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Moms stressed for time: Where's Dad's voice?

I started getting messages on Tuesday - Erik Wemple, the editor and media critic from Washington City Paper, wanted to talk to me. I groaned. He said he wanted to talk about the story I wrote that had just appeared in the Washington Post Magazine about working mothers and leisure time. I had reluctantly opened a vein to report and write that story, using my own life as an example - an uncomfortable act for a reporter who doesn't usually put personal experiences into the newspaper. And I knew if Wemple was calling, it could only mean one thing: he hated the story.

That's Wemple's job - keeping the media honest, sometimes with a kick in the pants or a punch in the eye - and he often does a really good job. I just wasn't looking forward to him critiquing my life. But, I asked for it, by writing about myself. So, after a pep talk with my editor, I braced myself for impact and when my schedule cleared, called him up on Wednesday morning.

His first reaction to the story - which he told me toward the end of our conversation - was that I needed affirmation for all the stuff I do around the house and so I shared (whined?) about the time stresses in my life with the world, or at least with Post readers.

Wemple also thought the story would have been more compelling if I'd written about someone else rather than myself. Believe me, I laughed, I would have preferred that as well. I'd tried to get the sociologists I was interviewing to connect me to the subjects of their studies who had kept time journals, but they were bound by confidentiality agreements and wouldn't put me in touch with them. I sent messages to listserves and emailed friends and acquaintances. Some people agreed to keep detailed time journals for us. I scanned the time diary template into my computer and emailed them off. I didn't get one back. I suppose no one had the time for such tedious work.

But Wemple's biggest bugaboo: he felt I had maligned my husband for not doing enough around the house. In a key scene in the piece, I am cleaning up from our 11 year-old's birthday party while my husband sits out on the back patio smoking a cigar. Wemple was miffed that I hadn't given my husband a fair shot to respond.

Should I have?

Let me start out by telling all those who've since sent messages like, "I didn't know you got divorced" - my husband does a lot. He does a lot more than my Dad or previous generations ever did. But we're wired differently. He can walk by a stack of dirty dishes and put his feet up. I hyperventilate.

He also goes to Iraq or Afghanistan twice a year for work for four to six weeks at a time and much of the time I was collecting time diary data, I was, in effect, a single working mom. I did email him the draft of the story in Afghanistan before it was published and - though he teased me for being rough on him - he loved it. To be fair, Tom had just returned from Afghanistan and I was giving him a break letting him sit out on the patio with a cigar outside a war zone. (It only occurred to me much later that perhaps I, too, deserved a break for being a single working mom for a month.)

And the piece clearly reported that there has been a gradual shift in male roles in the household over the last few decades.

Fathers and mothers are moving toward "androgyny" and have about equal workloads (64 hours a week) if you count both paid and unpaid (housework and child care) work.

But let's face it, folks, we're nowhere near parity. With rare exceptions - and it sounds like Wemple may be one of them; he'd spent the morning vacuuming and is the one who takes the kids to the dentist - women simply do more. Figure out childcare? Usually women. Arrange summer camp? Ditto. Keep the calendar, tell people where they need to be, hawk the Girl Scout cookies, work at home to wait for the plumber when the ceiling leaks (like I did last week), work at home when the kids are sick or school is called off after a dusting of snow? Make the doctor's appointments, pick up the prescriptions... primarily women.

Other researchers, like Barbara Schneider at Michigan State University, have found that while men have become more involved with home and children than past generations, their primary role is as the "fun" parent. Women, she found, are still responsible for most of the drudgery.

Still have doubts? Check out this latest study in the Journal Academe, that found that top women scientists performed far more housework, on average, than their male counterparts. (New York Times columnist Lisa Belkin first blogged about this earlier this week.)

There is no doubt things are getting better. But we still have a long way to go.

In the end, Wemple wrote about me giving my husband a black eye so publicly.

I sent Wemple a message later, joking that I'd give my husband a raw steak to soothe the eye, then make sure he cooked it up for dinner. (In fact, Tom made chicken and vegetable stir fry. Then drove the car pool to band practice. I did the dishes.)

By Brigid Schulte  | January 21, 2010; 11:20 AM ET
Categories:  Journalism , The Blowback, The inside story  | Tags:  Brigid Schulte, City Paper, Erik Wemple, Washington City Paper, Washington Post Magazine, time management, time stress, time studies, working women  
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"He can walk by a stack of dirty dishes and put his feet up. I hyperventilate."

This completely sums up the stress in my life. I felt on par with you reading your story this weekend. I don't let myself not do because there is always something to do.

Posted by: mdem929 | January 21, 2010 3:28 PM | Report abuse

From reading your story I keep on remembering the axioms concerning the differences between men and women. The old saying is: A mother's work is never done from sunrise to setting sun. That should be changed to "A mother's work is never done, because mother finds something else to do."
From reading the literature (e.g Women are from Venus), mother's overwhelm themselves. And if mother's are overwhelmed, they do more. Mothers cannot relax, mothers can only collapse. I have seen and known too many who continually strive for perfection re: the kids, the house, what they do in the community. So often mother's overdue everything. "Do we really need 6 appetizers? Do we really need 5 main courses? You are making cookies again? Do we really need all this food?"
Too many mothers think they are not doing enough, so they do more and more. I know one, who has cancer, really overdid it at Christmas. We kept telling her that she did not need to cook this much food or do too. We offered to help. But it fell on deaf ears. We did as much as we could, but she still took over some tasks. Yes, she is a perfectionist. And she did enjoy the time cooking and entertaining.

My point is that mother's cannot find leisure time. Mother's should take leisure time. Carve it into the schedule. Leave the house and kids and take the time. Otherwise, be happy in being busy.

Posted by: websmith77 | January 22, 2010 5:15 PM | Report abuse

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