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Time Management: The Last Holy Grail for Married Women?


Last Saturday, I was at the A.C. Gilbert Discovery Museum for Children. I saw a display of clocks from antiquity, and above it, a quote from Einstein that said time and space are merely human inventions. They don’t exist except in our minds. Not that I can understand this fully, but it got me thinking. We organize our lives around the mere ideas of time and space. Later that day, I had a conversation with a mom who homeschools, who mentioned needing better time management at home. That brought to mind a recent George Barna survey of Christian women, where women were asked about sins in their lives. The top two confessions were disorganization (50%) and inefficiency (42%) ( While David Kinnaman, president of Barna Group, wondered why women are not being honest about real sins like pride and envy (for some reason that blog post is no longer accessible), I think that honesty is not generally the problem of Christian women. Something else is going on.

This morning I googled “time management” and “Christian women.” I came up with oodles of not only articles but whole books on this topic with this audience. I found titles on like Meditations for Women Who Do Too Much, and Life Management for Busy Women: Living Out God’s Plan with Passion and Purpose. In fact, I got sucked into reading about one of them. Writing this article has had me reflecting on my own relationship with my day. Why is it that Christian women in particular feel disorganized and like they are not using their time well? This isn’t something Christian men apparently feel. I googled “time management for Christian men” and though there was one book, after that what came up was articles on time management for Christian women.

In my own life, I am one of the other 50 percent of women who would confess one of the Seven Deadly Sins. Maybe that’s because I have more time to sin, who knows. But I do have a “To Do” list every day that I work on before I go to bed each night. If I don’t, things come to mind and I can’t get to sleep. And during the day, it can be hard to be in the moment, as my brain cells reach and connect to solve some problem for my family. My life is unbalanced right now, but leisure time means exercise and alighting here and there on Facebook for fifteen minutes, and pleasure is creative work like writing, and crossing off that one last thing on my To Do list. What about you? Sinfully lazy and self-indulgent? Probably not. So much to do that you feel stressed? Probably.

But who sets the agenda for what we do? I tend to look at justice issues when I write about women. But it may be that there are a lot of women who are in the position of Home CEO, and no one sets the agenda but them and the most pressing need. An unpaid, unstructured job can be a real challenge—like being your own volunteer. How do you choose what is most important? And then, you do so many little things in a day that no one even notices. How do you know when you are doing well in your job? You won’t get a raise or Employee of the Year award. Maybe it’s easy to end up feeling a false guilt in a job like that, especially if you compare yourself to ideas about the ideal woman or mother.

On the other hand, other women probably have too much to do—a full-time job plus kids and housework. Women in this situation are still doing, on average, twice as much childcare and twice as much housework as their husbands (see this article about housecleaning). A recent survey suggests that husbands create seven extra hours of housework for wives a week, while wives save husbands one hour of extra housework a week. I point this out because the feeling of being sinfully out of control of your responsibilities has a justice backdrop to it. In a recent blog (“A Wife’s Tale: How I Stopped the Housework Habit and Started Living”) I wrote about research from a book with the humorous but telling title The Lazy Husband: How to Get Men to Do More Parenting and Housework, by psychologist Joshua Coleman. The author noted that married women tend to compare themselves to other women from the past and present who are busy from dawn to midnight maintaining jobs outside the home, then doing the “Second Shift” at home. They think of their mothers who baked homemade pies and mended their dresses. They think of their friends who start home businesses, and other friends with five kids with five schedules. Husbands tend to not compare themselves to us, but rather, to other men. Easy for them to think (or just sort of feel), “My 10 hours of housework a week is way better than my dad. And look at that guy over there drinking beer and watching football all weekend.” And many men aren’t going to care that much about how the house looks, unless they inherently value neatness, because no one is judging them on that basis.  This happens, but let’s call it what it is–unfair.

Some unfairness may come about because women tend to care about so much related to family and home. The one who cares more in a marriage about any issue has less bargaining power about task completion, says Dr. Coleman. If we are the one who cares most about how the kids are clothed, for example, we are the ones noticing the ragged shoe laces or the sleeves-grown-short. That’s two more things on the “To Do” list. It can be frustrating to care about such basic things and to feel you are alone in that. On the other hand, sometimes, I think sometimes we need to be pickier about what we care about. I don’t know if it’s true, but it’s said of women that many of us “re-do” when husbands clean. We could choose to care a little less, if that’s the case. It’s just going to get dirty again, anyway.

