Toronto Star

April 10, 1999

Housework burden depresses women: Study

By Maria Miro Johnson
Special to The Star

PROVIDENCE, R.I. - It's depressing, doing most of the housework.

Women have said as much for eons, but now there is research to back it up.

A new study by a Brown University sociologist shows that women do more than their fair share of housework and this leads to anxiety, demoralization and depression.

The study, by Chloe Bird, a professor of community health and sociology, appears in the Journal Of Health And Social Behavior.

It is based on responses to health surveys in 1990 and 1994 of 581 men and 608 women between the ages of 18 and 65, both married and unmarried.

The study shows that men pitch in about the same amount, regardless of whether their wives work outside the home or are full-time homemakers.

It further shows that men's contribution has remained unchanged over the past 20 years, despite the increased participation of women in the work force.

Married men estimated that they perform 37 per cent of the housework, compared to their wives' estimated 70 per cent.

(The study notes that men, being less involved in housework, tend to underestimate how much time family members spend on it and to overestimate their own contribution.)

Housework was defined as cooking, cleaning, grocery shopping, laundry, washing dishes, doing repairs, paying bills, making arrangements and caring for children.

The number of hours spent on such tasks was considered less important to psychological well-being than how equally the labour was divided up.

Far from cutting a woman's burden in half, marriage increases it, the study found. Married women perform 14 hours more housework each week than single women.

This increases a wife's sense of inequity and ``in intimate relationships, inequity is a source of psychological distress,'' the report says.

The study, citing earlier research, grants that housework does have some psychological benefits. It offers more autonomy than most outside employment, for instance. Also, it is productive, physical work, yielding a clean and pleasing living environment - ``all of which can reduce psychological distress.''

On the other hand, the study says, housework is more routine than paid work and offers less recognition, less likelihood of being thanked and lower levels of fulfilment.

``Consequently, spending a large amount of time performing household labour increases depression,'' Bird writes.

The study concludes that a more equal division of household labour could reduce women's distress without increasing men's. Indeed, it says, increased equity makes for a happier household.

Bird emphasizes that her study is ``not about household labour making people suicidal.'' But inequity within the home has ``real consequences,'' she says.

The 1,256 respondents (which did not include anyone who was unemployed, because unemployment might elevate depression about housework) were asked a series of questions by a phone interviewer.

One question focused on how many days in the past week the respondent couldn't get going, felt sad, had trouble sleeping, felt everything was an effort, felt lonely or had trouble concentrating - all symptoms of depression.

On average, the respondents reported such symptoms 1.2 days per week.

The interviewer also asked them to estimate their participation in household chores.

In a 1991 study, a University of Rhode Island professor presented the results of a survey of 652 women employed by the state.

It's not just completion of household tasks, but the orchestration of family life

Although half the respondents said their husbands pitched in less than they'd like, 66 per cent said life was fine the way it was.

These women saw their extra housework as proof of their caring. Also, since few of them were bosses at work, they viewed their home as the one place where they could exert some control.

Just as many women, however, expressed feelings of guilt and irritation over never having their homes as they'd like them and never being done with work.

The professor, Helen Mederer, expanded the definition of housework to include not just the completion of household tasks, but the orchestration of family life: deciding what has to be done, setting standards, making sure the work is completed and worrying about it. Do I have to stop at the store on the way home? Is the day care working out? Is the homework getting done?

It's this behind-the-scenes work, she found, that usually falls to the woman, even if she works as many hours as her husband or makes as much money or if they both have liberal ideas about a woman's place.

Mederer noticed that men seemed to choose tasks that are the most like leisure, such as playing with the children. (Playing with children never qualified as a chore, Mederer said at the time, until some sociologists started padding the list.)

She also noticed that men seemed to choose jobs that are less frequently done (such as mowing the lawn) and that can be done either today or tomorrow or after the game.

``Men can check out: `I'm gonna go watch TV,' '' Mederer says. ``Women don't have down time.''

Contents copyright © 1996-1999, The Toronto Star.