Joan Sparks was the fifth of eight children born to her parents in the Greenshields, Alta., area on a farm with no running water, electricity or a car. The family prided themselves on living their best lives out in rural Alberta.
Sparks, now 79, recalls her mother, a hard-working homemaker, putting her housedress on first thing in the morning to cook and clean the house. After lunch, she would curl and pin her hair, putting on a fresh dress to ensure she was ready for supper when Sparks’ father got home.
Inspired and motivated by the drive and hard work of her parents, Sparks was determined to make a life for herself.
It wasn’t always easy for her to dream of a future where she and her husband, Don, would be successful and happy.
“We were kids [when] we got married and didn’t have a pot to pee in or a window to throw it out of,” recalls Sparks in a phone interview.
After dropping out of school in Grade 11, Sparks found herself thrown into adulthood in what seemed like an instant. Sparks and her new husband fell for each other fast. They were engaged when she was 17, married by the time she was 18 and became pregnant on their honeymoon.
“I ended up having three children. My oldest girl wasn’t three yet when I had my son. So my kids are 16 and 18 months apart,” says Sparks.
It was at this point that Sparks found herself in the same position as many other Canadian women; trying to find the right balance between the necessary unpaid labour needed to keep her home functioning and working a paid job to keep the finances square.
Only 21.8 per cent of Canadian women worked outside of the home in the 1960s. This was, in part, due to the traditional societal expectations surrounding the roles of men and women.
When her oldest child was five, Sparks re-entered the paid workforce, doing various jobs to help make ends meet. This had her cooking in a hospital kitchen, cleaning people’s homes and doing shift work at a nursing home.
Her family eventually settled down in the Edgerton, Alta. area around 1972, where she owned the Edgerton Variety Store from 1984 to 1996. By this point her children were older, and so it was a bit easier to manage a business and a household.
Despite increasing numbers of Canadian women entering the paid workforce, a staunch reality persists: women still do more housework, or what economists call ‘unpaid labour,’ than their male partners.
This often requires women to work a daily double shift; where there is an expectation to be efficient and dynamic throughout the paid work day and continue that productivity into the evening’s household chores.
Societal structure and gender roles
Sarah Kaplan, director of the University of Toronto’s Institute for Gender and the Economy, states that these expectations can lead women to adjust their paid responsibilities or leave the workforce altogether, adding pressure to those in dire financial straits.
All of these factors can contribute to what Kaplan calls “an overwhelming feeling of stress” as women feel they do not have enough hours in the day to complete their to-do list.
It is clear that attitudes towards the division of unpaid labour are changing. However, Rebecca M. Horne, a University of Toronto PhD researcher with a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree in family science, discovered this doesn’t always result in an even split of duties.
Even if there is a desire among a couple to split up the household duties more evenly, the idea of what is expected often makes it a bit more difficult, suggests Horne.
“[Traditional gender roles] are very, very hard to disrupt and change because they don’t just exist in our heads, but they’re kind of part of the whole system and structure that we’re born into,” says Horne.
Medora W. Barnes, associate professor at John Carroll University, and Sharon Hays, feminist scholar and professor, suggest that “internalizing heteronormative gender roles can be the result of several factors; one of which is parental status— whether or not you have children.”
If a heterosexual couple has kids, it creates a primary influence on the division of household labour in their home. Being parents often reinforces traditional housework patterns and duties. This occurs not only in women’s biological roles, such as childbearing and family life, but also in their regards to their social, cultural and political roles.
Financial instability and raising children
Born in Poland during the Second World War and immigrating to Monarch, Alta. in 1950, Emmy Ratz, now 90, recalls her hardships. By the time she was 19, she had lived in a war zone, attended a rigorous bootcamp disguised as a girls’ finishing school, lost contact and been reunited with her family in a new country where she started to teach herself English.
Ratz’s struggle didn’t stop as she moved into her 20s. She got married and motherhood soon followed. Thus she began the balancing act of life as a woman— managing the unpaid household duties expected of her as a wife and mother, while working outside the home to earn enough cash to make ends meet.
“I had to [work] and I wanted to because we were broke, we didn’t have any money,” says Ratz.
She was managing a hotel and bar with her husband, Erich Ratz, in Edgerton, Alta. from 1961 to 1985.
She would typically stay home with her three young children during the day, cooking and cleaning while completing other chores. When her husband arrived home from work in the late-afternoon, she would head off to the hotel and bar to operate the business until 2 a.m., leaving her with less than six hours of sleep before she had to be up with her kids.
Ratz’s hectic schedule echoes what sociologist Arlie Hochschild describes as the ‘second shift’ in which women work one shift at the office or factory followed by a second shift at home.
She never uttered one complaint though, saying “it wasn’t that hard in those days.”
It seems to be a common theme among working, juggling, do-it-all-and-more women; you do whatever you have to do and more if that’s what it takes.
According to a StatsCan report by Melissa Moyser, PhD, it is more common for women to work part-time because “women have retained ‘ultimate’ responsibility for child rearing and household operation, in accordance with traditional gender roles, even as they have assumed earning responsibilities.”