And in that non-micro-managing spirit, delegate. A request like, “Do you mind going online and finding some shirts for our son?” eases my load a bit, at our house. And now my husband has owned the task of ordering shirts, and I accept his choices. It didn’t take long for him to catch on, after a few repeated requests. He’s even taken on pants. This is a win-win. I have less to do, and my partner gets the experience of shopping and acquires a basic appreciation for the skills, time and money that takes. He has to start noticing the things I care about, even if it’s only by way of polite reminders and he never actually does it, which is sometimes the case. Who does everything that is asked of us? He has his own priorities, but I can still ask.

Since we can’t change culture, or our husbands, in one blog post, let’s think about how to make our lives a little less stressful in the interim by changing up some terms. I wonder if the ideas of time management and efficiency are hurting us more than helping us. We can’t really manage time, or space, as Einstein implied—and we can’t be in two places at once. The best we can do is control our thoughts and behavior. That resonates more for me when I think of what matters to God. I am interested, with regard to my own life, what would happen if I replaced “Time Management” with the phrase “Thought and Action Management.” Or, would it be more to the point to say “Priority Management” in the spirit of Steven Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Effective People? What really matters in our lives, when there is so much to do—including relax? What can we let go of? Anne Lamott said, in a recent Facebook post, that we should cross a few things off our “To Do” list right after we make one. Are there things that we feel compelled to do, but we can learn to let someone else do, with grace?

Boundaries are hard for us women sometimes, and we each have our own reasons—caring about a lot of people and things, caring too much what others expect of us, or having a hard time crossing traditional gender roles. But to be a woman is first of all to be human, which means we are glorious and limited at the same time. God said that was good, a long time ago. And God gets the last word on women.

A Wife’s Tale: How I Stopped the Housework Habit and Started Living

I will start this tale with a confession: I have never liked housework. My husband would rather read or write than dust, too, but for some reason that isn’t confession material. I started my marriage with a commitment to fairness. I would do no more housework than he did. We went weeks without cleaning the bathroom, or mopping the kitchen. Yes, I would have liked it cleaner, but my principles drove me. We had a rotating schedule for doing the dishes, which we adhered to, and everything else went to pot.

We began to discuss cleaning after our son was born. We now had a family member around who spent a lot of time close to the floor; our choices affected him, not just us. Exchanges went like this:

“I do too sweep the floor!”/”When was the last time?” or even

“No one cares about a clean floor!”/*silent wrath & ire*

Sometimes we negotiated but it would never really last. I had no idea why.

I think, now, that things got muddled around the term Stay At Home Mom (which I became), because part of my job description is to clean the house. Marion Cunningham said so (a la Happy Days). Well, I sort of bought that for a while (I grew up watching Happy Days, after all), but my job was hard enough as it was, just being responsible for the well-being of a child, and my own well-being. Boring, repetitive tasks that used two brain cells wore on me, and the underlying societal assumption that I was uniquely qualified for such tasks diluted my self-esteem. Finally one day, during one of those discussions, I said, to myself more than any one, “My JOB is taking care of our son!” (my husband had never actually said my job was also to clean). That was when it crystallized for me; I was not unpaid house labor no matter what my title implied.

The author of Lazy Husbands: How to Get Men to Do More Parenting and Housework by Joshua Coleman, Ph.D. notes that our confusion on this issue comes from comparing ourselves to other women and men. Women look at other women, including our mothers (think 1950s) and if we are doing less than they are, we figure we should do more. Men compare themselves to other men, like their own fathers, and find themselves looking quite good. And it’s absolutely true of my husband that he shines bright. From day one, he has prioritized our son: diapering, stroller-ing, feeding, reading books, he has done it all. He uses his handyperson skills as needed and teaches them to me as well. He does occasional jobs I don’t like, such as taking the pets to the vet. He grocery-shops regularly and bakes pies. And when he tackles the dishes, he tackles them—not a single pot is left in the sink (whereas I say “let them soak”). And if you compared me to those 1950s women, to the current “Retro Wives” who can tomatoes and sew clothes, and to all the women who work full-time jobs and then put in 20 plus hours of housework a week, you’d have to say I need help with time management. And so, in light of those positives that make him look great compared to our idea of what other men are doing, and my homemaking imperfections that make me look like I am The Anti-Betty Crocker, we can end up with household unfairness.  He looks great, and I am the one not doing enough. It’s easy to buy into those comparisons and not really try for equality.

For me, I finally realized defensive discussions were never going to get anywhere. What I needed was better boundaries. The reason I felt so uncomfortable when people would come to the house and there were dust bunnies running under foot, was that, as Coleman points out, people still look to the Woman as Keeper of the Hearth. If they are going to judge at all, then people judge me for a messy house even though other people live here, too. And if *all* I do is stay at home, why aren’t I cleaning the house? Lazy Wife Syndrome, they must suppose. She watches soap operas (we don’t have cable). She is spending all her time eating Godiva chocolates and reading novels (sounds good, but no). She is depressed (no because I take fish oil and exercise). Coleman is the first person in print I have read to point out the judgment placed on Women-Who-Don’t –Clean-The-House-Well-Enough. And that was so freeing to realize it is REAL. I am not imagining it. My shame is societally induced.

