So the question is,…

So the question is, should Kevin do more housework?

It's an ongoing debate in our household. It has been for oh, at least thirteen years or so, ever since we were living together in Philly. Back then, we tried to divide the chores fairly evenly -- and there weren't so many of them anyway, in our little one-bedroom apartment. Every week, a grocery shop (mostly me), a take out the trash (Kevin), a laundering (me), a cleaning the bathroom (Kevin), cooking some meals (split pretty evenly) and so on. The only real problem we had was dishes -- Kevin just hated doing dishes, and refused to do it -- in fact, my recollection is that he even agreed that he ought to do half the dishes, but he just wasn't going to, so there. Probably not delivered in quite so petulant a tone, to be fair, but the net effect wasn't pretty, and we had a few epic fights over dishes back then.

In the end, well, I ended up doing the dishes. I think the logic was that if he hated them that much, then while it might have been more fair in theory to make him do it, in practice, it was harder work for him than it was for me. I made him do a few more grocery runs in exchange, and we settled down to relative peace on the housework front.

As we get older, we've accumulated more housework. Bigger homes mean more rooms to clean, more trash cans to fill up and empty, more packages arriving with boxes that need throwing out. More nice clothes means dry-cleaning gets added to the laundry. Nice hardwood floors practically beg to be Swiffered once a week, so they stay all purty. And to be honest, as more general housework accumulates, I've taken on most of it. Kev has his areas that he handles (I still hate cleaning bathrooms), but I think he'd agree that I probably put in an extra 10-20 hours a week on housework, whether it's wiping down counters, scrubbing the stovetop, re-organizing a chaotic pantry, watering the plants (is that gardening or housework? dead plants get pretty unsightly...), etc. and so on.

And no, it wasn't strictly fair, but to be honest, I didn't really mind. Some of it, like the organizing, I kind of enjoyed. Other things I could do while watching tv, or chatting on the phone, or even while reading a book. (Yes, I hold a book in one hand and read while I wipe down kitchen counters -- it may be the slowest form of cleaning/reading ever, since I have to look down periodically to make sure things are actually getting clean, but hey, it means I can clean without really noticing I'm doing it. :-) So we toddled along in our merry, slightly unequal way. And then we had a baby.

Suddenly -- four times as much laundry. Twice as much time doing dishes (because there are bottles to wash often, by hand). Toys to pick up and put away, sometimes a couple of times a day. Plus all the actual baby labor that isn't housework. And she's still not sleeping through the night, and we're both feeling seriously crunched for time, both for our own work, and for ourselves -- time alone to read a book in peace, for example. And we can figure out equitable distributions of baby care, work time, even a little relaxation time -- but then we run right back aground on the rock of housework.

Because Kevin really truly does not want to take on half of those extra hours of housework. He's already feeling pretty strapped for time and frayed. And given his resistance, even though it might be more fair to have him take on half, I think if I pushed him on that seriously, it would make life truly miserable for both of us. But I can't help starting to feel resentment now -- when I'm loading the dishwasher and hand-washing some pots while the baby naps and thinking -- "God, if he'd just done this last night, I could be writing a story right now."

And it's not that he isn't helpful. If I ask him, at any point, "Kev, can you fold these towels and put them away?" he'll do it. But there's a problem with that dynamic, because it means that on some level in both our heads, it registers as him doing me a favor, every time I ask him to help out with a task. Which both he and I end up quietly resenting just a little bit. Rather than it just being part of his share of the household labor. We spent a long time talking about all this Friday night, after I had a minor meltdown. In the end, we decided to make two changes: a) at the end of the day, before he goes to bed, it's now his job to get the sink clear of dishes and clean, so I have a nice clean sink to start the day with when I get up with baby, and b) he's going to handle our food every other week -- getting the groceries, planning the meals, cooking. We'll see how it goes. I'm guessing he'll forget the sink on occasional nights, which is not a big deal. What's less clear is how much of a burden this will feel like to him -- how much of his work/personal time it seems like it's stealing away. Hopefully, not so much.

Because in the end, I think for us at least, it really isn't about a strictly even distribution of labor -- it's about finding ways to divide the labor in ways that feel fair to both of us, that take into account how much each of us likes or hates to do each particular task. My feminist side is a little nervous about that logic, but I think it's okay. What do you think?

If you're in a live-in relationship, how do you divide up the household labor? (And I think just roommates shouldn't count, because then you get to skip all the actually loving the other person and wanting them to be happy dynamics of the issue.)

It'd be interesting also to hear from those in same-sex relationships, whether they have similar issues. Studies show that men consistently over-estimate how much housework they actually do (which doesn't surprise me!), but it does make me wonder whether lesbians, for example, just don't have to deal with these issues as much as heterosexual couples. Would also be interesting to hear from stay-at-home dads, for similar reasons.

As a final note, I should say that I think Kevin does far more than many men I know -- he should get some credit for that. He does ten times more than either his father or mine did, with their stay-at-home wives. So I want to acknowledge the difficulty for men of changing these patterns that they grew up with, and that are still so socially reinforced. It can't be easy to get up and do the work, when on some deep level both you and the woman in your life believe that it really is her job to do the housework...

27 thoughts on “So the question is,…”

  1. Hi Mary Anne! Naomi from Clean Sheets days here.

    “God, if he’d just done this last night, I could be writing a story right now.”

