One in three Australian marriages ends in divorce (ABS, Parental Divorce). While such statistics may be interpreted to mean that marriage is becoming less significant to Australians, many Australians continue to invest heavily in marriage as a constitutive mode of subjectification. Recently released first-wave data from a longitudinal study being conducted with seven thousand high school students in Queensland indicates that the majority of high schoolers expect to get married (Skrbis et al. 76). Significant political attention and debate in Australia has centred on the issue of marriage “equality” in relation to legislating same-sex marriage. Many accounts problematise marriage in Australia today by focussing on the current inequities involved in who can and cannot legally get married, which are important debates to be had in the process of understanding the persistent importance of marriage as a social institution.
This paper, however, provides a critical account of “equality” in contemporary heterosexual marriages or heteronormative monogamous relationships. I argue that, far from being a mundane “old” debate, the distribution of unpaid work between spouses has a significant effect on women’s spousal satisfaction, and it calls into question the notion of “marriage equality” in everyday heterosexual marriages whether these are civil or common law relationships. I suggest that the contemporary “Hollywood” fantasy about marriage, which informs the same-sex marriage movement, sets up expectations that belie most people’s lived realities.
This paper draws on data from a larger research project that explores the impact of globalised ideas about good womanhood and good motherhood on Western Australian women, and how local context shapes these women’s personal ideals about their own life trajectories. Interviews were conducted with a series of women living in regional Western Australia. While more women were interviewed as part of the larger research project, this paper draws on interviews with seven intending-to-mother women and fifteen mothers.
Through several open-ended questions, the women were asked about either their plans for motherhood or their experiences of motherhood, in relation to additional expectations of women’s lives, such as participation in the paid sector and body ideals. Married women were also asked about how unpaid labour—that is, domestic and, where relevant, childcare labour—is divided between themselves and their husbands. Women’s responses to these questions provide a critical account of how marriage and the notion of “equality” is currently lived out in Australia. To ensure confidentiality, their real names have been replaced by pseudonyms. My purpose in drawing on my own data in conjunction with literature on the gendered division of unpaid labour is to emphasise that while the theoretical insights are not new, the fact that a gendered disparity continues to exist is of concern because of women’s dissatisfaction with the situation, particularly in the context of frequent claims that equality is already achieved, and given that it queries the fantasy of marriage continuing to circulate in contemporary culture.
The women I interviewed responded openly to questions about the division of domestic, and where relevant, childcare labour and the affects of this on their relationships. Feminist approaches to the research process highlight the importance of being reflexive about the relationship(s) between researcher and researched to make the presence of the researcher in the research process explicit (Ramazanoglu and Holland 156). Ramazanoglu and Holland argue “producing knowledge through empirical research is not the same as acting as a conduit for the voices of others” (116). While the power dynamic between researcher and researched is not generally an equal one, the fact that I am younger than all of my participants bar one (who is the same age) I believe went some way towards diffusing my position of power in the interviews. Some of my participants were also either already known to me, or had been referred to me by another participant prior to the interview, which may have made the process of interview less intimidating and more comfortable.
Importantly, in many instances, my participants’ reflections about the division of unpaid labour in their marriages, their expectations, hopes for the future, and feelings about it mirrored my own feelings and realities. I related personally to their experiences, and empathise with their dilemmas. This is significant methodologically because “emotional connectedness” (Coffey 158–9) including a close identification with participants (Conle 53–4) influences the process of interpretation. However, in Scott’s terms, power operated through my assessment of participants’ dilemmas being similar to my own and my writing up of their interviews (780). The findings presented in this paper are based on my interpretation of the voices of others, and are unavoidably influenced by my personal context as the researcher.
Two predominate themes emerged from women’s accounts of unpaid domestic and childcare labour. Women anticipated their partner’s participation in domestic care activities, although in most cases, this expectation was not met. Further, women held these expectations for “when they had children,” even though their partners did not presently participate in domestic activities. At the same time, the women accepted that, while their husband’s should participate more in unpaid work, this participation would not be equal to their own responsibilities regardless of what other activities either were engaged in outside of the domestic and familial sphere. I found that while women expect a fairer division of domestic labour, they do not expect it to be “50/50.” I argue that the gendered division of labour has changed less than most couples readily admit, as seen through the following overview.
Gender Relations: Changes and Stases
In Western societies, women’s roles in the public sphere have changed considerably over the last fifty plus years. Women now constitute a significant percentage of the paid workforce. Today, couple families where both partners work in the paid sector are the most common of all families (ABS, Family Functioning). However, there has not been a corresponding shift in the way that unpaid labour is divided between partners. Only one half of the historical gendered division of labour has undergone change; while women as well as men now operate in the paid (and thus valued) sector (traditionally available only to men), women still predominately perform most of the unpaid (and undervalued) domestic work.
