My wife took our son grocery shopping today, and missed several items on the list, including a couple of key ones like beer and eggs. (Ok, so the eggs aren’t that essential.) I’m not writing to complain, much. My wife’s out of practice. I do the majority of the grocery shopping, and I do nearly all of the shopping with our son. (My wife might pop out to grab some items, but not with Felix in tow.)
By contrast, this weekend she went away for work and I took Felix to the farmer’s market, a much beloved Saturday morning excursion that he makes with his mom. There, I missed buying fish and rhubarb, and generally found it difficult to navigate the trike-riding little guy through the crowded, narrow aisles of the farmers’ stands.
This illustrates a basic economic concept called specialization. Ideally, when you go to work, you have a discrete job description, a well-defined set of tasks to accomplish that don’t overlap too much with other people’s. It’s not efficient if you’re doing the same work someone else is, and it’s also not efficient if your job changes everyday so you don’t know what you’re doing. It’s better for all if each worker gains expertise in a small area, and then everyone works together to get big jobs done.
Turns out households might run more better in this way as well — my wife handles the farmer’s market, while I handle shopping at the store. But what if we specialized even further? What if one of us did all of the shopping all of the time, and the other didn’t think about it at all? Then we’d be even more efficient!
This isn’t a new idea. According to The Atlantic’s article “The Gay Guide to Wedded Bliss,” the Pulitzer Prize winning economist Gary Becker published a book called A Treatise on the Family in 1981, suggesting that having one person in the workforce and one person at home is a better way, work-wise, of organizing a household than splitting up chores evenly. The old assumption was that a woman would be the one staying at home while the male worked. In our more enlightened time, that’s not necessarily the case. (Like with us, I’m the one at home most of the time.)
The Atlantic article brought Becker’s book up because in some gay households the division of labor follows the traditional “one parent at work/one parent at home” paradigm. The article claims that 32% of heterosexual couples have one parent at home — and I’m assuming the majority of them are mothers (I can’t find a stat on this) — while 33% percent of gay male couples have one parent at home, in every case a father.
Of course, the authors cite a study from the Journal of GLBT Family Studies that gay men still fight over who goes to work and who stays at home, as staying at home is seen as a loss of status. Let’s face it, in our culture today, we value money and skill and a certain amount of social achievement, all of which come with having a profession. The decision to stay home is never an easy one, even if it makes sense from an efficiency standpoint.
Nor is it pleasant to consider that one person’s sole responsibility would be caring for children and managing the household, from either parent’s point-of-view, I think. Even before leaving the workforce, I contributed to doing laundry, cooking, cleaning, gardening, etc. I would feel infantilized to have someone take care of all of these things for me. While I used to think, growing up, that Darrin on the sitcom Bewitched had it pretty good, I now find it sad that the guy couldn’t even make himself a drink when he came home — he relied on his wife for that. I’d rather do for myself, thank you very much.
So while I do believe specialization might make a house run more efficiently in a factory-model workflow sense, I don’t think just putting one person in charge of the domestic and one the occupational is the way to go. Rather, think of collaborative projects in the office. Part of the work is figuring out who is going to do the work — having a meeting in which responsibilities are divvied up, individual deadlines set, and to-do lists made. This takes some time, but if done right, leaves all members of the team feeling valued, and active contributors to the work.
Here at home, I cook certain meals on certain nights, and my wife handles other meals on other nights. We split up the work and specialize — I make the tomato sauce, she’s the quiche expert — but like two workers in the same department, our skill sets overlap. Neither of us are helpless.
It’s not easy, but it makes, I argue, both more work sense and emotional sense to split childcare and housework up between both parents, and to do so in as clear a way as possible.