The Second Shift: Nancy and Evan Holt and the “Upstairs-Downstairs” Myth

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“One day, when I asked Nancy [the wife] to tell me who did which tasks from a long list of households chores, she interrupted me with a broad wave of her hand and said, “I do the upstairs, Evan [the husband] does the downstairs.” What does that mean? I asked. Matter-of-factly, she explained that the upstairs included the living room, the dining room, the kitchen, two bedrooms, and two baths. The downstairs meant the garage, a place for storage and hobbies–Evan’s hobbies. She explained this as a “sharing” arrangement, without humor or irony–just as Evan did later. Both said they had agreed it was the best solution to their dispute. Evan would take care of the car, the garage, and Max, the family dog. As Nancy explained explained, “The dog is all Evan’s problem. I don’t have to deal with the dog.” Nancy took care of the rest.

For purposes of accommodating the second shift [“paid work and the labor performed at home”], then, the Holts’ garage was elevated to the full moral and practical equivalent of the rest of the house. For Nancy and Evan, “upstairs and downstairs,” “inside and outside,” was vaguely described like “half and half,” a fair division of labor based on a natural division of the house.

The Holts presented their upstairs-downstairs agreement as a perfectly equitable solution to a problem they “once had.” This belief is what we might call a “family myth,” even a modest delusional system. It allowed Nancy to continue thinking of herself as the sort of woman whose husband didn’t abuse her–a self-conception that mattered a great deal to her. And it avoided the hard truth that, in his stolid, passive way, Evan refused to share. It avoided the truth, too, that in their showdown, Nancy was more afraid of divorce than Evan was. This outer cover to their family life, this family myth, was jointly devised. It was an attempt to agree that there was no conflict over the second shift, no tension between their versions of manhood and womanhood, and that the powerful crisis that had arisen was temporary and minor.Displaying FullSizeRender.jpg

The wish to avoid such a conflict is natural enough. But their avoidance was tacitly supported by the surrounding culture, especially the image of the woman with the flying hair. After all, this admirable woman also proudly does the “upstairs” each day without a husband’s help and without conflict.

After Nancy and Evan reached their upstairs-downstairs agreement, their confrontations ended. They were nearly forgotten. Yet, as she described their daily life months after the agreement, Nancy’s resentment still seemed alive and well. For example, she said:

Evan and I eventually divided the labor so that I do the upstairs and Evan does the downstairs and the dog. So the dog is my husband’s problem. But when I was getting the dog outside and getting Joey ready for childcare, and cleaning up the mess of feeding the cat, and getting the lunches together, and having my son wipe his nose on my outfit so I would have to change–then I was pissed! I felt that I was doing everything. All Evan was doing was getting up, having coffee, reading the paper, and saying, “Well, I have to go now,” and often forgetting the lunch I’d bothered to make.


Near the end of my visits, it struck me that Nancy was putting Joey [their child] to bed in an “exciting” way, later and later at night, in order to tell Evan something important: “You win, I’ll go on doing all the work at home, but I’m angry about it and I’ll make you pay.” Evan had won the battle but lost the war. According to the family myth, all was well: the struggle had been resolved by the upstairs-downstairs agreement.”



“Beyond the upstairs-downstairs myth, the Holts tell us a great deal about the subtle ways a couple can encapsulate the tension caused by a struggle over the second shift without resolving the problem or divorcing. Like Nancy Holt, many women struggle to avoid, suppress, obscure, or mystify a frightening conflict over the second shift. They do not struggle like this because they started off wanting to, or because such struggle is inevitable or because women inevitably lose, but because they are forced to choose between equality and marriage. And they choose marriage. When asked about “ideal” relations between men and women in general, about what they for their daughters, about what “ideally” they’d like in their own marriage, most working mothers “wished” their men would share the work at home.

But many “wish” it instead of “want” it. Other goals–like keeping peace at home–come first. Nancy Holt did some extraordinary behind-the-scenes emotion work to prevent her ideals from clashing with her marriage. In the end, she had confined and miniaturized her ideas of equality successfully enough to do two thing she badly wanted to do: feel like a feminist, and live at peace with a man who was not. Her program had “worked.” Evan won on the reality of the situation, because Nancy did the second shift. Nancy won on the cover story; they would talk about it as if they shared.

Nancy wore the upstairs-downstairs myth as an ideological cloak to protect her from the contradictions in her marriage and from the cultural and economic forces that press upon it. Nancy and Evan Holt were caught on opposite sides of the gender revolution occurring all around them. Through the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s masses of women entered the public world of work–but went only so far up the occupational ladder. They tried for “equal” marriages, but got only so far in achieving it. They married men who liked them to work at the office but who wouldn’t share the extra month a year at home. When confusion about the identity of the working woman created a cultural vacuum in the 1970s and 1980s, the image of the supermom quietly glided in. She made the “stall” seem normal and happy. But beneath the happy image of the woman with the flying hair are modern marriages like the Holts’, reflecting intricate webs of tension, and the huge, hidden emotional cost to women, men, and children of having to “manage” inequality. Yet on the surface, all we might see would be Nancy Holt bounding confidently out the door at 8:30 A.M., briefcase in one hand, Joey in the other. All we might hear would be Nancy’s and Evan’s talk about their marriage as happy, normal, even “equal”–because equality was so important to Nancy.”

Pp. 43-45 & 56-58 in Hochschild, Arlie. 1989. The Second Shift: Working Parents and the Revolution at Home. New York: Viking.

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