The sexual division of labour… And money.

rosey_mother-1Last Friday, in his Guardian column, Tim Lott wrote about the discrepancies in income between he and his partner and the issues that ensued as a result.  The Doc sent the link to me, asking for my views as it was something he was discussing with a couple of his friends.  It was a very short piece – I would have liked to hear more from Tim, particularly more about how these issues are nutted out in day to day life in his household.  It was interesting to get a man’s view on the sexual division of labour and how modern relationships are affected by differences in disposable income.  Much of what he said about his marital dynamic resonated, as I’m sure it would with most couples.  The Doc and I also keep our money largely separate, despite him earning about four times as much as I do.  I work part-time while he works full-time.  I do the lion’s share of the childcare and housework (to be fair, in terms of the latter, I do pretty much all of it).  Most of our arguments stem from  these imbalances.  So while it was in many respects satisfying to see that we are not the only couple suffering these problems, I of course take issue with a number of things Tim put forward.

Firstly, he writes: “My wife does more of the childcare, cleaning and cooking than me.  This is predominantly for practical reasons.  She is physically at home for a lot more of the time than I am and, with a part-time career, she has more hours available.”  Perhaps his partner would agree with this.  Taken as a general statement however, I find this to be a distinctly male outlook – seemingly logical but actually erring on the side of being sexist in its stance. It doesn’t necessarily follow that by being physically in the house, it is practical for one to carry out all the tasks that are associated with the home, qua cooking and cleaning.  I cannot speak for the Lotts, but in mine and the Doc’s scenario, I work part-time (as opposed to full-time) because of a mixture of the prohibitive costs of childcare and because as a family, we think that at such an early age, our daughter would benefit from a greater proportion of the week being spent with a parent as opposed to someone else.  In this sense, childcare makes up the shortfall in my part-time paid work and thus collectively creates a full-time job, and an arduous, long-houred one at that.  On the days I am not doing paid work (Saturday, Sunday, Monday, Tuesday afternoon and Wednesday afternoon – officially), I am looking after our daughter.  This may entail anything from carting her to the aquatic centre or into town for an activity, to baking cakes or simply being in the house while she naps (at which point I usually try and cram in some more work).   While some of these activities are certainly enjoyable for me, it is childcare.  In other words, I am fulfilling a role which absorbs my time away from other roles, whether my own leisure, a more extensive professional role or indeed, domestic work.  Depending on what sort of day I have with her, it may in fact not be at all practical for me to also attempt to organise dinner.  Therefore, there is an insidiousness in the use of words like ‘practical’ because it implies an amalgamation between housework, childcare and cooking which, if not successfully attended to in their totality, infers some sort of failure on part of the person responsible for them (i.e. the woman).  By my logic, housework and cooking are additional responsibilities; they are, if you like, extra curricular to paid work and childcare and as such, should be shared equally between partners.

feminis_difference_lgSecondly, part-time work does not necessarily mean having more hours available.  This is unfortunately a systemic shortcoming of the whole ‘part-time work’ concept.  The very nature of the part-time-worker-mother is that it is ‘flexible’; read: fluctuating, unstable, bitty, inconsistent and low paid.  It is very difficult to build a solid routine around this sort of fluid work structure.  In my case, what often happens is that I have to do work while I am looking after my daughter, or, where possible, I do it at night and an unfortunate corollary to this is that I never feel that I’m concentrating on any of my responsibilities adequately.  Within such a nexus, there is never any clear demarcation between work life, home life or personal time; the spheres become utterly blurred and it can leave one pining for the strictures of working 9 to 5 in a cubicle canopied by strip lighting.  From my discussions with other ‘freelance’ type mummies, this is a pretty standard malaise.  In light of this, the idea that it is practical for me to also do domestic work because I’m physically in the house, while the Doc enjoys some down time after his day at work, feels pretty iniquitous.

