Domestic Goddesses


Having been raised in California - birthplace of est, vegan bacon, and aerobics - I grew up thinking of life less as an "adventure" than as a relentless self-improvement campaign. Oh, don't get me wrong, I got more than my fair share of personal affirmation at home, but no matter how special my parents insisted I was, the prevailing message of the culture around me was that with a little work I could be "specialer"--or at the very least skinnier, healthier, and more well-adjusted.

I figured out relatively early on that this was a losing battle, but it has still left me with irrational feelings of guilt at failing to meet my "optimum potential," which is why this article - Does self-help breed helplessness? - immediately caught my interest.

The article is an interview with Jennifer Niesslein, an otherwise sane woman who spent two years dutifully following the advice of a smorgasbord of self-professed self-help experts only to come out the other end ten pounds lighter and markedly more jaded. In the spirit of full disclosure, I'll tell you that: a) I haven't read the book, and b) I don't intend to. Not because it doesn't look like an entertaining piece of armchair scholarship, just because the review was enough to clear my conscience. Yet another author has dipped her toe into the self-improvement pond and come away feeling more psychically damaged and exhausted than improved. (See. I was right all along.)

Still, one passage in the article did get me to thinking. I'll quote the section here:

Interviewer: I found it interesting that you mention in both your marriage chapter and your housecleaning and organizing chapter that most of the burden of improvement tends to fall on the woman.

Niesslein: Self-help is very old-school in that way. I think it's changing, in the same way that our culture is changing -- women are moving into the traditional men's realm, but it's taking a lot more time for men to move into the traditional women's realm, into the domestic stuff . . . But housecleaning and relationship advice is still very much targeted to women."

This idea may seem blindingly obvious to the female readers out there, but it isn't one that you see written about very often, and I'm glad to see it finally being introduced into the public discourse. Because it's true: In recent decades, women have successfully moved from the private to the public sphere, but the reverse doesn't seem to be happening as quickly as it should.

Modern men are now perfectly content to see their wives become breadwinners in their own right--but the majority of them seem loath to accept an equal share of responsibility for the "domestic duties," traditionally assigned to women. The result is that most of the professional women I know spend a good chunk of their leisure time trying to motivate the "enlightened" men in their lives to pick up their socks, do the dishes, and take out the garbage. And when they're not haranguing their men about the chores, they're often performing what I call "relationship upkeep duties,"--hounding their partners to talk about their feelings, and address the small resentments building up in the relationship.

Now, call me a militant feminist if you want, but does this sound "leisurely" to you?

When you keep this domestic imbalance in mind, it seems clear why a recent study of married couples, conducted by Iowa State University researchers, found that: "Wives, on average, exhibit greater situational power [at home]."

On its face, this may sound like good news, but I'd argue that it's just more evidence of the fact that the onus for relationships and home life is placed squarely on the shoulders of women. Consider this statement by Assistant Professor Megan Murphy, the woman who spearheaded the research: "Women are responsible for overseeing the relationship -- making sure the relationship runs, that everything gets done, and that everybody's happy."

If this is true, it's no wonder that women tend to "dominate" the home. After all, if they didn't, who would ensure that "everything gets done" and that "everybody's happy?" Hmmm? I'm willing to bet that most women would be more than willing to relinquish this "power" given the opportunity.

I'm not looking to vilify the modern American man here. Hell--I love the modern American man (particularly the one I live with). But I think that this imbalance is taking its toll on women's well-being and I do wonder whether being overburdened is one of the many factors contributing the high rate of depression among women.

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Folks, I know I'm apt to be accused here of some sort of viral-marketing ploy, but I don't see how I could reasonably NOT weigh in, inasmuch as I wrote a book, in 2005, titled SHAM: How the Self-Help Movement Made America Helpless; it surveys the broad landscape of self-help, dutifully separating fact from fiction. That's something we also try to do on my blog, I invite interested parties to join the discussion.--Steve

Let's rephrase the issue: Why does winning feel so much like losing?

One of the quirks of this modern invention, the nuclear family, is that it collapses a natural process into a void.

Today, when a girl marries and instantly becomes a woman, she escapes subservience to her parents and establishes dominance as an alpha female virtually instantly. As the only female in a two-person household, she is already the alpha female. A lifetime (well, for her, so far, yes, a lifetime) of struggling under her parents' dominance has prepared her to struggle for dominance in her new household, but the only one handy to struggle against, until the kids come along, is hubby.