Gender researchers have been reporting on the unequal division of domestic labour between couples, and the material and emotional consequences for women, for a long time (see Hochschild; DeVault; Coltrane), yet I argue that it remains largely unchanged, and dismissed as an important issue in the Australian community. Hochschild’s work, in particular, made a significant contribution to research into the gendered division of unpaid labour between couples by analysing and reporting on interview data collected from fifty couples, both working full-time in the paid sector, with young children. Hochschild identified and reported on couples justifications for the way they divide domestic and care, which, as I will demonstrate, are still common today (17, see also Hochschild with Machung 128).
Several contemporary studies (Meisenbach; Shelton and Johnson) report that women perform the majority of domestic and care duties, despite women’s long established presence in the paid workforce. Indeed, historically, the majority of women participated in the workforce, with only middle and upper-class women experiencing a delayed entry to paid work. In their review of current research into the division of household labour in the United States Lachance-Grzela and Bouchard find that:
In spite of women’s increased commitment to the labour force market and their associated political and social achievements, their advances have not been paralleled in the familiar sphere…the gains women have made outside the home have not translated directly into an egalitarian allocation of household labour…[American] women continue to perform the vast majority of unpaid tasks performed to satisfy the needs of family members or to maintain the home. (767)
Exchange theories predicted that women’s increased participation in paid work would stimulate an increase in the time men spent performing domestic work (Carter 16). However, various studies including Lupton’s investigation into the distinctions, or indeed, commonalities, between the roles of “mother” and “father” find that women still perform the majority of childcare and domestic labour, even those who are also engaged in paid employment.
Time use studies conducted by the Australian Bureau of Statistics also suggest that this prediction has not eventuated, and that whilst some women may have an improved capacity to negotiate with their partners about domestic labour division because of their income, this is not always the case (Carter 17). Ella (aged 32, mother of one) described “quite enjoying it” when her partner was away on business because it was less work not having to deal with his mess on top of other tasks. This is consistent with earlier research findings that single mothers spend less time on domestic work than women with children who live with men (Carter 17). It is common for men to do less domestic work than they create (Bittman 3).
All of the women I interviewed who were in partnerships and intending to mother sometime in the future were either employed full-time in the paid sector, seeking full-time employment after completing graduate degrees, or combining paid work with tertiary study. One participant had recently dropped her hours from full-time to part-time because she was pregnant. All of the partnered women who were already mothering at the time of the interview were in full-time employment before the birth of their first child, and seven of them were still in paid employment; one full-time, one three-quarter time and five part time. Most women reported doing the majority, if not all, of the domestic and childcare labour regardless of whether they combined this work with paid work outside of the home. Whilst some women were indifferent to the inequity in their domestic labour and childcare responsibilities, most identified it as a source of tension, conflict, and disappointment in their spousal relationships. These women had anticipated greater participation by their husbands in the home, an optimism derived from some other source than those women with whom they interact.
In their in-depth psychological study into the specific temporal disruptions and occasions of social dislocation ensuing from the birth of a child in the United States, Monk et al. found that the disruption to daily events and the reduction of social activities were more discernible for women than for men. Other research (Arendell; Hays; Mauthner; Nicolson) conducted at this time concurred with these findings. Similar results are found over a decade later. Choi et al. found most women feel at least some resentment about the impact of parenthood on their lives being “far greater for them than for their partner” (174). Influenced by reports of a supposed ideological shift in the late 1990s wherein fathers were encouraged to take a more active role in the raising of their children in ways previously considered maternal (Lupton 51), women today tend to anticipate that their husband’s will participate more in domestic and care activities, which predominately, does not eventuate. Consequently, feeling “let down” by partners has been identified as a key factor in the presentation of postnatal depression (Choi et al. 175).
The women I interviewed who were planning to mother sometime in the future anticipated that their husbands would participate more in the home after the birth of a child. Gabrielle (aged 25, married for three years) hoped that this would be an 80/20 split. The idea of an 80/20 split as an “improvement” may be confronting, but this is Gabrielle’s reality, and her predicament—shared by many other women today—captures the prevailing importance of discussions around the gendered division of domestic labour. Several interviewees who were already mothering had also anticipated that their husbands would participate alongside them in household and childcare related activities. For most, this kind of participation had not eventuated and women were left with feelings of disappointment, and tensions and conflicts in their marriages.
Grainne (aged 30, married for five years, mother of one) had expected her husband to be reasonably supportive and helpful around the house when they started their family. Yet she was unpleasantly surprised and intensely disappointed by how participation in the home had worked out since she and her husband had become parents six months ago. Grainne explained that she:
expected that my husband would be more supportive and more helpful…I’ve been even more disappointed because he hasn’t followed through with…how I thought he would be…I almost despair a bit…we have actually struggled more in our relationship in the last six months than in the five and a half years.
Grainne spoke about the impact of this inequity on the intimacy in her relationship. This is consistent with Pocock who identifies inequity in the division of unpaid work as one of “two work-related spokes in the wheel” (106–107) of spousal intimacy; the other being time and energy to communicate. According to Pocock intimacy, not necessarily sexual, is lacking in many Australian spousal relationships with unequal divisions of unpaid labour (107). While the loss of intimacy results in feelings of loss and regret, for some women, it is characterised as a past concern in their overworked and stressed lives (Pocock 107).
