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Morra Aarons-Mele's picture

Does the Second Shift still apply? I’m re-reading Arlie Hochschild’s 1989 classic in preparing a syllabus for a course on 21st Century feminism. Hochschild’s findings were clear and familiar to many women: when they get home from work, many women with children work a “second shift” of domestic and child care responsibilities. Hochschild opens her book with the iconic advertising image of a together and perfect supermom with the “flying hair,” briefcase in one hand, baby in the other. She’s got it all down: work, home, marriage. Every woman Hochschild interviews knows that image, and most of them simply laugh when asked how the icon relates to their real lives.

Hochschild writes of the “stalled revolution,” in which women assume more traditionally male roles as breadwinners and workers, but manage to work on average an extra month a year at home. The book is moving and sometimes nauseating in its intensity. She writes of the stories we tell ourselves, how we craft the narratives of our home lives to suit the self-images we create to maintain peace at home.

As I read a raft of Mother’s Day stories, I was struck at how, over the past twenty years, our culture has seemed to absorb the second shift as natural for most moms. Sure enough, when I was about to become a working mother, I summoned the mental image of the "woman with the flying hair" and told myself, sure, I'll be frazzled, but it's how things are. Who can blame me? Check out these headlines from Mother's Day coverage:

“Want to Make Mom Happy? Clean Her Car!”
"Burned out on Mother’s Day"
“Busy Working Mother Still Finds Time to Work Out”
“First National Moms Night Out” (cause mom needs a break)
“Why Time is Such a Welcome Gift”
“Working Moms Wish List: More Flexibility Would Make It All Work”
Jennifer Garner: “I’m as Frazzled as Any Working Mother”

Is the second shift and the ensuing stress it creates a permamnent fixture of our  world? Even as men report more work life conflict, frazzled supermom seems here to stay. It makes me exhausted just to think about this archetype. I don't think she's doing anyone any favors.  I think many mothers are tired just reading about the chaos of our lives. Here’s working mother management guru Jamie Woolf:

"Like most holidays, Mother's Day is full of expectations and good intentions. It's meant to be a day of respite, a chance to put your feet up and bask in the glow of your family's appreciation and adoration. Unfortunately, that idealized vision of Mother's Day rarely bears any resemblance to its reality. Your "special day" might start well with flowers, gifts, cards, and maybe even breakfast in bed, but it quickly morphs into "business as usual." You spend the rest of the day breaking up sibling fights, preparing kids for the school week, and going to bed early before your own workweek begins."

I’m curious: are you conscious of a “second shift” mentality? Is it a given in your mind and that of your partner's that as a working mother, you’ll be frazzled, overloaded at home and work, and could use a lot more help from your husband than you get? Is the “Second Shift” your life? Do you think sometimes you play into the archetype because it's such a familiar one?

Even in the feminist Women’s eNews, Rivers and Barnett write,

"thanks to a raging recession, women are more worried than ever that their husbands' or partners' jobs might be at risk. Could this mean women that will be more reticent to negotiate who does the housework and the child care?

Men have long worried that being too involved with their families will cost them at work. The ambitious male bosses are supposed to love the guy who's the last one out the office door at night and who volunteers to work on weekends.

An overburdened working woman might bite her lip instead of speaking out, because if her partner takes on more at home, maybe he will be more vulnerable at work. This fear could put women behind the 8-ball, feeling increased stress and fearful of negotiating for a better deal at home."

The authors conclude this is not true, but their article and its headline feeds into the Second Shift mentality.

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