The Second Shift

Anne Tergesen

When I graduated from college more years ago than I care to count, I landed a job as an editorial assistant (ie: slave) at book publisher Viking Penguin. I was paid so little ($14,000 a year—but who’s counting?) that I frequently ate oatmeal twice a day. I lived with two friends in a tiny, burglary-prone sixth floor walkup in Greenwich Village. One of the few good things about the job—aside from occasional cocktail parties and encounters with glitterati and artists, such as David Byrne—was the free books.

These days, I don’t have time to read much aside from business publications.

But one Viking book that’s sat unread on my shelf all these years now ranks high on my reading list: "The Second Shift" by sociologist Arlie Hochschild. At age 24, I didn’t really get what it was all about. Sure, I understood the general point: Women, despite the feminist revolution, remain “responsible for the majority of child care and housework even though they also work outside the home,” to quote the most recent edition. But since my first child was born eight years ago, I’ve become intimately acquainted with the second shift.

Don’t get me wrong. My husband is very helpful. He, too, puts in a second shift. When he gets home from work, he plays nonstop with the kids, and does the recycling, gardening, and some laundry. He also often reads bedtime stories while I organize things for the next day. He’s pretty good at following orders, too. Nights when I work late, I can be reasonably confident that he’ll supervise the homework and clean up the most obvious messes. But no matter how much progress towards equality we make, there’s still a gap between our household responsibilities.

My husband out-earns and out-ranks me on the corporate ladder. He also claims “head of household” status on our tax returns. But I’m unquestionably the family “CEO.” Sadly, the job comes with no stock options or secretarial support. Here are some of my duties: Research and sign up for summer camps, swimming lessons, and other extracurricular activities; buy clothes, shoes, birthday gifts, and books; organize closets and drawers, playdates and birthday parties; fill out emergency contact cards; make doctors appointments. You get the picture. I also handle “external communications” for our family. That means I leave notes and email and phone messages for the babysitter, school nurse, teachers, swim instructors—you name it.

Of course, that’s only part of my second shift. The rest is decidedly less glamorous. One exhausting night I wrote down everything I’d done since I walked through the door at 6:30 p.m.: I changed the cat litter, unpacked the groceries, made cookies with my sugar-addicted three year old, packed school lunches, supervised my oldest’s homework, put away the laundry, changed the crib sheets, packed swim gear for a lesson the next day, put the kids in the bath, and even read a bedtime story (!). With my youngest in nursery school, I’m happy to report that I’ve been able to delegate more minor household tasks to our babysitter. But the second shift won’t entirely go away until the kids are in college. Maybe then I’ll have time to read that book.