Alexandra Bradner, a philosophy professor at the University of Kentucky, has a piece at The Atlantic on women’s “second shifts.” Noting that women, mothers in particular, are both “important” and “exploited,” she asks why exactly men are so dense when it comes to realizing that maybe the wife could use a hand around the house. After all, women are “equally ambitious” but are victims of the “destruction that childrearing extracts.” Since they don’t have “a village” that will pick up some of these menial chores for them, they would like their husbands to “pick up a broom” in order to “relieve working mothers and save their relationships.”

Her study couldn’t have been more unscientifically done. What man in his right mind would have responded to her questions? Beyond that, I have a rule of thumb when it comes to social science: if the claims don’t square with what I see on a daily basis, the author better present an airtight or overwhelming case for her claims. Most marriages I see are genuine partnerships; sure, one partner may get a little frustrated from time to time with what the other does or does not do, but I have never seen a woman suffer her husband’s indolence in silence. Typically, the division of labor within a household evolves over the course of a marriage, and while spouses may on occasion feel put upon, they typically understand and accept their unique role.

Bradner, on the other hand, jumps from this premise:

Within an hour and a half, I received a collection of lists that averaged around 35 items each, full of the taxing, the trivial, the short- and the long-term: sick child duty, travel planning, photo organization, holiday preparation, emotional support work, hairstyling, online searches for sports equipment, et al.

to the assumption that men aren’t pulling their weight, and women are left completely to their own devices in household management. From the self-report of some women concerning the tasks women feel they have to do, Bradner immediately asks why it is that men aren’t supportive and helpful. The syllogism runs something like this:

  • Men and women are co-workers in the household
  • Women do all the household work.
  • Men need to be prompted into relieving women’s burdens (“the village” being too expensive)

Bradner proceeds from the assumption that women do all the work to an examination of hypotheses for the failure of men to help out. Rather than examine the hypotheses, however, she immediately jumps to solutions:

  • Do I do half of the laundry and half of the dishes every day?

  • Do I buy half of the clothes and toys?

  • Do I take on half of the management of my care providers?

  • Do I write half of the lists and notes?

  • Do I wake up in the middle of the night to calm the baby half of the time?

  • Do I change half of the diapers?

  • Do I plan half of the travel?

  • Do I track half of the household budget?

  • Do I put the kids to bed half of the time?

  • Do I make half of the grocery, sports, and afterschool lesson runs?

  • Do I write half of the e-mails to my kids’ teachers?

  • Do I watch the kids for half of the weekend and for half of every weeknight?

This kind of strict mathematical division of labor, and frankly, this kind of narrow focus on only certain kinds of labor, bears no relationship whatsoever to how married couples actually live their lives. It may be the case that sometimes my wife says to me or I say to her “Can you get that this time? I did it last time” – but for the most part you’ve accepted certain tasks as yours, or, seeing a problem, you take care of it. If my wife presented me with such a list – or, honestly, if I would present her with one (lawn work, household repairs, building projects, playing catch with the kids, doing all the driving on family vacations, etcetera – we would just laugh at each other. If there is a woman out there who has suffered her negligent husband in silence, I haven’t met her.

A far more realistic portrait of marriage can be found in an essay by Sharon Astyk over at Science Blog. Astyk writes:

“I don’t think Eric and my eyes have ever met in one of those soppy, romantic looks couples give each other over a puddle of vomit before.  Yesterday, however, they did.

We’ve been battling a nasty, slow moving stomach virus at our house (four down, four still to go ;-P), and one of the children threw up rather spectacularly all over their bed, the rug and (especially helpful) a gigantic pile of library books (I guess we now own a smelly $50 copy of the illustrated Silmarillion.  Yay.)  I walked in on the scene, yelled for husbandly help, and he set to the rug while I faced the library books.  It was unbelievably gross.  It stank.  It was part of parenting, and well, oddly funny.  Somewhere in the middle, we looked at each other and all I could think was “Well, there’s no one I’d rather be doing this with.”

The Atlantic has in the past couple of years become a resounding echo chamber for female complaints that men are losers. I can’t imagine what would happen if someone tried to turn the tables, but I can say that in the modern academy, as also in the MSM, challenges to such orthodoxies won’t be tolerated. More generally, however, it’s a reflection of changing work spaces. Bradner just assumes two working parents plying their labor outside the household is the model we ought to embrace. Astyk writes out of the context of farm life, where household duties are rather naturally shared and divided between partners. The one assumes contentious relationships defined by duties and managed by a ledger, while the other assumes the mutual formation, maintenance, and care of a household and children through mutual love and respect. I suspect the social context of the household plays no small role in its operation and in the relations of husband and wife within it, but no doubt I’ll be accused of wanting to keep women barefoot and pregnant for all this.


