Women’s Nesting Instinct Is At The Core Of The Chore Wars

Pew Research released a study in April that will surprise absolutely no one: More and more wives in the U.S. are becoming breadwinners.

By Suzanne Venker3 min read
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Shutterstock/Kryvenok Anastasiia

Husbands are still the primary earner in 55% of married households, but almost 30% of married couples are now “egalitarian,” meaning they earn between 40% and 60% of the total household income, and 16% of wives earn more than their husbands. Put another way: The share of women who earn as much as or significantly more than their husbands results in almost half of all married couples today.

But the part that got the media riled up was that despite wives becoming breadwinners, they still "spend more time on caregiving and housework and less time on leisure than their husbands do.”

This tidbit is intended to rile you up too. But it’s only upsetting to those who view men and women as interchangeable beings, with the same desires and the same behaviors.

The standard response to news of this nature is to blame “entrenched gender perceptions,” or the idea that sex roles are a social construct. We teach women and girls to be the nurturers, we’re told, and we teach men and boys to be the earners.

Except that we don’t. These days, we condition them to do the exact opposite! Parents, schools, and the culture groom young women to be the exact opposite of nurturers. “Don’t be a teacher or a nurse; study STEM!” “Become your own boss; you don’t need a man!” “Get married later; focus on your career first!”

How, then, can the fact that breadwinning wives do more than men on the home front be a response to social conditioning? The truth is that which you won't hear: The real reason women do more at home is because they want to.

Compensating with Chores

In “The Primary Breadwinner Is Disappearing From More Homes,” we meet Stacy Francis, president of the wealth management firm Francis Financial, who said that when she surpassed her husband’s earnings, she found herself “spending more time in the kitchen, throwing herself into the local parent teacher association, and planning her son’s prom” in an effort to compensate for her absence at home.

“It made me feel less feminine to earn more than my husband,” she added.

The media would have you believe that women like Stacy Francis do more at home to assuage their husbands’ egos, but now we have it in black and white: It made Francis uncomfortable – not her husband – to be the primary breadwinner. 

Men aren’t nesters by nature. They don't feel pulled biologically to do more on the home front out of guilt. They don’t go into overdrive when they get home, trying to make up for their absence. And they certainly don’t feel less masculine when they earn more than their wives.

Only those who fell for the lie that men and women are “equal,” as in the same, are surprised and frustrated with the fact that wives do more at home than their husbands do – even when they work outside it.

It’s hard for anyone, male or female, to earn and nurture simultaneously.

To live in a household in which both spouses work demands a deep understanding of male and female nature. It requires that both partners accept human nature as it is and work within its parameters.

Most men are single-focused. When they work at or on something, they’re typically not thinking about anything else. They give the task 100% of their energy and attention and don’t get bogged down by excess thoughts. This is very different from the way most women operate. As a result of their intense focus, when men come home from work, they need time to recharge their batteries.

The way the media frames this conversation suggests women are unduly burdened. The implication is that men are lazy. But why not view men’s ability to relax and recharge as a net positive and encourage women to be less intense on the home front?

After all, the Pew finding also shows that in households in which women are the sole breadwinner, husbands do pick up the slack at home. This only changes when paid work gets thrown into the equation. It’s hard for anyone, male or female, to earn and nurture simultaneously.

Women do it, of course, but not happily. They do it begrudgingly – mainly because as a culture we dismiss the differences in the way the sexes are wired and assume it is husbands who are burdening their wives, when in reality, it's the circumstances themselves.

A Solution That’s Not Just a Chore Chart

So what’s the solution? There are two, actually. The first, and most obvious, is for women to work less or to shift to a career that demands less of them. This would free up much-needed time and energy so they feel less pulled in two different directions and can therefore get more done. Scores of women work part-time and love it.

Option two is for breadwinning women to realize, as Stacy Francis did, that they’re at war with their own nature when they move into the breadwinner role. “I realized looking back,” she said, “that I myself had to get comfortable with that role.”

Feeling feminine is hard to do when you’re in provider mode all day.

To get comfortable, as a woman, with the breadwinner role is to understand that it comes at a cost. Most women want to feel feminine, and this is hard to do when you’re in provider mode all day. You’ll need to approach home in the same way men do: as a space to relax and recharge and to not be overcome by housework and childcare. If you find this impossible to do (I certainly would), resort to option one.

Male laziness is not at the center of this conversation (which is not to suggest this can’t sometimes be true). The real issue is women's innate inability to “turn it off” at home due to their nesting instincts. Childcare and housework pull on women in a unique and primal way, whether they work outside the home or not.

Bottom line? Too many married couples are pretending they’re the same when they’re not. Change will begin when we accept what is, and stop fighting what is not.

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