Monday, September 20, 2010

Book Report: (And Now for Something a Little More Intellectual) Second Shift by Arlie Russell

I went to Borders to pick up a copy of Julie and Julia the other day and was waylaid by a display of bargain books before I could even make it into the store. Thumbing through the selections, my curiosity was piqued by a sociology book called Second Shift by Arlie Russell Hochschild, a Berkeley sociology professor. The title sounded familiar, and I stared at the cover, trying to remember where I'd heard it. Then I remembered. One of my particularly liberal male professors had raved about it. It wasn't a novel. And I wasn't in the habit of picking up nonfiction in pursuit of a good read. But scanning the back cover and perusing the pages promised that Second Shift had all the elements of compelling fiction.

I wasn't disappointed. Hochschild's book is based on her interviews with working married couples with children. Her central question for each couple is the same: Who handles the second shift? The phrase "second shift" refers to the job that starts after the one you get paid for ends. You know. Cooking dinner. Grocery shopping. Scrubbing the toilet. Driving the kids to soccer practice and then helping them with their homework. Laundry. Trips to the post office. Buying birthday cards. Making angry phone calls to the insurance company. The couples being questioned came from all walks of life and subscribed to one or more of the three gender ideologies: traditionalists, who believed that the husband should earn more money and that the wife should handle all of the second shift; egalitarians, who believed that husbands and wives should equally share the job of earning money and handling the second shift; and transitionals, who fell somewhere in between. Now, you may be thinking, oh, so this is a man-bashing book. But it's not. If anything, it's a society bashing book. Hochschild delves in the everyday lives of dozens of different couples, pulling up a chair at their dinner tables to find out what makes them tick.

To me, the most interesting part of this study is the cross-section of couples being interviewed: Men who want their wives to handle the entire second shift instead of working who are married to women who want the same thing. Men who don't mind if their wives work as long as they handle the entire second shift married to working women who want their husbands to help with the second shift. Men who want to help their working wives with the second shift married to women who do not want their help, deciding instead to adopt a "supermom" strategy. Men and women who want each other to work and ignore the second shift entirely, paying housekeepers and nannies to do it. Within each couple, each husband's and wife's viewpoint was based on his or her ideas about gender roles coupled with the powerful motivator of financial need. Reading Rochschild's analysis of each couple was fascinating. She deftly peels back the onion-like layers of each husband's and wife's issues (and there are plenty) to reveal the psychological lies, or as she terms them, "marriage myths" they construct to keep their unions alive in the face of conflict. The conflict is usually between a husband and wife who have different ideas about who should do what. However, husbands and wives who believed in the same ideology dealt with a conflict between said ideology and either finances (traditionalists) or family life (workaholic egalitarians).

Not surprisingly, the most common couples were comprised of husbands who didn't mind their wives working as long as dinner was on the table and wives who wanted to rebel against this. (The book was published in 1989 and was based upon interviews conducted in the late 1970s and early 1980s.) Rochschild doesn't offer a solution to this problem at the book's end. Instead she expounds upon a theme woven throughout the book, which is that working women are part of an ongoing revolution to which men must still adapt. She says that these days women are changing more than men because they're moving from the home to the office, whereas back in the 1800s, men were changing more than women because they were migrating from farms to cities. At that point it was the women who weren't changing because they were always at home. So, the woman's revolution isn't over yet. That was what I got out of that.

The one thing I kept thinking while reading this book was, I'm glad I don't have kids yet. Kids, it seems, tip the scales in terms of the drama and bitterness that the second shift can create. You can ignore a sinkful of dishes and subsist on takeout instead of grocery shopping (I'm guilty of both more often than I'd like to admit), but you can't ignore a child. Not that a child can be equated with a dirty dish or a pizza. (Please do not to send hate mail.) But, if I was a working woman with children, then I probably wouldn't be able to do much of anything. This includes blogging. And reading books to blog about. And painting hippos and ice cream cones on tote bags. And writing. And spending the entire weekend in my pajamas. And living on Smartfood popcorn. Maybe such fears sound shallow, but at least I'm honest in acknowledging that life as I know it would change.

So, Second Shift. Pretty compelling stuff by a lady who tells it like it is.

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