One and Only

A journalist—and only child—investigates the choice to have just one kid

Taking Stock Fifty Years After Freidan's "Feminine Mystique"

By the numbers, it's bad news, ladies.

Oy, it's still this bad?
Both fathers and mothers pay dearly for the miracle of parenthood, but in most cases, it’s women who pony up for the bulk of those costs, even 50 years after Betty Friedan lambasted what she titled The Feminine Mystique. I often think of a Census Bureau report released last year on who provides care for our children. Suzanne Bianchi, who clocked in 16 years as a Census demographer, discovered, stunningly, that mothers actually spend more time caring for a child today than they did in 1965, back when 60 percent of them stayed at home full-time. In her book Changing Rhythms of American Family Life, Bianchi reports that married mothers devote about 13 hours a week to childcare, up from about 10 and a half hours nearly a half century ago. Additionally, she writes, women still do twice as much housework as men.

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The parental breakdown of cleaning, cooking, bathing, playing, disciplining, story-reading, and so on is an exceptionally well-studied area. Surveys have circulated in just about every demographic, statistics gathered and analyzed, papers presented. And yet the results are remarkably even. One study finds that fathers provide 28 percent of active care. Another declares that mothers provide more than two-thirds of care for kids under 12. A third asserts that when both parents work 52 hours a week, women commit an additional 33 hours a week to “nonmarket” work; men get it up for only 20 hours of dishwashing and homework-supervising. That’s just in the U.S., which doesn’t even break into the top thirty in a study that ranked 134 countries by gender parity. It’s worse in France where women do 89 percent of housework and child care (who has time to get fat on a treadmill like that?). Not a single survey contradicts the finding that when women increase their work hours they never decrease the time they spend caring for and cleaning up after their kids. “They seem to do more housework, as if to compensate for their departure from traditional gender norms,” writes economist Nancy Folbre. No wonder Mikko Myrskylä, in his 2011 Max Planck paper on global happiness and fertility, found that “women experience greater stress and stronger negative shocks in well-being” then men after becoming parents. 

Recent U.S. studies show that men are doing more, at least—a third more than they did in 1965—but that doesn’t mean it’s making life easier for women. Things are just harder for everyone now. When the Families and Work Institute asked about 1,300 men if they were having a hard time juggling it all, 60 percent of men said they were struggling with the demands of work and family. The ever-deepening “work-life” conflict, is a major factor explaining why nearly every country in the western world reports declining levels of happiness—among both men and women. “No one wants to acknowledge the tradeoff, but there’s always an argument about who does what, and there’s always the potential for more argument in this crazy division of parenting roles.” Folbre says. No wonder when Daniel Kahneman asked 900 working women to assess their daily experiences one of the only things they said they enjoyed less than minding their kids was cleaning up after them. Science magazine may have made headlines when it reported his findings in 2004, but the misery of such drudgery is as old as dirt itself. As Simone de Beauvoir bemoaned in The Second Sex, “Few tasks are more like the torture of Sisyphus than housework, with its endless repetition: the clean become soiled, the soiled is made clean, over and over, day after day.” 

In my own household, my husband Justin happily shoulders equal, or more, of the burden. This amazes friends. They ask me how I managed to get him with the program, as though it was a question of whipping a rogue horse into shape. My answer is simple: if you want equal parenting, have a kid with someone who wants it even more than you do. They laugh and treat my statement as a hyperbolic quip. The fact is, I couldn’t be more serious. Also, the truth is, it’s easier with one. I’ve been thinking a lot about a terrific interview my friend Joanna Smith Rakoff did recently about balancing motherhood, work, and an inner life. ”When we had just one child, we found ways to make things relatively equitable,” she said “but with two, some sort of dam burst, and I sometimes feel like my life is a page ripped from The Feminine Mystique.”

Lauren Sandler is the author of a new book about the freedom of having an only child, and the fulfillment of being one.

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