Why do so many modern couples find it difficult to work out division of labor within their households? After all, even Paleolithic people had it figured out.
MUNICH — No kidding, there is an area of research concerned with gender roles and distribution of labor among early Paleolithic people. So what can we learn from the Stone Age? What can it teach us, in these times of federal parental allowance, part-time work and gender fairness? In times that have produced so many self-help books offering parents advice on how to balance their ridiculously high expectations and their gender-neutral relationship on the one side and the reality of towering piles of dirty laundry on the other?
What we can learn from these bygone days is that women were not just sitting outside their caves all day, baby at the breast and sewing leather loin cloths with bone needles waiting for the men to return from their daily hunt with a nice piece of bloody mammoth meat. If you believe archeologist and Paleolithic expert Linda Owen, things were, well, much more evolved than that.
Paleolithic women were just as mobile and active as men, Owen says. All able members of a group had to contribute to the daily food gathering chores to ensure that everyone ate. Division of labor was necessary for survival and was second nature to these people. Some modern couples, who resort to Excel spreadsheets to assign toilet cleaning and childcare, could take a leaf out of their book.
Even Ötzi, who lived around 3,300 BCE, was more progressive than some modern men who so zealously attempt to play the roles of spouse and father. Why else would the frozen remains of the glacier mummy have been found with a sewing kit?
Inequity among modern couples
There are many serious research reports that suggest women are more adept at ironing, sewing and looking after children. In a long-term project, the German Research Foundation (DFG) is investigating how modern couples divide labor. Current studies suggest that in 65% of cases, laundry, cooking and cleaning are performed primarily by women, and only in one-third of families are these tasks divided evenly between the sexes. Only in very rare cases does the man do this work more often than the woman.
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Photo: Richard Summers
Another misinterpretation of the Paleolithic era is that women cultivated their social competencies sitting and chatting at the campfire while the men were hopelessly enslaved by their hunting instincts, returning exhausted and speechless. That's simply not based in fact.
Meanwhile, 40,000 years after the early Paleolithic, a new book by the married German couple Stefanie Lohaus and Tobias Scholz, Daddy is Also Able to Breastfeed (Papa kann auch stillen in German), attempts to encourage fair division of labor among the genders.
The will to divide daily responsibilities on a 50-50 basis — that is, household chores, employment and childcare — is ever present among couples truly dedicated to true equality. But the debate about gender role dynamics is still strained, complicated and grim. Which is why we again want to return to the Paleolithic era.
Owen, a professor of pre- and ancient history at Tubingen and Vienna, has turned everything on its head in the usually male-dominated discipline of archeology. She easily undermined the commonly accepted historical view of the masculine lone provider by using artifacts as evidence. Paleolithic women, it turns out, commonly dug for roots and collected berries after joint hunts with the men and were therefore responsible for providing more than two-thirds of the entire calorie intake of groups.
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Paternal leave in the Paleolithic era? — Source: José-Manuel Benito
Authors Lohaus and Scholz — who naturally split the writing of the book into equal parts — write that they have noticed relapses into old and familiar patterns after the arrival of children. In other words, there are still clear gender-specific concepts in people’s minds as to what jobs should be done by men and which by women.
Sociologist Heinz Bude explains this quite neatly in the recent edition of Parents magazine. Nowadays, it's more a matter of negotiation between parents than a concerted effort to complement one another. "Both partners want and are supposed to unite contradictory qualities," Bude writes. "Successful women who are affectionate. Powerful men who are sensitive. This can easily turn into an inner and outer test of strength."
In addition to this, Bude adds, the concept of family as a community of solidarity is losing its meaning. Just consider modern divorce laws. "On the one hand, there is the binding relationship with your child, and on the other hand the expectation to remain your own person at the same time."
The authors as role models
The private 50-50 life of Lohaus and Scholz seems to be working out nicely. Each works only part-time, and they divide the housekeeping and childcare duties equally without quarrel. It could be that their shared non-understanding of conventional lifestyles is making life easier for Lohaus and Scholz, born in 1978 and 1976 respectively.
"To me there doesn't seem to be a single plausible reason as to why the woman has to cook, wash the dishes or do the laundry for every single member of the household," Lohaus writes. Her partner adds, "The job of one person is not more important than that of the other. Stefanie has given up her social privilege of being the sole carer of our son, and I have given up my social standing of being the provider."
The price they had to pay for this is the renunciation of luxury, as they live in an affordable rented apartment and buy second-hand clothing. But their winnings are much more than that: a family-oriented model of life — because, they write, "hierarchies have nothing to do with the relationship between genders."
There are statistics that show that by now one-third of all fathers are receiving federal parental allowance, which enables them to stay at home for a prolonged period of time. Apparently, most fathers would ideally like to stay home for about two months. At the same time, the German charity organization that provides help to stressed parents has recorded a 20% increase in treatments of fathers since 2013. Could a 50-50 approach be on the cards? Will parental stress ever be shared evenly?
A study from Norway, however, suggests something different. It concludes that couples who share housework separate more often than couples in which the woman is solely responsible for the housework. It also shows that among the 15,000 Norwegians between ages 18 and 79 who took part, divorce is even more likely if the man is solely charged with housework than when work is equally divided.
It seems that the way to the Paleolithic and back is a long one.