Thirdly, gaps in disposable income between partners ARE unfair.  It’s tricky terrain to be sure; the Doc has studied and worked hard to command the sort of salary he does and I do not wish to deprive him of that.  At the same time, I have also studied and worked hard but for various reasons, have never been even close to obtaining the sort of salary he does.  Because of our choice to have a family, I have also had to sacrifice a lot of the energy that would have been directed toward career advancement, and channel it into our child.  Whatever the inherent rewards of raising a child, the fact that I am financially disadvantaged as a result of this feels like a rather poisoned chalice.  Like Tim, the Doc covers the majority of the big bills, such as rent, electricity and so forth, as well as the bulk of holidays.  Yet the responsibilities remain proportionate as the entirety of my income goes on food, childcare and other bills.  So despite paying the “big bills”, the Doc still has more funds at his disposal than I do.  And therein lies the rub, because money in many ways equals both freedom and independence and he has more of it.  He can “treat” himself more readily than I can; I have to save up or pay something off over time if I want it.  Or worse, I have to ask for help from him to get it.  As Tim’s partner contests, this is indeed infantalising.

I have no doubt that Tim, like the Doc, has no desire to treat his partner unfairly.  I certainly can’t accuse the Doc of not sharing or not “treating” me, as he does.  He also graciously (to a point) accepts that I can never lavish him to the extent that he does me on birthdays, Christmas or Father’s Day, though I try my best to spend comparably.  Ultimately however, there is an imbalance here which needs redress.  While the Doc and I have made headway in terms of dealing out the chores and responsibilities more equally, I continue to work harder for no pay than he does, with many of my efforts going unrecognised.  It is an ongoing battle to change an inherent culture of what is seen (or indeed, not seen at all) as ‘women’s work.’  Throwing discrepancies in income into the mix is but another sting in the tail.

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17 comments

  1. Great article Willow. This is why I pay someone else to do the housework, it was either that or go crazy and argue constantly. I too will never come close to earning the same as my partner, partly because I work in the not-for-profit sector but the sad truth is that even if I did the same job I would not come close! The imbalance affects women in every aspect of their lives-we have come a long way but there is so much more that needs to change.

    1. Willow Oddie · · Reply

      Thanks for reading Anne. Yes we have indeed come far and yet so much seems depressingly persistent. I was actually referred to as an angry feminist the other day, the inference being that I was simply a bored girl making issues out of nothing. Riiiiiiight….

  2. This is a topic very close to my heart and I found myself nodding along. I work full time, as does my husband, but he earns considerably more. No extra qualifications required on his part (we are educated to the same level), he just works in a more lucrative sector. We also keep our money separate and I found it particularly hard when on maternity leave and struggling to get by. Bills are split 50/50, which means he has more disposable income – so it does rankle a bit when he can order handmade suits while I shop in Primark.

    The difficulty is how far down the line it needs to be to be equal – arguably he should contribute more as he earns more, but before you know it you’re counting pennies to see if you’re paying more, and that isn’t healthy.

    As far as childcare and housework goes, I find (and this is true for friends also) that the woman is still expected to do the majority of it regardless of whether they work full or part-time. It is simply ‘expected’ through society, and that needs to change. It’s harder to keep leisure time equal too.

    It’s a very difficult area to get your head around, even when you live through it every day. I’ve yet to find a real conclusion.

  3. nerofiend · · Reply

    What a great post! You describe so well the situation of many hard working women who end up trapped, so to speak, in the dynamics and politics of marriage and children.
    We do all these things basically out of love and end up in many cases at a huge financial disadvantage. There’s so much that needs changing to improve the situation of women even in th most developed countries in th world. That’s the reason why I’m more of a feminist with every single day that goes by.

  4. Have to say, I don’t really agree. I work part time, due to disability, and earn less than half what my partner does. Because I work far less hours – my partner works very long hours – I do the vast majority of the housework. We don’t have children, but if we did, I would expect to do the lion’s share of looking after them also.

