Having It All

07.12.134:45 AM ET

The Trouble With Work-Life Equality

How do you quantify what each spouse contributes at work and at home? An impossible task, says Conor P. Williams.

Americans fetishize equality. They always have. When Alexis de Tocqueville took his famous early-19th century tour of the United States, he noted that the American “passion for equality is ardent, insatiable, eternal, and invincible.” Tocqueville thought this extended beyond economics—and into American marriages, which looked uniquely egalitarian to his aristocratic French eyes.

Guess what? Almost 200 years later, many of our gender, work, and family discussions focus on inequality between men and women. When Pew reported last March that women average more time on child care (14 vs. 7 hours) and housework (18 vs. 10 hours) each week than men, it revived old accusations about the effect lazy men have on women’s professional opportunities. Piqued men, led by Richard Dorment in Esquire, insisted that the additional hours they spend in the office more than make up for the gaps at home. At base, this is an argument about equality—or, if you prefer, about different “equalities.” How does equality at home influence equality in the office?

Try to envision a scenario that begins with these positions and ends with one side convincing the other. Imagine a stressed-out working dad cocking his head, stroking his chin, and admitting, “Yes, you know, I guess I’ve really been taking it easy.” Imagine a harried, exhausted mom rubbing her temples and sighing, “I guess you’re right. Those hours at the conference table count just as much as mine at the changing table.” I hope you’re rolling your eyes.

The point, I think, is that debates about equality aren’t always productive. At some point, they distort the way we talk about work-life balance. That’s because equality is a fickle, amorphous goal, notoriously difficult to measure and maintain. Which equality do we want? Energy? Hours? Responsibilities? Tasks? Fulfillment? There are numerous ways to measure the effort adults put into their work and family lives, which makes it easy for any parent—working or not—to frame their contributions as generously as possible.

For instance: “Oh, you had to deal with your boss’s crap again? I CLEANED ACTUAL POOP OUT OF THE BATHTUB.” Is figurative crap worse than actual crap? Is there any value in trying to figure that out? I doubt it. There’s no meaningful way to balance those two workloads, because equality is qualitative as well as quantitative.

Please don’t misunderstand me. I’m not saying that equality is always a bad thing. For instance, it’s shameful—no, obscene—that women aren’t paid equally for doing the same work as their male colleagues.

Rather, I’m suggesting that it’s unproductive to focus some work-family discussions on equality. All hours of work are not created equal. What’s the conversion rate between an hour of entertaining two kids indoors on a rainy day and time spent clearing email from an inbox in a cubicle? I have no idea. If you have a huge presentation before the boss on Tuesday, is that equivalent to three sessions of sneaking a nasal aspirator into a fussy newborn’s nose—or four?

What’s more, it’s not clear that perfect equality is even a goal worth pursuing. Jobs, children, and parents change too quickly to obsess over who’s shouldering how much of the load from week to week. As Stephen Marche recently wrote in The Atlantic, “Whether or not the load is being shared 50-50 doesn’t matter if the load is still unbearable.”

Take our house as an example: At the moment, I cover 30 hours of solo childcare each week—my wife covers 10. I’m in the office for 20 hours/week—it’s 35–40 hours for her. I work an additional 20–25 hours in the evenings and weekends. I’m responsible for the gardening (with help from my son), lawn, and auto care. I cover the home maintenance, diaper pail, garbage, recycling, and 7 out of 10 loads of laundry. I handle most of the grocery shopping. She sweeps the floors, keeps the kitchen clean and functioning, schedules the pediatrician, manages the kids’ clothes/gear, and handles most of the kids’ late-night wakeups. Above all, she covered the giving-birth-to-kids process (because, biology) and the breastfeeding (because, bosoms).

We split responsibility for the bills and cooking. No one cleans the bathrooms (not regularly enough, anyway). We share the procrastination duties. I bake bread once a week. She handles most of the thank-you notes. Neither of us regularly sleeps more than six hours a night.

Is this “equal?” I have no clue. Does that matter? I don’t think so. As of February, I was wrapping up a PhD and covering all of the childcare. We still only had one of our two kids. I didn’t have a job. The division of labor was totally different. In other words, today’s formula isn’t magic. It won’t work for everyone. It might not even work for us next year, next month, or even next week. But it works right now. No one has it all, but (almost) everything critical gets done.

So, what’s the trouble with equality? You can’t have it. Not because equality is inherently bad, or because it’s wrong—but because it probably only exists in the eye of each beholder. And honestly, a moment of work-family-life equality is, in practice, as fleeting as some strange subatomic phantasm of theoretical physics. It can be brought into the world for several nanoseconds under the right laboratory, yes, and it must exist for quantum mechanics to logically hold together, but it’s not stable, tactile, tangible, or reliable for day-to-day living.

Instead, I try to think about support and opportunity. While I can’t guarantee that my assigned responsibilities always equal hers in terms of time or energy, I can do my level best to step up when she needs me to be flexible—or to just flat out do more. I can make it a priority to give her multiple opportunities to choose the work-family life that suits her. And she can do the same for me. And sometimes things don’t work just right, so we talk a lot and fight occasionally and do our damnedest to figure something out.

I almost suggested thinking about work and family in terms of “finding a sustainable balance,” but then I was paralyzed with laughter. We need at least 10 hours/week more sleep before even beginning to talk about “sustainability.” This is 21st-century family life, after all.


Conor P. Williams has a Ph.D. in Government and does post-doctoral work in parenting. He works as a dishwasher, mechanic, cook, and more at his house and as a Senior Researcher in the Early Education Initiative at the New America Foundation. Follow him on Twitter at @conorpwilliams. For more information on Conor, click here.