Apps such as TaskRabbit and Zum are trying to create a revolution for women’s domestic work. The problem is that each wave of new home technology tends to reinforce the old hierarchies.
By Lyz Lenz
“We shall have far happier marriages, happier homes, happier women, and happier men when both sexes realize that they are human and that humanity has far wider duties and desires than those of domestic relations.” — Charlotte Perkins Gilman, 1903
Mother and child in Tokyo, Japan, on March 29, 2015. (Photo: Toru Yamanaka/AFP/Getty Images)
I live in the middle of the country, where trends arrive slowly and die hard. We just got artisanal cupcakes last year, Uber came in early 2014, and last fall the local grocery store chain, HyVee, began online ordering and delivery. Previously, I had shopped primarily at the discount chain Aldi — tracking sales, cutting coupons, and saving money. But the moment I heard about online ordering and delivery I threw the advertisements in the trash and rushed to my computer. On average, grocery shopping will take four or five hours of my week. This included planning meals, making a list, and going to two to three different stores, with at least one of my children in tow, to find what I needed. This does not include last-minute trips to the store for milk and eggs throughout the week.
The first week I ordered groceries, it took me one hour. After the groceries arrived, I collapsed into bed for a nap. I will never grocery shop again.
Technology is revolutionizing the lives of women. Apps like TaskRabbit and Zum, and services like Amazon Pantry and Care.com, are automating the tasks traditionally reserved for mothers — making finding help easier and more affordable than it has ever been. But will these 21st-century domestic services ease the burden of housework and childcare for women in America?
According to Rob Wiley, who runs marketing for TaskRabbit, 60 percent of the apps users are women and most of those women are Millennial mothers, who are always looking for help with household work.
Every time there is a technological revolution that eases the burden of housework, cultural standards for the mother become more exacting.
Zum, a company that offers rides and care for kids launched in beta on January 21. In its pilot program of 400 families, Zum found that it was used by 90 percent every week; 40 percent used the service every day. “Although, we are open to all parents, the majority of the people using the app are women,” said founder and CEO Ritu Narayan.
Narayan created her app out of personal necessity. Working as a group product manager at eBay, Narayan found it hard to find reliable part-time help shuttling her kids from school to their activities and back again.
Narayan created her app to help fill in those gaps for all parents, especially women. But this help comes at a cost. Many of the women I spoke with wished they had more money to spend on hiring help. Johannah Haney, 38, and the mother of a preschooler, hired a graduate student through TaskRabbit to fold her laundry when her daughter was little. “It sounds like a little thing, but the help was immense. I wish I had the money to pay for more help, but it’s just not there.”
Haney, who is working as a freelancer, never intended to be a stay-at-home mom. But she was laid off when she was pregnant, and looking for a job while pregnant was almost impossible. At first, Haney says she embraced her new role. “I was going to do everything and do it well, but then I realized how much doing it all took out of me.”
She got the help for a few months, but stopped using the service when her daughter was older. Haney admits to feeling conflicted about the push and pull of household chores, care for her daughter, and her own work. Haney is a freelance writer and teaches college. She said she’d love more help, but can’t justify the cost and doesn’t live near family. While her husband does what he can, he also works full-time at a technology company where the hours are demanding. “I feel guilt because I can’t do it all, but I also feel guilt because I don’t contribute as much financially.” Haney laughs, “It’s a trap, really. I need money to get me the help I need, but in order to earn the money, I need time and time comes from getting help.”
I find myself in a similar situation as Haney. My husband would like to help more, but he is not around during the day. When he is home, he does the dishes and the laundry and helps with the cooking, but he also wants a break.
This is where technology is stepping in, making accessing care and help easier and more affordable. While it might feel like a revolution, it’s really a return to the past.
According to Marilyn Yalom’s A History of the Wife, one-third of colonial households had indentured servants. In 1870, a United States Census showed that 52 percent of American women were employed in domestic service. Poorer households who couldn’t afford help relied on a large number of children or relatives to ease the burden of domestic life. The Great Depression vastly decreased the number of households able to afford help. Yet, even with America’s return to prosperity after World War II, the numbers did not increase. With new and better-paying jobs, women who in previous decades would have been domestic staff could now find work outside of strangers’ pantries. Additionally, labor-saving devices like the washing machine and microwave contributed to the belief that a woman’s life was becoming easier, when in reality it was becoming harder.
Many grocers, butchers, and commercial laundry services stopped delivery during the war, when gas rationing and a labor shortage made it impossible. But even after the war, these services didn’t return. In her 1983 book More Work for Mother, Historian Ruth Schwartz Cowan argues that every time there is a technological revolution that eases the burden of housework, cultural standards for the mother become more exacting. She notes that the beginning of the 20th century — when post-war wealth lead to an increase in labor-saving devices — also led to sterner expectations regarding how a woman should run her home. In fact, according to Cowan, women in this period ended up doing more housework than ever before. The American housewife of 1950, working alone, created a household that, in 1850, would have taken a staff of servants to procure.