As she gains dominance over him, she should see his subservience as success, not failure. Any challenge to her dominance, say taking the initiative on anything, should be fought down, unless of course he first asks permission to take the initiative there and she decides to grant it. Should he assert his primacy on any issue, she must battle him to not a draw but to utter defeat. To her, fighting for dominance is the most natural thing in the world.

By the time the kids come along, she is the undisputed and only alpha. Only she will correct the others on their feeding behaviors (table manners, kitchen use, refrigerator use), their nesting conduct (tidying the nest, sleeping quarters, coming and going), and their general subservience (manners in general, terms of address, showing respect, and ... endlessly ... so on).

Being the only alpha, she has the lion's share of responsibility, which is natural, since she has primacy in dominance.

It may be instructive at this point to view a family of African lions feeding on a freshly-killed zebra, paying close attention to who decides who gets to eat what at what time. Keep in mind that this is an extended family, where every member has their place, and the female and male heirarchies are separate but interrelated. Feeding time is optimal for dominance maintenance and enhancement, for training subordinates into subservience and submission, since they are all hungry and cannot afford to miss the lessons.

Back to the nuclear family now, to their dinner table. We have Mommy, Daddy, Sissy, and Buddy. Who must ask to be excused? Who decides what is suitable for discussion, and who decides the rules for talking? Whose table manners get corrected? Who decides when the meal begins and ends? Who decides portion size and the order of being served? Who decides the menu? Who decides how the food will be prepared? Who decides who will clear the table? Who decides who will wash the dishes? What we see here is economy: what better time to ruthlessly reinforce dominance than while feeding together, when the audience is captive to hunger? This is the optimal time for maintaining and enhancing dominance and training subordinates into subservience and submission.

Contrast this with the extended family, where everybody has their place in a hierarchy. A new mother has older mothers above her in the female hierarchy. She has only a share of motherly power, and only a share of motherly responsibiity. Thus there are many shoulders for burdens to fall on. She also has daughterly and wifely powers and responsibilities as well. Fathers have fatherly powers, shared among the many fathers, and fatherly responsibilities, shared among the many fathers. And so on. Many mouths to feed, many shoulders for burdens. Being born into such a household, you would spend more time in transition from one status to another than you would in stasis: there is so much to learn, and so long to learn it.

Back to nuclear Mommy. By the time the kids are in school, she is very likely wondering why everything falls to her, why she has to look after everything, how things would fall apart unless she takes an active hand in managing them.

Let's now visit African elephants, where the leader of the herd is an old female. She, no doubt, thinks everything falls on her shoulders. Which is only right, because it's true. She has the ultimate responsibility because she has the ultimate authority. Meanwhile, the lesser cows in the herd need to worry only about their relative status, which is a far easier burden to bear, and they can learn a lot just by observing. Matter of fact, their decades long training is mostly just watching what the elders do and learning to copy their behaviors.

Now to your own situation. As dominance struggling comes naturally to us, and the nature of it gets enhanced in us all from infancy onward, to deliberately share power with a co-equal is a very tricky thing to pull off.

Most people who try it fail at it, some worse than others. It doesn't come easily to any of us to give up power we once fought for and won (even if the contest was a shoo-in), but winning the power struggle means winning the responsibility struggle. Relinquishing power removes responsibility, and it denies the right to complain about the results. Ceding can be more bitter still when giving up some power doesn't get the results you want, but you are no longer in control, so either resume battling for power or accept what you get.

As Spider-Man's Uncle Ben said, "With great power comes great responsibility."

some years ago, after a number of good conversations, i came to see that

Happiness = Appreciation x (Reality - Expectations).

You say "But I think that this imbalance is taking its toll on women's well-being". I agree on much of what you say above-so we can improve Reality-, but a missing element, in my view, is the set of Expectations on the modern woman as a "superwoman" as professional, homemaker, health gatekeeper for the extended family, and also on a sometimes misunderstood "equal share of responsibility".

More than "equal" I see "complementary". When my wife cooks, I do the cleaning. And vicaeversa. I always take the garbage out, and do dishwashers; she does washing machine.

In terms of expectations, probably women need to manage their own, in order not to succumb to either the old "housewife" mental model or the new "superwoman" one. And find their own role, together with their partners, that will enable a well-functioning couple.