However, Moyser suggests there is an increase in the amount of female breadwinners due to social change sparking the evolution of gender roles, the women’s movement and other monumental events, such as the expansion of educational and career opportunities available for women.
Horne suggests that in order to overcome the stereotypical roles which she calls “sticky,” it is necessary for real, structural change to happen.
Traditional gender norms emphasize women as those with the “natural skills” of nurturers and homemakers, which are confirmed by workplace policies that limit or deny paternity leave, as well as unaffordable or unrealistic childcare options.
The challenges of modern day motherhood
When it was time for Savannah Biccum, 25, to go back to work as a hairdresser after the birth of her daughter Kyri, she opted to open a salon out of her home rather than return to a formal workplace. Several factors influenced her decision, one of which was the lack of childcare in Provost, Alta., where she grew up and currently lives with her family.
“Just being able to do both, not taking away from my family time or my time being a mom and kind of finding a balance, because for my sanity and my mental health, I needed to work,” she says.
As she is at home on a regular basis, seeing clients and caring for her daughter, Biccum says the majority of the unpaid housework falls on her shoulders. But, she sees it as a blessing.
“My husband is out of the house and doesn’t get to be at home with our daughter all the time so that I can. So I have to think of it as a privilege,” says Biccum.
A common thread among women keeping their homes afloat and juggling an endless number of tasks, is the need for a solution and a bit of release.
Jenna Toms, 29, lives in Carlyle, Sask. with her husband and two children. After the birth of her second child, Toms began to experience what she thought was postpartum depression.
Rather than prescribing her medication, Toms’ doctor encouraged her to pursue a hobby and find a passion outside of caring for her home and her children. She then began coaching figure skating and teaching spin classes part time.
“I really have worked on finding my identity outside of being a mom, and I’m still just as proud and as motivated to be the best mom I can be, but I’ve also recognized myself in that too,” says Toms.
“I think it makes me a better mom.”
Recently, she has started pursuing another love of hers— beauty and cosmetics.
Toms is now the proud owner of a personal cosmetic business, where she offers permanent makeup and teeth whitening. She is also working toward being certified to do areola restoration tattoos for those that have had mastectomies due to breast cancer.
She says that her busy schedule has caused her to renegotiate household tasks with her husband of six years.
“We’re just a team where it’s kind of unspoken. Like if you see something that needs to be done around the house, do it,” says Toms.
Effects of household power dynamics
Ashley Gisi, 31, a mother of two who runs two businesses from her home in Lloydminster, Alta., recognizes that sometimes housework has to take a backseat when life gets too busy.
“Just the other day, I was complaining that our bathroom is a disaster. And he [my husband] was just like ‘well, we’re both very busy right now and it’s okay,’” Gisi says. Ultimately, the bathroom stayed dirty.
Horne emphasizes in her research that the socio-historical period that we live in has just as much impact on our division of household labour as our culture, age and parental status.
However, for women who worked and managed households and children in the ‘50s and ‘60s, responsibilities were much more cut and dry.
Ratz and her late husband, Erich, are German. She says this often influenced the power dynamic in their home, with him expecting her to run the household.
“European men are bosses, they want to be [the] boss. But I am not really a timid person. I talk back,” says Ratz.
She believes this made their marriage more equal some days, but not others.
Lorraine Davies and Patricia Jane Carrier from the Faculty of Sociology at the University of Western Ontario, discuss the impact of these power dynamics when it comes to the division of unpaid household labour. They argue that this power gap is built into the institution of marriage.
One of the ways that this manifests is in regards to finances. It is often theorized that the individual who makes the most money in the household (traditionally men) wields the most power and has the ability to make the majority of the decisions.
Biccum has experienced this both in her own marriage and in her parents’ marriage, although those experiences differ.
She describes her marriage as a “team” where her husband goes to work full-time and brings in the majority of the income, while she works out of the home at her own pace. Although she says that their relationship is equal when it comes to household duties, her mother doesn’t quite see it the same way.
“She always talks about the things that she resents my dad for because she was a stay-at-home mom. She didn’t like that she had to do the laundry, she didn’t like that she had to do all the cooking and cleaning,” says Biccum, whose mother is worried she too will one day resent her husband.
The ‘perfect’ mother
The digital age has made it typical for people to share their day-to-day lives on social media. Women with children are no exception.
As if the expectations of society weren’t enough weight on the shoulders of young mothers, posts and pictures of perfectly clean houses lived in by freshly-showered women with full faces of makeup and well-behaved children bombard them on a regular basis.
“Very rarely do people post their days when their house is a mess or when they’re not showered or when things aren’t going all right,” says Toms.
When it comes down to it, balancing paid work and unpaid household labour is a superpower that women aren’t given enough credit for.
“I think you just want to be a good mom at the end of the day,” says Toms. “I don’t really know why you put those expectations on yourself, but for whatever reason, I just had the idea that a good wife and a good mom was having it all together so that my husband didn’t have to stress when he got home from work.”
Being a woman and a mother in 2021 is quite different than it was in the late 1900s. Women are faced with homeschooling during a pandemic, the gender pay gap and gender roles and are still living with the expectation of doing unpaid household labour.
But, there is one thing that hasn’t changed, the love a mother has for her children.