I’m sitting near a blazing fire watching Chamber of Commerce snow fall. The flakes are fat and fluffy and seem to dance on their way down, the way the bits of white inside a snow globe frolic back and forth before settling.
The house is perfumed by the corned beef simmering in a Dutch oven and by a batch of kale and sausage soup (heavy on the potatoes, moderate on the garlic and with a judicious amount of Frank’s Red Hot pepper sauce). If I concentrated, I could probably scent the last of the homemade yogurt that I drained through a cloth-lined colander a little while ago.
But the dominant fragrance is of freshly washed laundry hung on racks set up between me and the fireplace insert, which is cranking out so much heat that the clothes and towels may be dry before I finish writing this.
Domestic contentment – made even more delightful by the fact that it is shared domesticity. When DF got home from church (he’s the cantor for 8 a.m. Mass) he dove right into chores: two loads of laundry, putting the corned beef on to cook, cleaning the tub, general tidying. I can track his progress by the whistling or occasional scraps of song he emits while moving from job to job.
Where was I? Cutting up soup ingredients, placing some vegetable scraps into the freezer for making stock later on and relegating others to the compost, putting the yogurt into a container and storing the whey in a jar. Oh, and smiling. Smiling.
I love a man who whistles while he works. And I especially love a man who doesn’t regard the domestic arena as expressly female.
Housework often comes up in discussions of equality. Men often get impatient when you bring it up. Some protest that they do “all the outside stuff” or “all the dirty work” like automobile care and yard chores.
But snow tires get changed over once a year and gutters cleaned maybe twice per annum. Meals, on the other hand, must be prepared three times a day and bathrooms need cleaning week after week.
And all the “dirty” work? Have you ever swabbed out a toilet or changed a diaper?
It’s still optional
Even more galling are the guys who say, “Hey, I help around the house.” You help? These are your kids, your meals and your toilets too, buster. At what point did the woman you love turn into the maid-of-all-work whom you “help” when it suits you to be magnanimous?
For an update of “The Second Shift,” sociologist Arlie Hochschild found that little had changed. Women, she says, are still largely responsible for what gets done. If she’s not staying home with the kids, then a woman must arrange for good child care. (She must also find time to punish herself for having been absent in the first place.)
She needs to set up immunizations, purchase snowsuits, make sure school lunches are paid for, deliver baked goods to classrooms, cart children to soccer practice or play dates.
She has to cook or to arrange for food to appear. All this in addition to doing the cleaning or contracting to have it done – and to absorb criticism, unspoken or not, if the house is a mess.
Because men have not typically been involved in housekeeping or child-rearing, they may be truly unaware of things such as bathtub scum or the need to buy snowsuits before it snows (and preferably on sale). I’m also aware that some men do clean and care for kids, sometimes without being asked.
However, it is still an option for them. When they pitch in at all they get praised for being so “involved with the children” or so “helpful around the house.”
Meanwhile the wives, who pick up most of the load, have to smile and agree – or, worse, initiate the praise so that their partners will continue to “help” maintain the home and family that should technically be 50 percent of their responsibility.
Women have to choose
Why do men get away with this and why do women keep reinforcing it? Because we don’t have equal access to power at work or at home.
Men have been socialized to expect certain tasks to be done by others. Women have been socialized to make people happy and not to make a fuss. We don’t want to upset our partners by suggesting that they participate equally in the running of a household, so we pick up the slack.
The women Hochschild interviewed frequently spoke of feeling “lucky” that their husbands do any housework or child care at all. Yet the author notes that “husbands almost never talked of feeling ‘lucky’ that their wives worked, or that they ‘did a lot’ or ‘shared’ the work of the home.” Hochschild suggests that something is wrong with “the usual male outlook on the home, and the cultural world of work that helps create and reinforce it.”
Understand: I know that men may be caught in the same social trap. Maybe they want to be at-home parents but can’t risk the career suicide that can accompany that choice, or the subtle or overt judgments of other men/society at large, or are afraid that they would lose their identities in a blur of baby wipes and play dates. I am not saying this doesn’t hurt all of us.
What I am saying is that not only is it optional for men to be involved parents, it’s an anomaly worthy of praise. A man is not required to make such choices – and if he does, he’s some kind of nursery saint. But women have to choose. We must pick motherhood or career or an exhausting hybrid of both. We’ll be criticized and adversely affected no matter which path we take:
If we choose full-time motherhood, we lose status at the job and, possibly, most of our support networks.
If we choose full-time career we’re second-guessed by coworkers, pediatricians, pundits, our parents and (maybe worst of all) other moms. Will our spouses be judged? Nah. No one expects them to quit their jobs or put careers on hold.
If we stop working, our paychecks stop, too. Don’t underestimate the psychological factor of being dependent on someone else’s paycheck, and of being the at-home parent required to stretch that paycheck (translation: do without so that others can have).
If we stop working, our careers may derail. Ask the average man what being out of the workplace for five years would mean in terms of advancement and seniority. Ask if managers would question their devotion and commitment. And just for fun, ask if they’d like having to ask their spouses for money.
Always, always busy
My ex-husband never lifted a finger. When I asked him to “help,” he’d insist that he did do housework: He washed the dishes and made the bed.
This was a ridiculous answer. He worked from 2 to 10 p.m. and thus washed only the plate and utensils he needed to reheat the food that I’d cooked and left in the fridge. (We hardly ever had family-style meals.)
“Making the bed” was a matter of pulling up the sheets and comforter; nothing got tucked in or even smoothed out. Occasionally I would suggest that we come to some kind of agreement over what should be done around the house and split up the jobs. He’d become enraged, yelling that I was obsessive about housework and he wasn’t going to be told what to do.
Thus in 23 years of marriage he never once ran the vacuum, mopped the linoleum or cleaned a toilet. I can still see myself on Sundays, playing board games with my daughter or taking her roller-skating in between running loads of laundry, cooking food for the coming week and doing whatever cleaning jobs I hadn’t managed to finish on Saturday. That laundry, incidentally, got hung on wooden racks to dry because I wanted to keep the electric bill as low as possible.
And where was my husband? Lying on the bed for half the day, reading every section of the Sunday paper.
Time to step up, guys
You know what’s most delightful about DF’s approach to housework? He seems surprised when I express gratitude that he always does his share (and sometimes more than his share) around the house.
“Once a janitor, always a janitor,” he said today, referring to his first job out of college: overnight cleaning crew at a department store. An all-male cleaning crew.
Men: If you don’t already pull your own weight in the household arena, let me assure you that Pine-Sol fumes will not cause your testicles to shrivel. In fact, the opposite may be true: A study published in 2009 in the Journal of Family Issues indicated that the more housework a married man or woman does, the more often he or she is likely to have sex with his or her spouse.
More to the point: Your wives/girlfriends are neither your maids nor your moms. They are your partners.
Readers: How do you handle indoor and outdoor chores? Do you delegate tasks or just sort of take turns?