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Jeffrey Polet
Jeffrey Polet grew up in an immigrant household in the immigrant town of Holland MI. After twenty years of academic wandering he returned to Holland and now teaches political science at Hope College, where he also grudgingly serves as chair of the department, having unsuccessfully evaded all requests. In the interim, he continues to nurture quirky beliefs: Division III basketball is both athletically and morally superior to Division I; the Hope/Calvin rivalry is the greatest in sports; the lecture is still the best form of classroom instruction; never buy a car with less than 100,000 miles on it; putts will still lip out in heaven; bears are the incarnation of evil; Athens actually has something to do with Jerusalem; and Tombstone is a cinematic classic. His academic work has mirrored his peripatetic career. Originally trained at the Catholic University of America in German philosophy and hermeneutical theory, he has since gravitated to American Political Thought. He still occasionally writes about European thinkers such as Michel Foucault or the great Max Weber, but mostly is interested in the relationship between theological reflection and political formation in the American context. In the process of working on a book on John Marshall for The Johns Hopkins University Press, he became more sensitive to the ways in which centralized decision-making undid local communities and autonomy. He has also written on figures such as William James and the unjustly neglected Swedish novelist Paer Lagerkvist. A knee injury and arthritis eliminated daily basketball playing, and he now spends his excess energy annoying his saintly wife and their three children, two of whom are off to college. Expressions of sympathy for the one who remains can be posted in the comments section. He doesn’t care too much for movies, but thinks opera is indeed the Gesamtkuntswerk, that the music of Gustav Mahler is as close as human beings get to expressing the ineffable, that God listens to Mozart in his spare time, and that Bach is history’s greatest genius.


  1. Mr. Polet: In no way will I accuse you of anything, but I will note that your dismissal of Ms. Bradner’s study as being “unscientifically done” is offset (though not necessarily negated) by your equally anecdotal and unscientific rebuttal of her conclusions. It also seems you’ve set the bar a bit high for this particular investigation; between “What man in his right mind would have responded to her questions?” and your rule of thumb that allows you to disregard any social science that conflicts with your personal experience, it seems you’ve all but predetermined your opposition to any findings on this subject.

    My own very limited anecdotal input: when I was married, I did lots of housework and enjoyed being with the kids; in fact, I’d rather have stayed home than work at almost any “job” I ever had (and I had a few, though not usually for long). My father, on the other hand, did his work at the office, and when he came home he expected not to be bothered; my mother seemed fine with that arrangement, though I never quite understood it. You’re certainly right that a “strict mathematical division of labor” would be unwieldy in practice, but I’m not sure that reviewing a list like Ms. Bradner’s from time to time would do any harm. And I would guess that a husband would be free to submit his own list as well.

    Finally– “If there is a woman out there who has suffered her negligent husband in silence, I haven’t met her.” I haven’t met the President of the United States, either, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t exist. Some husbands are not just “negligent”: they can also be surly, mean, and downright abusive (in which case, I concede that household chores are not the biggest problem), and some wives can be timid and passive–and those roles can be reversed at times.

  2. Jack

    I agree, and couldn’t have said it better. Well done. One of the many subtleties that I think complicates this balance is differing priorities and levels of awareness. There are many things each spouse does which are likely to be unnoticed by the other, and i think priority has a lot to do with this. One spouse thinks X is more important than the other spouse thinks it is, so only the spouse who thinks X is important actually does it, but (potentially) they both benefit. Because of this asymmetry in priority 1) one spouse overvalues X and the other undervalues it 2) the responsibility for X is implicitly assumed by the spouse who prioritizes it. As a result, the spouse performing task X might not be aware of X in a way that causes them to explicitly ask for assistance and the spouse NOT performing task X isn’t even aware it’s “on the list”. For me, a good example is buying my daughter clothes. I do (and i think my wife would agree) a good job of handling day-to-day childcare stuff, bed time, pick-up/drop-off, meals, hygiene, etc., but until i started to compose this comment, i never considered the fact that i’ve NEVER purchased an article of clothing for my daughter, and yet, she doesn’t go around naked.

    Returning to priorities and awareness – depending on your home life as a child, you may have seen a division of labor being modeled that is inconsistent with your present reality, and, as a result, you have no awareness of what needs to happen to make a household function. In a single breadwinner home the division of labor was breadwinner makes the money, other spouse does everything else. Today, all of the “everything else” still exists, but both spouses are “breadwinners”. The man, then, can follow the path of least resistance and assume his responsibilities are met by working and remain unaware of everything else necessary for a functioning household.

