Sunday, July 17, 2016
Who does the cleaning in your house? And why it matters.
With all of the #LeanIn and #HeForShe movements going on lately, division of housework has become a common topic of conversation. The typical family in the United States is comprised of two working adults, averaging about 91 paid hours (combined) per week. So, at the end of the work day, both adults are tasked with recovering from the work day, managing their home, and often caring for their children. Moreso than for any other generation, the division of housework matters.
In 1965, women spent 30 hours per week devoted to housework while men spent about 5 hours per week. In the year 2000, the National Survey of Families and Households found that women spent about 18 hours per week doing housework while men spend about 10. This suggests a lot of things. First, the amount of hours the average family is spending on housework has declined by 20% since 1965, perhaps due to the introduction of time-saving technology such as microwaves, dishwashers, and washing machines into most American homes. It also says that as women have increasingly joined the work-force, men have increasingly participated in more housework. Yet, among households where both adults work full-time, men still report spending significantly more time "relaxing" and doing leisure activities after work, while women report spending more time doing housework and care-giving.
Unfortunately, I find conversations about the division of housework to be mostly limited to issues of who does what and seldom about the potential consequences for health, wealth, and well-being. To me, the fact that men and women spend their time doing different activities is obvious and not very interesting. Whether the activities men and women engage in after work have implications for physical and psychological well-being interests me very much. Luckily these are empirical questions that psychologists care about and are actively trying to answer.
In particular, Dr. Darby Saxbe, University of Southern California, and her colleagues asked the question:
Does the division of labor in a household have implications for physical health in either partner?
To answer this question, the research team recruited 30 healthy couples, both members working full-time, who own their own home, have a mortgage, and have at least one child between 8-10 years of age. With these participants, the research team tried to capture a "week in the life" of these couples by tracking their behaviors for 4 days from around 6:30-8:30am and then again from about 4pm to whenever the participants went to bed. Their goal was to capture what participants did before work, and after work. Tracking in this study constituted a research staff member recording each member of the household's location (e.g., kitchen, living room) and activity (e.g., cooking, watching TV) every 10 minutes into a handheld computer. Compared with previous studies that had used self-report assessments of how people spend their time at home, these observations allowed the research team to have a more objective measure of what participants' time at home looked like.
Participants in this study also provided saliva samples on 3 days at waking, in the late morning (at work before lunch), afternoon (before leaving work), and right before bed. Saliva samples were used to measure the concentration of cortisol. Cortisol is final product of the body's physiological stress response system.* Cortisol in the body should be high in the morning and decline throughout the day. Not showing a steep decline in cortisol throughout the evening has been associated with poor sleep, several diseases, and is a predictor of mortality. In fact, many researchers see dysregulated cortisol as a pathway through which chronic stress leads to illness. The research team was interested in understanding whether the day-to-day activities of men and women at home were related to their body's ability to down-regulate this stress hormone in the evenings.
They found that women were doing housework in 30.5% of observations, whereas men were doing housework in 20% of observations. In contrast, women were engaging in leisure activity in 10.6% of observations, whereas men were engaging in leisure activities in 19.4% of observations. Surprisingly, perhaps only for me, men and women were both engaging in communication in about 18% of observations.
They then looked at whether activities at home predicted physiological stress in the evening. They found that both men and women who spend more time doing housework, have higher cortisol in the evenings. Perhaps more interesting, the amount of housework a wife does had no association with their husband's cortisol in the evening. In contrast, husbands observed doing more housework had wives with lower cortisol in the evening.
When it came to leisure, husbands had lower cortisol in the evening when they spent more time doing leisure activities, especially when their wives were NOT engaging in leisure. In contrast, how much time women spent doing leisure activities was not related to their cortisol in the evening.
So what does it all mean? The research team concluded creating a true division of labor at home may have real physiological benefits for wives, and suggested that these benefits (or the lack of them) can add up over time.
So what's the solution? Perhaps it's that wives should make an executive decision to do less housework. A lot of households can accomplish this by making a decision to invest in their health by outsourcing housework to robots and third parties. My favorite examples of this are Roomba and Fluff-and-Fold laundry services. Perhaps it's that husbands need to make an effort to jump in when they see their wife doing housework. This includes, but is not limited to, cooking, vacuuming, doing laundry, dishes, changing sheets, and regularly scanning the house for stray belongings (read: socks). The good news is that many of these solutions are small but still make a big difference.
This research study definitely doesn't provide all of the answers, and probably introduces more questions than it answers (as all good research does). For example, this study focused on heterosexual couples and therefore the role of "wife" vs "husband" is somewhat confounded with "male" vs "female." It's possible that women have higher physiological stress in the evenings than men, independent of housework. More studies looking at a more diverse sample of couples that include homosexual couples would help us understand how to disentangle the male-female differences from the role of housework-leisure behaviors. Also, this study only included couples where both parent works full-time. While this represents the average American family today, this study doesn't tell us much families with stay-at-home moms or dads.
*Click here for past articles about/related to cortisol.
Many thanks to unsplash for the photos!
Posted by Kate Ryan at 8:54:00 AM