The Atlantic has been running content from this new book out about how middle class American families manage in this era of two-income families, a book called Fast Forward Family that I am now curious to read. I made gentle fun on Twitter of an earlier dispatch deeply analyzing who says hi to whom when they get home, but of much more interest to me is their research into the gendered division and management of housework. Hurt feelings when you get home from work are one thing, but the continuing expectation that women devote more time to childcare and housework than men is a major roadblock for women finally achieving social, political and economic equality. From every work level from working class jobs to executive offices, women lose out in the workplace because they have more to do at home, and find that they have less free time and opportunity to enjoy the lives they work so hard to maintain.
But the discussion of how to rectify this problem always stalls out the second anyone suggests that men step up and do their fair share of housework. Women are usually blamed, with men invariably complaining that their wives are somehow just born with higher standards for cleanliness and order.* Women are also blamed for not speaking up more, as if the time and energy investment—as well as the negative reaction you invariably get—that goes into nagging isn’t a loss for women. Women are also blamed for being control freaks that don’t “let” men do more around the house. The entire discussion gets so derailed into blaming women that men are conveniently forgotten. The problem of men not doing more is inevitably cast as women’s problem, and so if men don’t do more, it’s inevitably cast as women’s failure.
So what did the researchers find about division of labor and the stability/happiness of marriages? A lot that will disappoint the woman-blamers out there. The big thing is that they acknowledged what I call the “nagging differential”: Even if a couple agrees to split the housework fairly, the expectation remainst that it’s a woman’s job to keep track of what needs to be done and to do the hard work of assigning chores. Beyond just being unfair—keeping track of stuff is a chore and quietly leaving it off the mental spreadsheet is bullshit—this puts women in an impossible situation. If she assigns her partner his chores, she’s a nag, which no one wants to be. It often ends up being less work to do it yourself than to nag him into it. Thus, even when couples supposedly agree to do more, the fact that he’s waiting around for instructions effectively means he gets to do less work.
This is how the researchers described it:
Among couples we studied, on average, men worked longer hours outside the home, yet even in families where women worked equivalent or longer hours and earned higher salaries they still took on more household responsibilities. When our data were merged with the Chicago Sloan Study of 500 working families, we learned that men spent 18 percent of their time doing housework and took on 33 percent of household tasks, whereas women spent 22 percent of their time on housework and carried out 67 percent of household tasks. Women performed over twice the number of tasks and assumed the burden of “mental labor” or “invisible work,” that is, planning and coordination of tasks. Moreover, leisure was most frequent for fathers (30 percent) and children (39 percent) and least frequent for mothers (22 percent).
While the actual planning and nagging wasn’t counted—I do wish it were, because then the already lopsided ratios would become even more apparent—the acknowledgement of how women are routinely expected to not only do their own chores but also do supervisory work (which is acknowledged in offices as real work, if not in the home) helped the researchers see why some relationships worked and some didn’t. In sum, women who were put in the position to nag really hated it, as did their nagged husbands. Nagged husbands were always angry about it (of course, berating your wife for nagging you is just another way to pressure her to just give up and do the work herself) and nagging wives were always angry that they were put in the position of having to constantly ride their husbands. Identifying one’s husband as another child to care for was a common issue.
But it wasn’t all men’s fault, by a long shot. While the man-child-resents-nagging model was really common, there were also some women who really were controlling. One couple covered had a husband who wanted to cook dinner and his wife would hover over him and tell him he’s doing it wrong. This dynamic—which I suspect comes from women’s fear that they’re somehow failing as women if they don’t do it all—was also incredibly toxic, with contributing husbands feeling unappreciated and tensions rising all around.