    One last point, my choice of words “priority” and “awareness” is intentionally specific. It’s meant to underscore the notion that each spouse’s “priorities” are, to some extent, a matter of preference, and so the tasks associated with them may NOT be essential to the functioning of the household (but that doesn’t mean they are any less important to the spouse performing them). And “awareness” was meant to emphasize that a spouse might not be pulling his weight because he’s lazy, rather that he is genuinely ignorant of important tasks.

    • brz: To be honest, I have absolutely no idea how any two people manage to co-exist for any length of time under the same roof, and that’s not even considering the complications of trying to raise children. I’ve done it, but I’m not saying I ever did it well. I live by myself now in comfy retirement, and if the dishes don’t get done or the bed isn’t made, I’ve got no one to blame but myself. I have nothing but praise for couples who stay together for decades–it’s one of the hardest things in the world to do. Your emphasis on “priority” and “awareness” seems well-placed; I’d add “patience” and “attentiveness” (which may be “awareness” in different guise) as well.

  3. Ladies who complain of such things in public forums strike me as childish and spoilt. Though, it is true, I do not know Ms. Bradner, that’s the impression one gets from reading her article, but to be fair, she is not alone in her rather shrill complaints. As a wife and mother, I will fully admit that sometimes my own husband gets a good dressing-down for not doing his fair share and reminding him of his responsibilities to the children, however, as has been pointed out already, real couples simply do no operate on a “half mine half yours” basis. Nor do I believe they should. Managing a household is nothing like a partnership where both parties are responsible for exactly half of each duty, but rather a juggling act. For instance, when a lady gets home from hospital from having her baby, she’s tired…and rightly so. When the baby cries, the husband will attend to said child (if, of course, he is a decent man, and most men are.) However, later on down the line, when that same baby cries, the mother generally runs to comfort her. Why? Because she’s a mother. That is what mothers do. It isn’t shameful. It has been going on for centuries (only the wealthy in Western History could afford nannys and maids). There is nothing wrong with a woman caring for her children, but ladies should be happy to know that most husbands really are eager to help with the care and management of their children, as they have always been, I might add. It is absolutely false to ascribe caring fathers as the mark of a “modern man” Indeed, men have been caring for their children, cleaning up after them, and helping to teach them and shape them into well adjusted adults since humanity began. One need only read any book written in previous centuries to see that this has been the rule, rather than the exception, if they require proofs. I am reminded of the many examples of devoted husbands ( such as Sir Robert Chiltern in Oscar Widle’s An Ideal Husband was excessively fond of his wife Gertrude.) and doting fathers (that dear sweet man Mr. Bennet, father to a gaggle of the five girls in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. He was awfully fond of his second eldest Elizabeth, and indeed said upon her engagment to Mr. Darcy the following: “I could not have parted with you, my Lizzy, to anyone less worthy” These are hardly the words of a cold, indifferent father who cares nothing for his children.) Men and women, women and men….God created both, because both are here to work together. Both need each other in order to survive. Day to day may not be fifty-fifty, but I believe, in the grand scheme of things, both are children of God, and though different, precious in their own right.

  4. “your dismissal of Ms. Bradner’s study as being “unscientifically done” is offset (though not necessarily negated) by your equally anecdotal and unscientific rebuttal of her conclusions.”

    It is perfectly appropriate for Polet to criticize Bradner as “unscientific” even if he cannot raise the bar:
    1) To cast doubt on Bradner’s assertions, he simply has to match he level of evidence, not exceed them.
    2) The burden of proof rests on the person who makes the assertion. So its enough to demonstrate that Bradner has provided no proof.
    3) Since he is presenting the response, he doesn’t have the luxury of developing a research program to acquire the relevant evidence.
    4) He is not in a position of authority (e.g. professor; as far as I know), where people defer to him on the assumption that he knows what he’s talking about.

    • ricketson: You’re no doubt correct on (1) and (2), so far is strict logic is concerned, though of course Ms. Bradner did provide a sort of “proof” via a research program which Mr. Polet simply dismissed without rebutting. He may, of course, be right: the research study may have been seriously flawed. But as I pointed out, Polet went on to say, in essence, that he doesn’t believe research studies whose conclusions conflict with what he already thinks or has already observed. That, too, is not in and of itself indefensible–I kind of react the same way to published stories about social science research, which tends either to merely reinforce common sense truisms on the one hand, or offer counter-intuitive conclusions on the other. It just felt to me that, overall, Polet undercut his own argument against Bradner; I could be wrong.