    We keep our money separate, for the most part. My partner pays for the mortgage, I pay all bills, which works out to me paying about 1/3 of the total, in line with our salary differential. Any money we spend “on ourselves” comes from the remainder of our own salaries, which means I have vastly less disposable income to spend on myself.

    -None of this seems unreasonable to me-. Neither the state nor my partner owes me anything I haven’t earned. I don’t think “gaps in disposable income between partners are unfair” in the slightest.

    I am a man, my partner is a woman.

    (And as an aside, *I* certainly don’t expect “my woman” to do the housework or childcare, and I’m kind of amazed that that kind of attitude still exists and worse, is accepted).

  5. I’m learning that this is common, but I would kick up a huge fuss and really question my and my partner’s concept of relations and families. We share everything equally. There is no his and no mine. We’re a unit, a family. At the moment I earn more, but this fluctuates, and is irrelevant in any case.
    As for housework/childcare being women’s work, well, not every man or woman thinks like this. There are plenty of people who think it should be shared. If this is not your attitude or your partner’s question then I think you need to question why and untangle it a bit.
    Good luck.

    1. I totally agree with the comments here about a family unit sharing resources. I’m in a similar position to the writer in terms of income, part time work and raising a family. When we first got married I out earned by husband for a number of years whilst he was training as a junior doctor. But we had a joint back account from the time we lived together and we shared our money. I would never have begrudged him any of what I viewed as our pot of money.

      Then when we decided to have children and had just bought our house we decided I should go back to work full time to continue to boost our finances as he was still working his way up the ladder and I was still pretty well paid. After baby number 2 we decided, for all reasons outlined in this article, that I’d go back to work part time. This was now possible as he had started to earn a good chunk more.

      We’ve recently had number 3 and he has made consultant. I feel very lucky that we’re in the position where I’m starting a 2 year career break to bring up our small children. I do see part of that responsibility being that I will take on a greater part of the cleaning and cooking (in fact I do all the cooking since the kids have been born – I view it as my destress for the day as I enjoy it).

      Throughout all of this, as we worked out what could be afforded and when, the key was that “we” worked out what “we” as a family could afford. Not as two individuals who need to keep our “own” money just in case. If I wanted to splurge on something and we have the money I’d do it, as would my husband. We view it all as “our” money. As someone else mentioned that’s largely because he works more outside the home which is well paid and I work largely inside the home, which isn’t. But he benefits from me doing that (by having well rounded, happy and healthy kids, a slightly less manically out of control house than before, and some good grub!).

      It’s a partnership, and, particularly for those who are married, I find it really hard to understand how someone can say “I promise to love you til death do us part…..but don’t touch my money!”. I know that’s an exaggeration and that these days I think I’m in the minority having a totally shared bank account but I think it really helps unite you as a family, otherwise there’s always going to be these lingering background niggles about money.

  6. I am surprised by this set up. My husband and I regard our finances as ‘family’ money. We both put in what is required to cover household expenses and then remainder is split equally between us. He works more in paid employment, I do more unpaid ‘childcare’ work and take responsibility for the majority of the household stuff. My caring for the children is something we agreed upon and which eases the financial burden on my husband (if I weren’t here he’d have a huge childcare bill) overall.

    We are partners and share our finances. Our decision for me to work part time will have a negative effect on my career progression – we don’t feel that it should leave me financially disadvantaged as well.

    And if there are women reading this whose partners are paying the mortgage from a personal (ie non joint) account just check that the mortgage is in joint names. Otherwise you could be in a real mess following any split. It worries me greatly that there are so many women whose financial position is so precarious and so dependent on a man who, even when in a committed relationship, doesn’t recognise the worth of what you do all day.

    1. “And if there are women reading this”, “there are so many women whose financial position is so precarious”.
      Or, y’know, men. It’s not always the case that the man is the higher earner!

