Who clips the nails? (Part I. Survey results)

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by Katrina on July 14, 2010

This is the first of a series of posts about how working couples share the under-the-radar tasks that, taken together, represent the “psychic burden” of parenting.

Even though studies show fathers are changing more diapers and folding more laundry than ever, mothers are still bearing most of the “psychic burden” of parenting—the scheduling, organizing, and myriad little tasks that fall to the primary caregiver.

A month ago, I put together a survey asking parents how they divide certain responsibilities at home, and linked to it here. In the first week, more than 300 parents—moms, dads, gay, straight—filled out the survey.

The results*

According to the survey, even in households where both parents work outside the home, mom is still in charge of things like clipping the kids’ nails, researching daycare options, scheduling doctor appointments, and buying and sorting the kids’ clothes.

Is this fair? About half of you said yes, and half said no. But fairness is a complicated concept, one I will explore in more depth next week.

Please note, all anonymous quotes are from comments people left at the end of the survey.

Here’s who responded to the survey

  • 338 total respondents
  • 302 identified as “a working parent in a household where both parents work”
  • 95% female; 5% male
  • 94% households = 1 mom + 1 dad
  • 5% households = 2 moms or 2 dads
  • 1% other (divorced but co-parenting, or 2 parents + grandma)

Detailed results

To keep the survey short, I picked 10 chores (more about how I chose those 10 in a moment) and asked who did them. Parents could choose one of three answers:

  • “I usually do this”
  • “My partner usually does this”
  • “We split it pretty evenly”

The majority of the respondents (262 out of 338) were working mothers whose husbands also work. This is how many of these moms say they are primarily responsible for these tasks:

  • 92% Buying and sorting clothes
  • 88% Scheduling dentist and doctor appointments
  • 84% Organizing kid birthday parties
  • 80% Research daycare/schools
  • 75% Clipping nails
  • 69% Checking for lice
  • 68% School communication, volunteering, etc.
  • 47% Stay home with sick kids
  • 46% Brushing kids’ hair and teeth
  • 35% Drop off and pick up kids

Here’s how many people said they split those same tasks evenly:

  • 54% Drop off and pick up kids
  • 49% Brushing kids’ hair and teeth
  • 43% Stay home with sick kids
  • 29% School communication, volunteering, etc.
  • 18% Research daycare/schools
  • 13% Organizing kid birthday parties
  • 13% Buying and sorting clothes
  • 13% Clipping nails
  • 11% Checking for lice
  • 10% Scheduling dentist and doctor appointments

Here’s how many dads are primarily responsible:

  • 13% Clipping nails
  • 11% Drop off and pick up kids
  • 10% Stay home with sick kids
  • 6% Brushing kids’ hair and teeth
  • 3% School communication, volunteering, etc.
  • 3% Scheduling dentist and doctor appointments
  • 2% Research daycare/schools
  • 2% Organizing kid birthday parties
  • 2% Buying and sorting clothes
  • 2% Checking for lice

There were no tasks in the survey where the majority of dads were primarily responsible, although I suspect if I’d asked who did the yard work or household maintenance, they would have scored some points there.

Here’s a pdf of all the survey questions in case you haven’t seen them.

This pdf file shows the full breakdown of responses by working mothers whose husbands also work.

About the survey

The questions in the survey were geared toward parents with very young children. I didn’t ask things like ‘Who stays up until the teenager gets home?’ or ‘Who teaches the kid to drive?’ That’s partly because my children are between the ages of 3 and 9, so that’s where my head is, but it’s also because the early years of parenting are particularly demanding and tend to really mess with our ability to work.

The majority of you also included detailed comments about your situations. I’m sorry to say there would have been far more responses, but due to a technical glitch, the survey crashed the day I left for vacation; I didn’t find out until a week later. Argh! I’m also sorry to say there weren’t enough responses from gay and lesbian families to make any meaningful comparisons between the dynamics of straight versus same-sex couples.

However, there were plenty of fascinating data to pore over, and I used up a ream of paper printing out the responses.

Why should we care who clips the nails?

