.e., all the domestic and family work that occurs after paid work ends for the day.
Even among households where partners initially split chores equally, childcare ends up falling to mothers. Seventy-five percent of moms are the ones who assume responsibility for appointments like children’s check-ups. They’re also four times more likely than their partners to miss work to take care of sick children — a statistic that became all too clear during the COVID pandemic. Even in normal times, women spend approximately two hours more per day tending to domestic work than their partners. A 2013 research paper by economics professors Francine D. Blau and Lawrence M. Kahn claimed that “modern men do not adjust the amount of time they dedicate to housework based on their wives’ employment status.”
In other words, putting in long hours at the office doesn’t mean your husband is necessarily going to pick up the slack and wash out the baby bottles. Women are exhausted, and many of their partners just aren’t helping. One mother in Bazelon’s book explained that, even though she out-earned her husband, she was still responsible for “anything related to schoolwork, doctors’ appointments, [my child’s] IEP plan . . . My husband didn’t make any effort to understand it.”
“Professional working mothers who find themselves with partners who are unwilling to make that shift in perspective and allocation of time and resources have a tough choice,” writes Bazelon. “Radically compromise who they are and what they want to stay in the marriage, or leave.”
Plenty of women opt for the latter; according to a 2015 study by the American Sociological Association, women initiate 69% of divorces, and among college-educated women, it’s 90%.
Breegan Jane, whom Bazelon interviewed for the book, initially tried to tell herself that she was “okay with traditional gender roles.” However, she found that her contributions around the home were never fully valued. Her husband gave people the impression that she was “his spoiled wife.” She divorced him, started flipping homes and became an HGTV host who helps rebuild homes for families in need. Her kids could not be more excited about her work. Another woman Bazelon spoke to spotted the problem early on when her fiancé told her she would have to “lower her ambitions” if they were going to have children.
She broke off the engagement instead. Bazelon experienced this choice herself. In addition to author, she is also a lawyer. Following the birth of their children, her own husband hoped she would “stop chasing after bigger, harder projects so that I could be more present.” She felt certain her children would understand her need for fulfilling work and would benefit by knowing that “mom is out there making the world a better place.” She had a great point. Studies show that children of working mothers are just as well adjusted and have no more behavioral problems than their peers.
Her husband, however, did not understand. The couple divorced — not an easy solution by any means, but working mothers who get divorced report that they are happier.
In Bazelon’s case, she found that sharing custody of her children “creates protected time pockets where I can be productive” and focus on her work with fewer distractions, and with full knowledge that childcare duties are truly being divided equally.
In 2022, for families to thrive, husbands may need to start supporting their wives’ careers the way wives have supported their husbands’ for generations. Women aren’t going to go backwards. If men want relationships to last, they’ll have to go forward into the 21st century.