      As to (3), Polet certainly could at least have done a quick Google search to see what other studies might be out there that contradict Bradner’s. And (4) I think anyone writing a column/blog is assuming, rightly or not, a sort of authoritative stance; I say that as someone who writes a blog and who has occasionally been reminded of that fact. Believe it or not, some people take us seriously just because our words are in print and because we get a by-line of sorts; writing articles, even online, isn’t the same as having a bull session with the guys at the bar.

      I won’t take issue with this much: if all Polet was attempting to do was observe the strict rules of logic, he succeeded, as you point out. But my guess is he was trying to persuade, and in my view he failed.

  5. Most of the time we don’t have to do formal research to know the world about us, it’s there for the seeing for those who eyes to see with.

    Jeffrey Polet states the obvious to most anyone who has been married for any length of time raising a family.

    Work is not divided by halves, wives and husbands take of different roles because they are different. And if anything, Alexandra Bradner should be praising american men because as a culture american men are far more willing to do the tasks she expects of them.

    Frankly, I wonder if american men have not gone too far, and in doing so have actually harmed our society by diminishing the distinction of mothers and fathers because what we have today is very unique with uniqueness typically being not a good, but a disorder of the natural order.

  6. I’ve only been married seven months, and as such we don’t have kids yet, so my husband and I are both working full-time and sharing the housework more or less equally: we trade off weeks to grocery shop, we trade off weeks for laundry, we each clean half the house, and we both cook twice a week. We even make our own bread (with a bread maker) and trade off this task. Though there are a few delegated tasks (he always deals with the trash, I always make the jam and chicken stock), for the most part things are split half and half. In other words, we do what Bradner recommends much more than most couples,* and I have no idea why anyone would advise this arrangement as a long term plan. It’s completely exhausting, and there are just two of us in a one bedroom apartment right now! We work at work, then come home and work, have a short dinner, and go to bed (and our house is never as clean or orderly as we’d like it be), only to wake up and do it all again.

    The half-and-half arrangement has found a resurgence of proponents, and it leaves me to wonder: do any of its proponents actually do this, or do they just have hired help do it? If they do it, are they super-human, or do they not have friends or leisure time? Or is their house just filthy, and their income spent on take out?

    This is the plan on “having it all.” I guess I don’t want “it all:” I just want a happy, quiet life, where we can eat good meals together and spend time as a family, even if it means we do so in a smaller house and we rent much longer than we’d like. Maybe I’m lucky, because my career ambitions as a writer are best served by staying home, but I would suspect most people would choose time for family, friends, peace, and leisure over the hectic grind of both trying to work.

    *We don’t do this, however, for the reasons Bradner states; we do it because it is what has worked best for us these seven months with both people in full-time employment. My sister and her husband, who are also recently married, have a different arrangement, where she does all the cooking and he does all the grocery shopping, and I think that is just fine.

  7. Polet,
    Nice one here. The bleeding heart feminism of the current zeitgeist where men are characterized as bigger dolts than we generally wholeheartedly embrace ourselves as, is getting tiresome.

    If anyone would like a copy of the Greatest Hits of The Concept upbraiding me for my manifest imperfections and laxity….and they are manifest, we shall send them a copy for $9.99 plus media postage. As a bonus, we’ll throw in the top ten reasons why the Concept is a roaring pain in the arse. # 10 is she talks too much. # 9 is she does not know how to craft marine corners in the sheets. They get picturesquely worse from there. But I love her, unremittingly.

    Any whining woman deserves the lout she creates. Vice versa. Marriage is a forum for craftsmanship and should be treated as such. I’m about to become a grandpappy and the Bride and I are still married, complaining as a matter of course and only the arch creativity of barbed invective keeps us tightly together.

  8. Perhaps some men don’t share housework equally with their wives because they are the kind of people who recognize healthy marriages involve other priorities, approaches, and attitudes that make it less likely for a couple to divorce.

    If a prospective mate, whether a man or a woman, really thinks splitting household work is an essential determinant for a good marriage (as Bradner seems to think), I would advise some caution to those considering him. Keeping score in the way described in the article is a bad way to go about marriage.

    Perhaps her claim could be reduced to (welcome) advice to be more attentive to the experience of your wife. If so, I’d support it. But to be true to reality and to ourselves, this attention should be given within the context of a marital paradigm that recognizes and affirms sexual differences rather than a paradigm that sees marriage is an strictly equal partnership between equivalent sexes (Bradner’s modern liberal paradigm).

    Moreover, I agree with Bradner that society should recognize and reward (or at least stop punishing) the largely uncompensated work of mothers as mothers through tax policy, for example. John Medaille has written some good papers on this. Of course I don’t agree the aim of this policy would be to allow women to be free from the “burden” of motherhood to pursue more important careers; the aim of the policy should be to recognize and honor the crucial nature of motherhood as work.

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