Social scientists have long known about the housework gap between husbands and wives, as described in Arlie Hochschild’s book “The Second Shift.” Lately there have been many stories in the media saying this trend is changing. One study went so far as to say men’s growing contributions to household tasks are “substantially lessening the burden on women.”

I’m skeptical. Most of these studies focus on the obvious daily household and childcare responsibilities, but they leave out something very important. Are dads actually taking on their share of the thinking and planning of family life, or are they simply taking orders from mom? How much are these dads really lessening our “burden?”

Someone has to remember to do it

Although this certainly isn’t true in all families, we know that in general dads are doing more laundry and dishes. So I didn’t ask about those types of chores in the survey.

With a few exceptions, such as picking up and dropping off kids at school or daycare, I asked about things that don’t need to be done every day. It doesn’t take that long to schedule a doctor’s appointment. Sorting through outgrown clothes only happens a few times a year. But someone has to do it. And more than that, someone has to remember to do it. These little details have a way of piling up in our brains and taking up a lot more space than one might expect. Taken together, they represent what I think of as the psychic burden of parenting.

As several of you pointed out, there are plenty of other questions I could have included:

“Other Mom-duties-by-default in our household: meal planning and nutritional oversight (variety, vegetables, vitamins); extra-curricular/summer plans/daycare coverage research and planning; carpool planning and coordinating (with other moms, of course); babysitter finding and scheduling; parenting research (e.g., figuring out how to deal with sleep and potty issues thru BPN/internet/books); making basic hygiene happen (washing hands, wiping mouths, making sure baths happen and that hair gets shampooed).”

When we carry these details of family life alone, the effect can be isolating. Here’s how a few of you described it:

“In rereading my responses, it would seem that we are doing a pretty good job splitting tasks and my husband IS very active and involved. Yet, I still feel that the burden of parenthood falls more heavily on me. So why is that?  I think it is because even though he totally steps up, I am still the one doing most of the directing/thinking ahead. For instance, he will happily give the kids a bath, but defers to me to decide whether they need one. That is a small example, but extend that out to what the kids wear each day, what we need to bring whenever we leave the house, what we should be looking for in a new daycare. He is doing the grunt work in these instances, for sure, but it would feel more fairly divided up if there were tasks he did without any input from me, just there are tons that I do without input from him. ”

“I think my husband would say we split things evenly but your questions point out things I typically do alone that often go unnoticed.”

“I think it’s not necessarily that women are doing more (though, this survey makes me think perhaps it’s not as egalitarian as I thought!), it’s that they are running the show. In terms of actual time spent with the kids I think it’s about evenly split. I’m always saying, “Hey, can you do this or that” and my husband is totally delightful and helpful and follows through.  But he’s not delegating responsibilities to me because I’m the one with the master plan.  Even though he goes to the store about 50% of the time to do our shopping, I always send him with a list.  He never sends me with a list when I go, just might mention that he needs something. If I asked him to cut the kids nails, he most certainly would, but he doesn’t notice on his own that they need cutting (or his threshold for “long” is about 2 weeks past mine). I think that today’s women with extremely engaged husbands are still the family CEOs.”

What if I like to clip the nails?

Don’t get me wrong—it’s not that we don’t want to do these things. Many of you were quick to point out that you get joy from taking care of your family. It can be fun to buy our kids clothes. Clipping the nails can be an opportunity for quiet intimacy (unless you have a 3-year-old who screams every time she sees the nail clippers). However, when we’re working and trying to juggle all the details of home life, these seemingly invisible tasks can feel like a burden.

Full disclosure

One dad who filled out the survey wanted to know if I have an axe to grind with men. Let me tell you a little bit about how things work in our house.

I have an embarrassingly supportive husband. I say ‘embarrassing’ because I know a lot of women don’t feel this way about the men they married, and some of them might be annoyed with how pleased I am with mine.

My husband is competent in house work, work-work, and childcare. He organizes closets with zeal, packs a mean lunch, and instinctively knows when it’s “hair wash” night. On my many business trips, I never had to worry about whether the kids were OK, and when I came home, the house was always clean, because he knows how stressful it is for me to come home to a dirty house. He respects my contribution whether I make more money or less than he does, and whether I make any at all.