      Your comment re “joint names” is entirely valid (the terminology you want is actually “joint tenants” rather than “tenants in common” – but it applies equally to both genders.

      I wouldn’t bother pointing it out, if it weren’t for *my own post in this very thread*, describing such a situation!.

      Paying from separate accounts vs joint doesn’t make a lot of difference either by the way, though it might help if it ever came to court. But the right way to handle it is a proper ownership document.

  7. I am frequently astonished that women who buy into the sharing thing so completely that they take their partner’s surname on marriage, are content not to share family money.

    The unpaid, invisible work that women do in the home (domestic labour and childcare) has been estimated as being worth well over £30K p.a. (And it’s probably worth more if a man is doing it – about 17% more at current pay-gap rates.)

    So where partners do have separate finances, I hope the one who is doing the lion’s share of the domestic work and childcare, which – imagine that – is usually also the one who has a much lower income – is claiming his/ her wage for the work they’re doing which enables the other partner to go out and earn more than him or her in the cash economy in the first place.

  8. The setup my parents had was the partner who earns more (my father) is responsible for all the household bills and mortgage. (Also only fair as children are under his surname!) Mum who also worked full time spent her money on herself and saved for our education. Always have separate accounts.
    You have to find a systems that’s fair to both parties bearing in mind the salary differential, and if either party thinks it’s unfair you have to bring it up and discuss it. It’s a marriage after all!

  9. It seems to me that if one partner earns considerably more than the other, and the couple prefers to keep their finances separate, then the bills should be split accordingly and not 50//50.

  10. Phineyj · · Reply

    There are certainly some men in relationships with women where the male is the lower earner, but they’re a small minority, as women are concentrated in lower paying sectors, are more likely to work part time and on average marry/ live with men who are older and therefore more established in their careers.

    I can see pros and cons of shared and separate finances, but I find it very hard to understand the mentality of someone who would treat themselves to expensive things while letting their partner go without – horrible!

  11. I have always worked full time and not taken maternity leaves. I earned 10x what my children’s father earned, ultimately but we always were happy to pool all money and everything was in joint accounts as we started from a similar base of not earning much and were happy to do that. We never ever argued over money as are both careful with it and used every spare penny to pay back debt.

    I wonder why some many women earn less than their men on this thread. It’s a shame. 40% earn more these days – figures in the press this week.
    My advice is never let your career come second, Babies do just as well with two full time working parents and if the father wants a parent at home then let him be the muggins who does it.
    Mind you after 10 years I had to pay out nearly £1m on divorce to him, 60% of our assets as the higher earner. May be I would be wiser to do as women on this thread seem to do – pick lower paid careers, don’t study very hard to become doctors, nab a richer man and stay at home with children so you can fleece the man on the divorce. Perhaps those women are wiser than I have been.

  12. What a fantastic article. But I don’t think that demanding your DP put all his money in the family pot equals ‘depriving’ him of his hard-earned money. It’s called being a family. You put the lion’s share of effort and time into the family, leaving you equally tired and extremely vulnerable from a career/financial perspective. Perhaps your partner would feel that paying the ‘big bills’ is an adequate response to this, but I disagree. Look at where it’s going: in twenty years, he’ll still be earning big money, and you will have only recently been able to look at career advancement. The cost to you is colossal. The cost to him (paying ‘big’ bills) seems miniscule in comparison. To put it another way: there are no boundaries around what you’re required to give to the life of the family. It takes up every moment of every day and affects your working life as well as your home life. You’re taking this ‘hit’ for the good of the family.