Several women from professional backgrounds, in particular Lena and Freya, identified the inequity in their partnerships when it came to home duties and childcare as a significant, and even as the “main,” source of tension and conflict in their spousal relationships. Lena (aged 30, married for five years, mother of two) described having “great debates” with her husband about the division of domestic labour and childcare in their partnership. From her husband’s perspective, it is her “job…to do all the kids and the housework and everything else,” whereas from Lena’s perspective, “he should be able to feed the kids and clean up” on the weekend if she needs to go out. Freya (aged 30, married for ten years, mother of three) also talked about the “various rows” she had had with her husband about her domestic and childcare load. She described herself as “not coping” with the workload. For all of these women, domestic inequality in their marriages has real emotional consequences for them as individuals, and is a significant source of marital discontent.
Women’s decisions about whether and when to have children, and how many to have, are influenced by the inequity experienced in marital relationships. Although I suggest that women’s desire to become mothers may eventually outweigh these immediate and everyday concerns, reports from already mothering women suggest that this source of conflict does not dissipate. The evidence gathered from my interviews demonstrates that trying to change dynamics in a relationship, when it comes to domestic tasks, is even more difficult when it is compounded with the emotional, mental and physical demands of motherhood, as Choi et al. also suggest (177).
The findings of my study suggest that women intending to mother and those already mothering continue to expect to do more domestic and childcare labour than their partners. However, even with this concession, some women are still over-optimistic in their estimations about the amount of domestic labour their partner’s will perform. Fetterolf and Eagly find similar patterns in gender equality expectations in the United States amongst female college undergraduates planning to mother sometime in the future (90–91).
Some women I interviewed who were planning to mother sometime in the future described their own attempts to negotiate with their partner to make them do more work. For instance, Gabrielle (aged 25, married for three years), who, as discussed earlier, hoped that her husband will participate more in the home after the birth of a child, said:
Once we’ve had kids he might change and realise he might have to help out a little bit more, I can’t actually do everything…I don’t think it’ll be 50/50 just from experience of how we’ve been married so far… I do hope that it’ll be maybe 80/20 or something like that.
When asked about whether their current division of house work was a concern for her, particularly in relation to having children, Gabrielle replied that she just “nagged” about it. Putting her discontent in the frame of “nagging” trivialises the issue. While it is men who tend to characterise women’s discontent as “nagging,” women can also internalise, and use this language to minimise their own feelings.
That men “just don’t see mess and dirt” in the same way that women do is a popular idea drawn on to account for women’s acceptance of inequity in the home as evidenced in numerous statements from the women I interviewed. Commentaries like these align with Carter’s (1) observations that generally accepted ideas about women and men (for example, that women see dirt and men do not) are drawn on to explain and justify domestic labour arrangements. In response to how domestic labour is divided between her husband and herself, Marguerite (aged 25, married for ten months), like Gabrielle (aged 25, married for three years), described an “80/20 split,” with her as the 80%. Marguerite commented that “it’s not that he’s lazy, it’s just that he doesn’t see it, he doesn’t realise that a house needs cleaning.”
Fallding described these ideas, and the behaviours that ensue, as a type of patriarchal family model, specifically “rightful patriarchy” (69) that includes the idea that women naturally pay more attention to detail than men.
“Falling in love” and “getting married” remains an important cultural narrative in Australian society. As Gabrielle (aged 25, married for three years) described, people ask you “when are you getting married? When are you having kids?” because “that’s just what you do.” I argue that offering critical accounts of heteronormative monogamous relationships/marriage equality from a variety of positions is important to understandings of these relationships in contemporary Australia.
Accounts of the division of unpaid labour in the home between spouses provide one forum through which equality within marriage/heteronormative monogamous relationships can be examined. A tension exists between an expectation of participation on the part of women about their partner’s role in the home, and a latent acceptance by most women that equality in the division of unpaid work is unrealistic and unachievable. Men remain largely removed from work in the home and appear to have a degree of choice about their level of participation in domestic and care duties. The consistency of these findings with earlier work, some of which is over a decade old, suggests that the way families divide unpaid domestic and care labour remains gendered, despite significant changes in other aspects of gender relations. Many of the current discussions about marriage idealise it in ways that are not borne out in this research. This idealisation feeds into the romance of marriage, which maintains women’s investment in it, and thus the likelihood that they will find themselves in a relationship that disappoints them in significant and easily dismissed ways.
Australian Bureau of Statistics. Australian Social Trends, 2003, Family Functioning: Balancing Family and Work. 4102.0 (2010). ‹http://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/abs@.nsf/7d12b0f6763c78caca257061001cc588/c8647f1dd5f36f42ca2570eb00835397!OpenDocument›.
Australian Bureau of Statistics. Australian Social Trends, 2010, Parental Divorce or Death During Childhood. 4102.0 (2010). ‹http://www.abs.gov.au/AUSSTATS/abs@.nsf/Lookup/4102.0Main+Features40Sep+2010›.
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