And yet, Brian would freely admit that I’m the one who carries the psychic burden of parenting. (I know this to be true because he also edits my blog posts, and he just added the word “freely” to the previous sentence.)

Even when I was working full time and we shared drop-offs and pick ups, sick day coverage, and standard household chores like laundry and dishes, I made sure the kids were immunized (after researching the possible dangers of early immunization), bought and wrapped birthday presents for their friends’ parties, and fought nightly to get them to eat their veggies. Once in a while, Brian would buy the girls dresses, but I was the one who went through their closets, weeding out things they’d outgrown and distributing the hand-me-downs (or “hand-it-overs” as Martha called them) to friends. To this day, Brian has never once clipped the kids’ nails. He says their shoes would have to stop fitting before he noticed that their nails were too long.

I don’t know why things are this way. Mostly it works, but when I had a full time job, it was a lot to keep track of. Could we have divided things more evenly? If so, would that have made it easier to stay at my job? Would Brian have had the nervous breakdown instead of me? Would I have wanted to give up the things I did? I don’t know.

Was it fair? Read Part II.

*A brief disclaimer: The survey participants were self-selected. The results of this survey would probably not pass scientific scrutiny. However, they do reflect what other more serious studies show over and over again: the looming “housework gap” between men and women.

* * *

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{ 19 comments… read them below or add one }

Tammy

This is the point I am constantly trying to make with my husband. As my close friend once said “I am one brain thinking for 5 people (3 kids,herself and even her hubby).” It’s exhausting…

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Anna

As a 2 mom family, I am finding this interesting. I think people have certain inherent strengths — I am good at doing the social side of our life and planning out camps, playdates etc; my partner notices that the nails need to get trimmed and that the kids do need to have that cough checked. At times there is an imbalance – she is doing more laundry or I am trying to ensure the kids have a friend at all the different camps. But mostly we appreciate what we both bring to making our family run smoothly.

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Maria

I think this is an important issue in terms of understanding why things get hard in the relationship. I know there are times when my husband judges me as a stick in the mud – unwilling to just have some fun! Sometimes he is right. I do get THAT look when he wants to have a BBQ tomorrow or go camping again. I see our whole summer schedule that might need to be shifted, the playdate I have to cancel, cleaning the house, packing, doing the laundry, getting to the store, rescheduling piano…NOT weeding through the kids clothes…and many other little tasks that need to be planned and accomplished. He is totally willing to do the work, but sees it as a couple of hours. I should have plenty of time and energy for the activity and a quickie!

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Kat

Katrina – Sometimes I think you write this blog just to give me evidence-based support my lesbian, child-free lifestyle. ;)

Biological sex aside, I think that households usually have someone who self-defines and clings to their role as “the one who runs the show” – and I would imagine that person is also the one who is more likely to have a nervous breakdown. I’m curious about the relationship between hyper-vigilant, controlling behavior and gender.

For those of us who feel like victims of oppressive household responsibilities, I think we need to ask ourselves what our attachment is to being the primarily responsible for the master plan? In other words, what is the pay off? In order to find emotional freedom from this burden that we so desire, we have to be willing to give up the benefits.

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mary

Great survey. I think the daily negotiations (sometimes battles!) between couples over some of these tasks are the primary location of the latest wave of the fight for equality. I am astounded at how many of my strong feminist-minded friends still deny and/or crumble under their male partners’ overt or passive resistance to doing a fair share of the family management and childcare. Yes, many of us have great partnerships, and men bring much more than what is in the survey at hand, but inequality in the home remains strong.