    In my heartfelt opinion, a loving partner recognises this by making his role about working hard to provide for the family and his ‘lot’ should be shared by the family as a whole. In this mindset, if he has funds left over after paying the big bills, great! He can pay the smaller ones too, then! And if he has funds after that, you can both treat yourselves together, rather than your having to feel that you’re being taken out on someone else’s money. Because it’s not his money, it’s your money. The distribution of labour in your lives means that he is the one with the earning power. But in terms of significance, what you’re doing is by far the most important job. It seems utterly selfish and wrong for a man to benefit from his partner’s sacrifices by enjoying a home and cared-for children, but also being better off than the people he would claim to be working to support. In an age where there is supposedly more gender equality than previously, it amazes me that this unequal division of funds has grown so prevalent, leaving women more dependent on their husbands, less powerful and more over-worked. If it’s your time to stay home with the kids, it’s his time to be a provider and that means providing on terms that are best for the family, not him.

    It’s kind of your partner to treat you lavishly on birthdays and Christmas but I suspect that if he were to put that money in a family pot, leaving you with more decision-making power about how to spend it, you might end up happier. I certainly would feel wracked with tension if I was treated ‘lavishly’ without being able to reciprocate and without comparable financial freedom.

    As far as division of household chores goes, this is easy: your partner should divert some of his ‘treat’ money to pay for some help in the home. Otherwise, your scrubbing the kitchen floor while entertaining baby before doing overdue work and trying to prepare a meal should be on his conscience. Who cares if he buys you a nice ring for your birthday whilst allowing you to get so burnt out for the rest of the year? That’s not love. That’s largesse.

  13. I’m a woman who earns more than her husband. For a while it was the other way around. Since the moment we married (six years ago, when we were both 24) we put all of our earnings into a joint account and ‘we’ make decisions regarding ‘our’ money. It has never been an issue.
    I was shocked by this article and some of the comments. How emasculating to be in such a situation. Raising a child, cleaning and cooking all count as Work. If you weren’t doing these things then your spouse would need to pay somebody else to do them. That would soon burn a hole in ‘their’ disposable income.

  14. I am really shocked too, to read that so many of you separate money, and end up in such dire financial situations while doing the majority of the housework. Did you know that senior women, often have a ‘highly supportive partner’ (read: a partner who is responsible for the children and housework). They then come home and think ‘it is only fair’ to take on the children and put them to bed while their partner has some time to themselves, after all, looking after children is quite a tiring job. They often take on the full weekend too, to give him some much-needed time for himself. It really astonished me, as that is not how most SAHM’s are viewed. Not sure how they do the finances though.

    I followed my husband abroad under the condition our finances would be 100% shared, as I had to give up my career to follow him. He agreed and I followed. I worked in most countries we lived in and added my tiny bit to the family pot. Eventually I ended up working part-time and looking after our son (as we both agreed that would be better for our son), however I somehow hadn’t realised that ‘looking after our son’ also meant taking 100% responsibility for the rest of the household chores. My husband stopped cooking, shopping, and going to the dry cleaners and anything else he was doing when I still worked full-time, as he felt I was now only working part-time and this was my job, and it was only fair as I wasn’t earning any money. To me this came a bit as a shock. Why is househould work tied up with ‘looking after the children?’. When I worked in a senior job and lived on my own I was perfectly capable of cooking, shopping and keeping my house clean. Surely that’s doable for men too?

    From reading your posts I am actually quite lucky he isn’t demanding me to go out to work or give me a household budget.

    Weird how ‘what is fair’ isn’t so clear cut as one might think. When I lived with a boyfriend that earned less than me, I paid most of the bills, we talked about it initially, and it wasn’t natural thing to me to suddenly share all my money. However it made practical sense: I want to live in a nice house and go on nice holidays, I want him to join me in my nice house and on my nice holidays so I have to pay his share.

    When children come into the picture it changes though, I think you need to re-establish your finances and agree to go 100% shared, if one of you stays home to the household chores and children. Also make sure you discuss chores and children separately, as to me they are separate jobs, and it isn’t natural or expected you automatically do those!! Stay at home men often don’t. Remember that.

    But it will only change if we change it. If we women no longer accept all this work for free, and happily agree to do it all because we are just glad to be able to spend more time with our children.

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