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Today's women cling to domestic tasks while bemoaning them

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By Ruth Marcus
Wednesday, October 28, 2009

"I bet he wasn't folding laundry."

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-- Carol Greider, winner of the 2009 Nobel Prize in Medicine, on what she was doing at 5 a.m. when the big call came, and her thoughts on learning of President Obama's Nobel Peace Prize.

Is there a woman around who read this quote and didn't smile with recognition? Greider's wry assessment encapsulates so much about the state of modern women: Nobel laureates but also -- if not inevitably, then at least overwhelmingly -- laundry-folders, school-lunch makers, play-date arrangers, schedule-managers.

This is less a complaint than an observation. In fact, to some extent women are reluctant to yield dominion over the home front even as they become the majority of the paid workforce.

"A Woman's Nation Changes Everything" is the title of a new report by Maria Shriver and the Center for American Progress. It does -- and it doesn't. The "Battle Between the Sexes is over. It was a draw," Shriver writes. "Now we're engaged in Negotiation Between the Sexes."

True, but from an unequal start, and with an unequal appreciation of that disparity. "Both sexes agree that women continue to bear a disproportionate burden in taking care of children and elderly parents, even when both partners in a relationship have jobs," John Halpin and Ruy Teixeira write in one chapter of the report. Here's the interesting subtext, though: Fifty-five percent of women strongly agreed (and 85 percent overall agreed) that "in households where both partners have jobs, women take on more responsibilities for the home and family than their male partners." Just 28 percent of men strongly agreed, and 67 percent agreed. That's a pretty big perception gap.

Put President Obama down as a strong agreer. "Today's Obama family is obviously not typical," he told NBC's Savannah Guthrie. "Five years ago, six years ago, though, we were having a lot of negotiations, because, you know, Michelle was trying to figure out: Okay, if the kids get sick, why is it that she's the one who has to take time off of her job to go pick them up from school, as opposed to me? If, you know, the girls need to shop for clothes, why is it that it's her burden and not mine?"

The president said he had tried "to learn to be thoughtful enough and introspective enough that I wasn't always having to be told that things were unfair. . . . But, you know, there's no doubt that . . . men are still a little obtuse about this stuff and need to be knocked across the head every once in a while."

I'm not averse to a bit of strategic head-knocking. But I think there is another, more subtle dynamic involved, one that may be hinted at in Greider's laundry-folding. We want our husbands to pitch in -- without being asked. At the same time, we are wary of ceding our control over the home front. Did Michelle really want Barack picking out her daughter's clothes? We cling to our multitasking as much as we bemoan it.

Greider, I suspect, could easily hire someone to do the laundry. Yet there is something comforting in keeping a connection to mundane household tasks even when you're running a major-league research lab. Perhaps younger women don't feel this tug toward domesticity. But for women of my generation, there remains an impulse to live up to the standards of our stay-at-home mothers even as we race out the door each morning.

Personally, doing the laundry doesn't fill that need for me -- although on the occasions when there is no outside help available and my husband has washed a load, I have found myself incapable of refraining from redoing his, shall we say, creatively folded shirts.

For me, the connection is in the kitchen: I feel better with a brisket in the freezer. The crazier my work schedule, the more I am apt to be up on Greider Standard Time, speed-cooking early in the morning for a dinner I might not make it home for. I could delegate more to my husband, but then I'd also have to accept that pasta with store-bought pesto equals dinner. If you want someone else to step up to the plate, you have to live with what he puts on it. My daughters, I expect, will find this spousal negotiation more matter-of-fact, less freighted with feminist symbolism. On the other hand, it never hurts to know how to make a decent brisket -- or fold a shirt with Nobel-level finesse.

marcusr@washpost.com


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