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Teresa

Great post and great comments. Very interesting survey (and holy crap, I’m supposed to check for lice?!)
@Kat-I think you are right that some of us (me included) have an attachment to being the one in charge of the master plan. My partner and I are reading a book right now called “Equally Shared Parenting: Rewriting the Rules for a New Generation of Parents” and the authors point out that equal parenting requires, among other things, a willingness to let go and have the other parent be in charge when it’s their turn. This goes a long way towards creating a partnership where both parents share the emotional burden. But it’s not easy to break the idea that because we have separate spheres of expertise (from years of training) that means we can’t learn something new or create a new household order.
@mary — My feminist friends say the same thing. Couples seem to be able to preserve more or less equal partnerships until kids come along. But we do have to thank feminism for at least a little progress! (The progress has been incorporated into our culture enough so that we don’t even think of it as something that women fought for, but they did!)
Sociologists have done tons of research showing that women do the majority of the housework and childcare, even when they work full time. No matter the study methodology — asking couples what they do, observing couples in their home, having couples keep time diaries — sociologists find again and again that women do about 2/3 of the work at home. There are also studies that show that in hetero couples with kids, the man gets a LOT more sleep every week.
Also, anecdotal evidence from my hetero friends shows that even when the man is staying home the woman does most of the planning and the housework.

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Teresa

@Maria: I swear, men would get a lot more quickies if they took equal responsibility! What’s more sexy than a man doing his share of the housework and child duties? Another example of how we all gain from equal parenting! (I would love more sex too, but seriously, it’s hard when there is a list of chores running through my head every moment of the day).

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Jennifer

Agreed! I tell my husband that the sight of a man vacuuming is one of my turn-ons.

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Angel

Kat- I love your comments. I think I do indeed cling the notion that I “run the show”…. and I find myself asking why when sometimes all it gets me is anxiety, exhaustion and bitterness towards my other seemingly less productive housemates (my husband and daughters)….
I have no idea what the master plan is, but I do know this summer I am teaching my 8 year old to sort/fold and put away the laundry!

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Jenny

I started the survey, but there wasn’t an option for “we switch back and forth” which is often the case. That said, I definitely am the one who clips the nails, and I’m the femme in our butch/femme two mom household. I also do more dishes. But she does more laundry cause I suck at laundry. All those unfolded clothes just bum me out and I tend to let it go until I could spend half a day folding.

I didn’t think that we split things that evenly when we started, because I definitely see her as more the guy in the relationship and around the house – but actually, she’s the one who schleps the kids to various activities (like swim lessons, baseball, etc.) and I work more hours at my job (much to everyone’s chagrin).

I don’t think we set out to split evenly, but we both do things we’re more inclined to do. On the other hand, her ability to not see the mess, or ignore the dishes or do things less “perfect” than I would drives me crazy! But I’m sure she’d have complaints about my style too if she were commenting.

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Michele

There is something I am struggling with here. I was one of the (few, apparently) women who responded to most of the questions on your survey with “we split it pretty evenly.” Both my husband and I are VERY involved in parenting, and he probably does more of the “general” domestic work than I do (and yes, we both work fulltime). The question you asked were about fairly specific tasks, yet your analysis is focusing on something more amorphous: “psychic energy.” If women in fairly egalitarian households expend more “psychic energy” on parenting, does that perhaps say more about how the different genders think/feel/relate than about how labor is divided? I mean, before we had kids, I probably spent more time thinking about our relationship than my husband did–and since we’ve had kids, I’ve probably spent more time reading/thinking/worrying about parenting than he has. I don’t find this oppressive or upsetting–it just reflects the differences between us that have always been there. I’ll just end by saying that I do find parenting exhausting sometimes, but I don’t find it “heart-breakingly hard.” I’m guessing that is because I have a very supportive partner and we both have jobs that allow for pretty reasonable work-life balance. We don’t have a lot of money, but otherwise life is all right.

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Jennifer

I do think it’s true that moms think more about all this. She’s also talking about planning, though, not just mulling over. :) And without planning, there are missed parties and rehearsals, conflicting plans, feelings hurt, late fees, thank you cards not given, dark greens not eaten for 6 weeks, etc. etc. None of it “just gets done,” the planning sometimes takes more time than the actual, final task. Also, a lot of little tasks can fall to the wayside if we don’t keep them fresh in our minds, so I do think a portion of that thinking we do is not optional.