But some couples had harmonious relationships when it came to housework:
While several of the spouses in our sample expressed frustration regarding household division of labor, some couples seemed to be particularly skilled at smoothly accomplishing domestic tasks. A study of the couples preparing dinner together revealed a variety of interactional styles, including (1) “silent collaboration,” in which both partners worked in the same space and went about the task at hand; (2) “one partner as expert,” in which one spouse was considered an expert or authority in a particular task, either humorously or with genuine respect; (3) “coordinating together,” in which partners verbally organized the activity in concert; and (4) “collaborating apart,” in which partners carried out their share of the labor in separate locations.
Spouses who appeared to have a clear and respectful understanding of one another’s roles and tasks, in contrast,did not spend as much time negotiating responsibilities; their daily livesseemed to flow more smoothly.
The common thread here is that if both spouses understand what their chores are and dispatch them efficiently without having to be prompted, there were few fights and everyone felt more appreciated. All of which is to say that the nagging differential disappeared. The game of “chicken”, where husbands procrastinate on chores until wives cave and either nag them or do it themselves, hurts both men and women, by increasing tensions and draining affection from the relationship. Dividing the chores equitably and being clear about who does what also helped reduce the amount of time women spent hovering over men to make sure they do it “right”.
The lessons here are simple: 1) A sitdown discussion dividing chores up is critical. 2) Once the chores are divided, it is important to do your chores in a time-efficient manner, without complaining. Men should not try to “cheat” the chore division system by dawdling until nagged or their partners do it first. 3) Once a chore is assigned to one partner, the other should butt out. That means women need to let go of the fear that they’re failing as women if they aren’t controlling what’s going on in the kitchen, etc. 4) That, in turn, means that if a chore is your responsibility, you need to do a good job. Half-assing it is just another form of playing chicken, and trying to get the chore removed from your list by making your partner have to go in and redo your work.
Of course, all this depends on people being willing to make the effort. For that, I’d like to end with a quote from one of the more astute Atlantic commenters:
I’m honestly surprised when I see men among my friends and family who would seemingly rather live at war with their wives than get up off the couch and do an extra half-hour of chores per day. Their household peace, happiness, sex lives, etc. would all be so much better if they would hand her a glass of wine she likes or help with the cooking, like Adam does. Why would anyone want to spend the majority of their life with tension, anger, hostility, etc. from their partner, all in the name of wanting to watch an extra re-run of “Two-and-a-Half-Men?” Men would get a lot more love, respect, and yes, sex from their wives if they would be willing to make this relatively minor trade-off. Living with someone whose laziness or selfishness turns you into an indentured servant is not much of a turn-on. And it is difficult to treat someone like an adult when they typically act like an adolescent, a horrible dynamic for both the husband and the wife.
Women, on the other hand, need to let go of some of our control issues, which is hard to do if you are already used to doing everything. It looks like Julie resents David so much because, even though he is trying hard now, in the past he was likely happy to shove everything onto her shoulders. Her resentment didn’t pop up out of nowhere. But if she wants him to help, then she can’t stand there criticizing him nonstop. Women need to be able to accept when the man isn’t doing things exactly the way we would, or be content to accept doing the majority of the housework alone.
Again, the only thing I’d add is that it’s easier for women to give up control if a minimum standard is met: Dinner has to involve green things, toilets actually need to be scrubbed, and laundry isn’t done until it’s folded. Trying to demonize basic standards of cleanliness in order to justify a situation where women have to do most or all of the housework is just going back to square one and playing chicken with the housework. For people who actually value women’s equality and want to take steps to achieve it—much less people who value their own relationships and want to make them work—this system is really, truly not to much to ask.**
*The reality is that it’s easier to tolerate a mess if you believe that it’s someone else’s responsibility to clean it up. Men can overlook chaos at home for the same reason that I can overlook a spill on the floor at a restaraunt instead of picking up the mop and going after it myself. That spill is somebody else’s problem.
**Of course, I fully expect the comment section to be swarmed by men whose devotion to getting out of having to do a little housework far exceeds any concern about the happiness of their home and certainly and greater concerns about women’s economic and social progress.