Chapter 10: Housewifery Expands to Fill the Time Available

May 17, 2011 | Annemarie

The simple principle that ‘Work Expands to Fill the Time Available’ was first formulated by the Englishman C. Northcote Parkinson on the basis of his experience with administrative bureaucracy in World War II. Parkinson’s Law can easily be reformulated for the American housewife: Housewifery Expands to Fill the Time Available, or Motherhood Expands to Fill the Time Available, or even Sex Expands to Fill the Time Available. This is, without question, the true explanation for the fact that even with all the new labor-saving appliances, the modern American probably spends more time on housework than her grandmother.

Friedan brings up an interesting point: Are we being efficient with our housework or are we expanding the work to fill the day? No doubt we could all get better about efficiency and productivity in terms of housework. Perhaps the reason housework takes longer is because it is a chore — not something we enjoy. Friedan takes an entirely different view of the drudgery of housework:

When the mystique of feminine fulfillment sent women back home again, housewifery had to expand into a full-time career. Sexual love and motherhood had to become all of life, had to use up, to dispose of women’s creative energies. The very nature of family responsibility had to expand to take the place of responsibility to society. As this began to happen, each labor-saving appliance brought a labor-demanding elaboration of housework. Each scientific advance that might have freed women from the drudgery of cooking, cleaning, and washing, thereby giving her more time for other purposes, instead imposed new drudgery, until housework not only expanded to fill the time available, but could hardly be done in the available time.

According to Friedan, it’s all the mystique’s fault. The drudgery of housework is complicated and expanded by our modern appliances, now that we have more help we are expected to do more housework.

Friedan closes the chapter with her view that housework can never fulfill a woman:

Surely there are many women in America who are happy at the moment as housewives, and some whose abilities are fully used in the housewife role. But happiness is not the same thing as the aliveness of being fully used. Nor is human intelligence, human ability, a static thing. Housework, no matter how it is expanded to fill the time available, can hardly use the abilities of a woman of average or normal human intelligence, much less the fifty per cent of the female population whose intelligence, in childhood, was above average.

Where does Friedan get her idea that American women find their identity in housework? Women are people, gifted with special and unique abilities. We need to keep pursuing our interests even as stay-at-home moms. When working outside the home isn’t an option, however, women can continue to pursue their interests just at a different level. Housework isn’t our identity; it’s a reality of our job as stay-at-home mothers.

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