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Rachel

Part of the background of this issue is that women feel they are (and actually are) held more accountable for these kinds of tasks. A mother with a young son who has long, dirty fingernails is generally seen differently (e.g. neglectful) than a man with the same child (boys will be boys). A man who takes his child to a birthday party without a gift (or with a crappy one bought in the drugstore at the last minute!) is generally given more leeway about the gift and more credit for bringing the child to the party. Women are more often raised to think about these things in relational terms.

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Jennifer

Excellent point and so true!

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Meg

Interesting survey. One concern: In your description above, you said “The majority of respondents were working mothers whose husbands also work,” and then “Of these moms, this is how many were primarily responsible for tasks…” So, are the numbers given above only based on the self-report of a limited group of mothers, or do they include data from fathers and same-sex partners? While I agree with the basic point you’re trying to make, it seems that the latter would be a more fair way to collect data. Fathers certainly might over-report their own participation, but so might mothers. It would also be nice for it to be clearly explained when you are drawing from your whole sample and when you are drawing from only part of it.

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Katrina

Hi Meg,

I’m glad you asked that question. I had a detailed explanation about this, which I took out because the story was already so long and I didn’t think many people would care.

Short answer:

There were very few responses from dads. Adding the dad responses in would have been more math on my side but made very little difference to the percentages I listed. It was cleaner and easier to say these are the moms’ responses. Sorry if that wasn’t clear. I tried very hard to make it clear.

Long answer:

I struggled with how to include everyone’s feedback and still keep the story (and math) simple. (Recap: 338 total respondents; 302 of those were in hetero or same sex 2-working parent households; 14 of those were dads married to moms. I think there was one dad in a 2-dad household.) In the end, I filtered out the dads’ responses (unless otherwise indicated) as well as responses of parents in families where only 1 parent works. You could say I was being lazy. I would say I was being pragmatic.

But since you asked, here are the dad data:

14 respondents fit the description of working dads with wives who work. This is how many dads said they “usually do” these tasks.

• 57% Drop off and pick up kids (in other words, 5 out of 14 dads said “I usually do this”)
• 57% Stay home with sick kids
• 43% School communication, volunteering, etc.
• 38% Brushing kids’ hair and teeth (only 13 responses)
• 36% Clipping nails
• 29% Scheduling dentist and doctor appointments
• 21% Research daycare/schools
• 21% Checking for lice
• 14% Organizing kid birthday parties
• 7% Buying and sorting clothes

While these dads show higher participation, according to their responses, they still aren’t taking primary responsibility for the things that don’t happen every day, the “psychic burden” tasks.

I learned a lot from doing this survey and plan to do more of them. Next time I would design the survey differently so it would be easier to tally up the results. Next time I would also emphasize that the value of this research is QUALITATIVE—the quantitative data is interesting, but not thorough. The really interesting stuff are all the quotes in parts 2-4.

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Sarah

This is exactly how I feel having returned to work 2 months ago after a year’s maternity leave. Don’t get me wrong, whilst on maternity I had moments where I was stressed out, fed up and even looked forward to going back to work but generally I felt well and felt like, for the first time in a long time even before the baby (I’d had a stressful job for 10 years) my life had balance. I am now a teacher working 60% at a secondary school in the UK and feel I am struggling to juggle it all – even at 60%!! The headaches and indigestion are back, I am considering giving up work and it is definitely putting me off having a second child. I really want to continue working though as when baby goes to school I know I’ll want to work and if I give up now for a few years it’ll be really hard to get a job again.
My partner works away a lot but when home is really involved and will do anything I ask – and therein lies the problem. I feel I’m the one who essentially is carrying the responsibility and often feel I have, not one, but two children who need guiding.

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Sarah

P.s. thank you – your blog made me feel sane!

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Meagan

Just wanted to thank you for this. Nail clipping is an ingenious approach to the psychic burden issue…I have three young kids, work part-time, and good gracious, it has been (and is) a process, trying to find ways to quiet the buzzing brain thing that happens when you are managing everything from baths to childcare. It’s helpful to realize that massive social forces are involved in the most mundane parenting tasks, to put our family roles into cultural perspective, and see our default modes in this light. Saw your survey referenced in the Post this morning, by the way….

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