Tuesday, February 10, 2004

A Fair Share of Housework

“Given the number of hours that your husband works, does he do a fair share of the housework?”

That is the question of the day. Not only did I throw that out on the blog yesterday, but I’ve also asked every woman that I ran into today. (Didn’t run into any guys today, so I couldn’t ask them.) Here are the responses from my informal interviews:

No (emphatic). He watches TV in the evening, while I clean up and work on my part time job.
Yes. But he’s unusual, because he learned to do those things when his mom got very sick while he was in high school.
No. And that’s why I’m filing for divorce.
Yes. But sometimes I have to remind him.
No. I don’t need a husband; I need a wife.
Are you still reading those angry women, Laura? The problem with those women is that they don’t have their priorities straight. They should go to church and do some volunteer work and stop complaining already. (OK, that was my mom.)

Jay at Moment, Linger On has a response. And I got many e-mail responses. So many that I haven’t had a chance to respond to everyone yet. (For one brief moment, I considered adding a comments section.) Here’s a selection of reader mail without comment or analysis from me:

Jenny writes,
My husband and I have only been married for nine months, and we lived together for a year before our marriage. We are both academics on the tenure track. In terms of housework, I do most of it. However, he does have several areas of expertise. For instance, he's excellent about doing the dishes and cleaning up after dinner (and this is really a plus!). He also does his own laundry (although I have offered to do it), and he takes out the trash.

Here's the big issue, though. He does many other things around the house if I ask. Sometimes, I only have to ask once; sometimes I have to ask three times. I would like to get to the point where I don't have to ask at all, but I'm not sure that's possible. Like many other women, I have been well conditioned to clean up and take care of the house. He doesn't seem to have that compunction. He has no problem reading a book or writing while the house is a wreck and we have no clean clothes. I have female colleagues who use cleaning services, but right now, I just don't think that we can justify the expense. Of course, I'm wondering what's going to happen when we have kids in a couple of years... ;-)

From Donna,
My first husband was (is) a programmer, and ended up in the financial industry. He left before the kids woke up, got home right before dinner, and only took them on short outings on the weekends so that he wouldn't need to carry a diaper bag.

During my fourth pregnancy, I found out that my third child was stillborn because of toxoplasmosis caused by the rabbit we got during my first trimester--I changed its litter, and it bit and scratched me, but I didn't know that rabbits were risky at the time. So suddenly I
didn't want to touch the cage. My husband refused to change the litter because he thought it would set a bad precedent--that I might expect him to continue after the baby was born. I wore thick gloves. (The baby was fine.)

My second husband is a French artist/musician/web designer/gamer. He hasn't really worked since the dot-com crash. He's taking care of the house and the kids while I go to nursing school at Columbia. I have a wife! The problem is, this only works because the first husband is paying alimony and child support.

Allison writes,
I find the husbands can't win. Either they are these Type A, overworked high-earning types and the wife resents that they are consumed by career and their lack of involvement in home and family and that they and the nannies are raising the kids.

But I also have friends married to what you call "slackers" -- less demanding, lower income jobs and they don't appreciate it, they resent the financial pressure, the fact that they (the wives) have to keep working full-time and are always complaining that their husbands aren't ambitious enough and don't push themselves enough. They don't really seem to appreciate the increased time their husbands have with the kids and their help with household duties, in fact, they seem to take it somewhat for granted.

Russell, an enlightened slacker dad, writes,

How can resist answering, when you go around praising "slacker" husbands like me? Let's see--I cook breakfast, wash the bathroom, take out the trash, read the kids stories at night (though since daughter #1 and #2 often want different stories read to them, we sometimes divide up), and stay up late with Allison (daughter #3) if she's having a bad day. Melissa cooks most of the other meals (I will sometimes do dinner, but not usually; she almost never makes breakfast), does the laundry, does all the sewing (I don't know how). Most everything else (vacuuming, mopping, picking up toys, enforcing discipline) we split, more or less evenly I hope, though of course she's home with the girls for more hours out of the day than I am.

Kathleen writes,
I am married to a slacker, which is why we're able to negotiate a relationship in which he stays home and I work outside that home...

As I see in making the list, he does a lot of work. He's constantly working, in fact. So what am I complaining about? The reason why our arrangement is not entirely satisfying to me is that the house always looks messy. And I'm in charge of the big jobs-making sure the kids are stocked with clothes for the upcoming season, or scouring the newspaper for the few events and kids' classes available in our small town, e.g. Even though I've passed along jobs to him, such as making doctor's appointments, I'm still bearing the psychological burdens of parenting, which I recall reading about in an undergraduate women's studies class many years ago. We're thinking about homeschooling, and here's how I know it's going to work: he'll do the day-to-day activities, and he'll do them well. I'll do all the behind-the-scenes work-researching every possible homeschooling philosophy and curriculum; chatting with other parents-I mean, mothers!-about their choices and experiences; surfing the Web for affordable and appropriate games, toys, and books; filling out the proper forms with the state.

He: Takes care of the kids full time; Does most of the laundry, including cloth diapers (See? The guy is a saint); Does most of the cooking, including hot, nutritionally balanced,
vegetarian lunches and dinner for me when I get home (You weren't kidding about slackers feeding their wives lasagna; I eat incredibly well!); Takes out the garbage; Walks the dog, often shouldering wee children who can't get to sleep.

I: Work full time on the tenure track; Clean the dishes and spoons and pots and pans that were used in the nutritionally balanced meals, above; Maintain a veneer of cleanliness, like sweeping, wiping the counters, scrubbing the toilet, gathering up the newspapers for recycling, gathering up stray toys from odd places, folding the %#$ blanket on the couch, like, four times a day; Clean out the diaper bag occasionally; Organize-sort out old clothes to pass down to friends, keep track of stored clothes that the kids have grown into, shop around the Goodwill for bargains, sit down with the sock basket and actually pair socks up; Cook and prep when company comes; Am in charge of holiday cheer and responsibilities-the shopping, the activities, the thank you notes; Pay the bills? badly and often tardily

We share: Dressing and feeding the kids in the morning; Putting the kids to bed-I nurse the baby while he reads to the older one. If one of us is clearly exhausted or beset with anxiety of some sort, then the other takes on both kids; Putting piles and piles and piles of clean clothes away; Grocery shopping; Library excursions

From Melissa,
Ok, so I do read your blog and I married the slacker guy. And for a long time, NOTHING got done. My husband is an amazingly smart, kind, funny guy who is really really good to me. But, it took therapy to shake us out of our long-held notions over who does what in the household. It turns out that I was the careerist, and expected him to do EVERYTHING since I was out earning the money. He in turn, didn't expect to have to do anything. Both because his mother did everything and because I was making the money, if I wanted something done, I should hire a cleaning lady. Granted we don't have kids, and he is now making money (if you ever need someone to lay tile...) But, it took a lot of work for both of us to reach our happy, messy medium.

Read This
There are some very nice people in the blogosphere. People who put a lot of time and thought into raising good kids. People who make their kids a priority, not so that their kids will be the smartest or the most successful, but so that they have happy kids. Call me a sap, but I really like that. Harry Brighouse has a long post at Crooked Timber about childhood. I’m headed over there now, a little late to the party, to add my two cents.

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