The American housewife of 1950, working alone, created a household that in 1850, would have taken a staff of servants to procure.
Today, with women making up 47 percent of the workforce, the standards for home and family have not diminished. Instead, women are left to balance the expectations of home and happiness with a career. A 2013 study by the Tax Foundation found that 66 percent of households are dual-income. Yet, according to a survey by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, women are still doing the bulk of the housework.
When my husband and I got married, we were very intentional about sharing housework. But after two kids, we went into autopilot. It was easier for me to pick up the kids, wash the floors, vacuum, and dust, rather than remind him to do his part as two children clamored for snacks and attention. Haney says the situation was similar for her and her spouse. “When I got laid off, we just reverted to this pattern, and it’s hard to break and it’s more personal for me,” she says. “He doesn’t care as much if the house is dirty, but I do, because even though I know it’s not right, I still have that voice in me that tells me all of this is my job.”
Cultural expectations are deeply ingrained, and fighting them is exhausting. A Pew study shows that the number of stay-at-home mothers is on the rise. Many of my friends who quit their jobs after having children miss their work but note that balancing the expectations of a home and a family with work is too much. When they are forced to choose, they choose their families. And research bears this out, noting that many of these “opt-out” mothers were, in fact, forced out by work-home conflicts. The only difference between women in the Victorian era and now is that today’s women have “choices.” But the choice between work and home establishes a false dichotomy that gives women the illusion of freedom. This daily pressure on women is due to the continued reliance on wives as our default parents and housekeepers — and the lower wages women receive in the workforce. In this framework, giving women the “choice” between work and family isn’t really a choice — it becomes, instead, a trap that perpetuates cycles of cultural expectations.
The majority of people using these apps are women, looking for help and reprieve from this cycle. But if history is our guide, any easement on the domestic front will simply lead to a rise in childcare expectations. It’s no wonder, then, that this home-help revolution coincides with the rise of helicopter parents and the increased popularity of attachment parenting, which put more pressures on women to be there for their children day and night, nursing on-demand and wearing their babies everywhere they go.
And this revolution, like so many in the past, is affecting only the ones who can afford it. This home-help revolution is easing the burden on some women, while increasing the burden on others and creating a subclass of low-wage workers. Mary Duffy, 32, lives in California and loves to use Instacart, an online service that allows you to order groceries delivered to your home in an hour. But she does worry about the new labor market being created. “If Instacart or TaskRabbit or even Uber had existed when I was broke and 22,” Duffy notes, “I would have been all over it to do it — because it’s hard to get work. It’s hard. Do I think we should be making jobs, not shitty work like that? Yes.”
Duffy also notes the irony that when it comes to hiring help, it’s often mothers who are employed to help other mothers. (Narayan, for her part, recognizes this quandary and says she is committed to paying the people who work for Zum over $20 an hour.)
Vi Nguygen is a 40-year-old mother of four and a driver for Zum. Nguygen is home all day with her children until 1 p.m. when she begins her shift. “I tried working an office job,” Nguygen explains, “but it didn’t work out.” Driving for Zum, Nguyen is able to spend time with her kids during the day and earn some money. She does rely on her parents to pick up her older children from school in the afternoon, she admits. “Unlike a lot of people, I live near family and they help a lot,” she says. “But it also means, I know how important it is to have help when you are raising children.”
TaskRabbit reports that 60 percent of their independent contractors are Millennials and the majority have full-time jobs. Wiley estimates that the gender breakdown of contractors is about even with most jobs earning about $35 an hour. “We want to enable people to do what they want with their time,” Wiley says, “whether that be earning extra money working for TaskRabbit or saving time by using the service…. We want all people to spend time in the way they want.”
When I asked Wiley if he thought technology could solve gender gaps in home and in the workforce, he said that he hoped that the sharing economy would allow people to spend their time in the ways they want, “whether that means more time at work or with their children.”
But Narayan doesn’t equivocate. “No,” she says, “technology is not the answer. The only way to balance the genders is to give women more economic independence. While apps like Zum can help women who need it, solving the problems that face all mothers is complicated and needs to be addressed on many fronts.”
For centuries, women have been trapped by the things that they love. Home, spouse, career, children — these are all deeply rewarding, but they also imprison women in a nexus of demands both emotional and physical that never seem to end. Perhaps the answer lies not in looking outside for help, but within. In Henrik Ibsen’s play A Doll’s House, Nora, a wife and mother, declares: “ I believe that before all else I am a reasonable human being, just as you are — or, at all events, that I must try and become one.” The line is just as revolutionary now as it was when Ibsen first wrote it, for it suggests that before our duties to our families or our homes, women have a duty to ourselves.
I researched and reported this story while my children were at preschool, while they played at the neighbor’s house, napping and using that best home-help app of all, Netflix. It was cobbled together from time wrested from chores, laundry, and dinner. We had take-out sandwiches and leftovers — my kid’s nails are dirty and so are my floors. And in some ways it seems like a revolution, but in other ways it is just the same kind of balance that women have been struggling with for centuries, only now I have a few more apps.