And so, though I can’t completely get rid of that shame, I can see it for what it is. I can choose to live as though it doesn’t exist. I now prioritize my writing over housework. For me, that is “showing up for life,” as author Anne Lamott encouraged in one of her recent Facebook posts. Portland author Ariel Gore (How to Become a Famous Writer Before You’re Dead) says she puts in no more than one hour of cleaning a day. So, inspired by them, I have to actively let the house accumulate dirt some days. Other days, I delegate. Other people in the house choose their priorities, too, though. As I write, the kitchen floor needs mopping and there are dishes in the sink. But you know what? This same week, I wrote an essay that was immediately accepted for publication in a magazine I respect. That’s two in one month. So, I can live with our current standards. Just don’t come by the house without calling first.

Are Vacuuming Men Really a Turn-off? A Closer Look at the Study, “Egalitarianism, Housework, and Sexual Frequency in Marriage,” in American Sociological Review, Feb. 2013

At the end of January, many popular news websites were quick to report that men who do “women’s work” get less sex. Titles like“Want to Have More Sex? Men, Stop Helping with the Chores,” “Does Female Housework Make Men Less Sexy?”and“Husbands Who Do ‘Her’ Chores Have Less Sex,” abounded, making it seem like men had better “put down their vacuums and pull out their lawn mowers,” and fast. However, as usual with any scientific study upon which popular articles are based, there is more to look at than a provocative title suggests.

Most of these articles do mention the fact that this study contradicts previous research with opposite outcomes. This is important because the data used in the February 2013 study is 20 years old. The authors of the study in the American Sociological Review acknowledge the importance of the age of the data, but conclude that “given the durability of some features of marriage, including the gendered division of labor” the researchers “suspect our results would still hold despite the time that has passed since the data were collected.” That is a big leap of faith for scientists.

In fact, just one year earlier, reported this: “Men Who Do Housework Have More Sex,” and quoted a 2008 study commissioned by the US Council of Contemporary Families that, in fact, men benefit in several ways, including sexually, from doing traditional household chores like cooking and cleaning. Another article on the same 2008 study reported, “Psychologist Joshua Coleman, a senior Council fellow, said sharing household chores ‘is associated with higher levels of marital satisfaction—and sometimes more sex, too’. He said: ‘Wives report greater feelings of sexual interest and affection for husbands who participate in housework.’”

Neil Cheithik conducted a randomized national telephone survey of 288 men for his 2006 book, VoiceMail: What Husbands Really Think About Their Marriages, Their Wives, Sex, Housework and Commitment. He defined housework as “inside and outside responsibilities (not including paid work) that contribute to keeping up the home.” What he found was:  “…the actual frequency of sex tends to be higher when a woman feels that the housework is divided fairly.” His study can’t tell us how women perceive fairness. However, it has been noted in other recent studies that wives spend twice as much time on housework as husbands, on average. In Cheithik’s survey (taken in 2003-2004), housework was the third most contentious issue for married couples. Fairness in housework was under discussion, and when it was worked out, it mattered for a couple’s sex life. This is likely a more true-to-the-times message than “it turns women on when you change the oil but not when you sweep the kitchen.”

Beyond the fact that 20 year old data is likely irrelevant today, it is interesting there is an assumption that it matters whether or not men have sex 1.6 times more often in a month. Okay, maybe it matters to sociologists. But is sex really so important to the average married man that they would pull less of their weight around the house to get—maybe, on average—one and a half more rolls in the hay per month? (I would say something like “love-making sessions” but the approach of the media is to turn even married sex into a commodity). I’d hate to think that about men, but the popular media assumes this is true.

Another important question is the attitudes of the women who were engaging in more sex with the husbands who were doing only more of the traditionally male chores. Were the women more likely to submit to sexual pressure due to beliefs about women’s roles? Were the men pushier due to those same beliefs? The University of Washington researchers wondered about this too, but noticed that the women whose husbands did more traditionally male chores also had higher levels of sexual satisfaction. But did the women’s traditional values include an unquestioned assumption that “satisfying” sex means pleasing their husbands sexually, and rarely saying “No”? It’s quite possible, but the study didn’t ask.

A final question to ask is, does sexual satisfaction equal marital satisfaction for men and women? The study could not answer that question either. But what we do know is, sex sells, and so a study that added little to the public’s understanding of gender relations in 2013, and possibly did some harm, was exploited to its fullest by the popular media.

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