    This rang a bell with me. I live with a man, and I need time for writing. My partner is willing to do household work. The problem is that he leaves most of his work at the office, plus he has a time-consuming commute. I have a lot of unscheduled time but a lot that needs doing during it. In his perception, though, I have much more free time than he does. So there is this sense that I have more time for housework– gender roles aside, and they are part of this too, no doubt. We could go round and round about what/how much each of us should be doing; approached that way, I don’t see a satisfactory end to it for us. Any system we come up with will collapse under new contingencies. It has worked better for me to say, “I need x amount of time for writing, period.” Housework comes after that and whatever doesn’t get done, just doesn’t. It’s sort of like saving money. When I used to simply try to cut back, I never wound up with more at the end of the month, so now I put the money aside for savings first. In both cases, it can be really hard to eke out what’s left, but you’ve already got it portioned, so you deal with it.

    For what it’s worth, I can sound rather breezy about this because I don’t have children. It may be useless for you at the moment. There are a lot more things you can’t just leave hanging.

    Congratulations on your daughter, by the way!

  2. Mary Anne Mohanraj

    Yes, I should have noted that part of all this is the question of how much we both care about different parts of the housework. There is in theory, a lot that could just be let go — do the baby and the teaching prep and the writing first, as you say. But in practice, if I’m working at home, I find it incredibly difficult to work in a messy house — and my standards of messy are different (mostly higher) than Kevin’s. Which complicates the problem.

    I say I want to write, he says to go ahead and write, he has the baby, and I say but we haven’t done the dishes in three days and it really has to get done now or I will scream. Which he really doesn’t get, on a fundamental level! I’m not claiming my response is any more rational than his — it’s probably less so. But what can you do?

  3. Mary Anne Mohanraj

    Heh. There’s always that option, but it actually costs about $100 to clean our whole house (not even counting laundry and dishes, it’s 5-6 hrs of work, at $17.50/hr in Chicago, plus tip), which frankly would be way beyond our budget to do weekly. We could maybe manage it monthly, but that doesn’t address the day-to-day upkeep issues, which are the real problem.

    It’s the 1-3 hrs/day of maintenance housework that we need to get done between us (which includes grocery shopping, errand running, cooking dinner and assorted other things that we can’t easily outsource, not unless we could afford and wanted to go the route of having a full-time personal assistant — which would be silly, since we don’t need that much help). And even just looking at cleaning, even if we could afford to bring someone in weekly, letting the mess pile up through the week isn’t an acceptable option for me. And while Kevin can tolerate mess better than I can, I don’t think he’d really appreciate living with it either.

    I *will* say that hiring help is a typically male answer to the issue — when I talk with female friends about it, most often, that’s their male partners’ initial response to the problem. Which is interesting. 🙂

  4. Division of labor is an ongoing, on and off feud in my house. With us, I think he feels more entitled to his personal (non-work) time than I do, and so I end up taking more initiative and doing the housework during my personal time. And part of me thinks this is OK because he makes more money and is farther along in his career than I am. (I know how that sounds, but we’re not perfect.)

    Another difference is that he perceives a dirty house in isolated incidents (the counters are dirty, there are dustballs on the stairs, etc.) and forgets about them as soon as he moves away from the area and lives a merry home life. I recall every offending area, and a list accumulates in my head and I feel discontent.

    What doesn’t work with us is the traditional division of tasks between us (his jobs, my jobs). He just doesn’t have the time management skills to remember to do something weekly/daily/etc. and he feels nagged if I remind him.

    So, what I find works for us if we go halfsies on areas of the house. We make a mutual decision that the bathroom is grody, and I’ll do the showers and he’ll do the toilet and sinks. I’ll weed the garden and he mows the lawn. I’ll vacuum the downstairs and he’ll vacuum the upstairs. This goes down to the daily tasks: if one of us feeds the cats, the other one cleans the litter box.

    This seems to work because he doesn’t feel nagged because we’re doing it together, and I feel better because I don’t feel like I had to clean this whole quadrant of the house myself. He’s more agreeable to doing a chore if he feels like he’s helping me, rather than me giving him a list and bossing him around.

    It’s not a perfect system by any means, but we fight less about it this way than we did before.

  5. Hmm… i have a similar problem. A male partner who offers to hire help and wouldn’t mind the mess. Additionally complicated by the fact that i work from home, can’t function when the house is messy, and MAKE LESS THAN 1/10 of my partner’s income.

    We have a new baby, which means lots more work and periods of relative idleness (breastfeeding/playing with baby) and a sense of lacking accomplishment and purpose. Doesn’t help that i’m, upbraided periodically (by partner as well as my own parents) for not finishing my ph.d, applying for academic jobs, making more money.

    I sound so depressed, i’d better go anon with this commment :). And i’d better come to my point which is how much does your partner’s income level figure into these discussions? Do we all deserve time for our own even if we aren’t earning equally?

  6. Of course most guys go straight to “hire help”. How many guys actually care how clean the house is? 🙂

    But, also, if a guy’s argument for why he should do less housework is that he’s too busy working outside the home, then it only makes sense for some of that outside-the-home income to go toward housework. Either that, or he needs to work less. (Not that the US makes that easy to do.)

    If you have two people, with two different ideas of how clean the house has to be for you to be comfortable in it, and the operating principle is “clean until you’re happy with it”, then one of you is bound to do what feels like an unfair share of the work.

    It sounds to me like you both need to think about what your priorities are — both in terms of how clean you need the house to be and how happy you want the other person to be. If you need a cleaner house and you need to do less housework, then maybe Kevin needs to do more work for that to happen. Maybe that in itself will make him unhappy, but then maybe making you happier will make him happy, so….

    I don’t think there’s really any “should” about it, morally speaking. It’s just a simple* question of where the equilibrium points are on your preference curves, and which makes everyone the happiest / least unhappy.

    * Kidding! It’s not simple. 🙁

  7. It’s a tough issue, and I don’t have answers. But here are a couple of thoughts:

    1. I don’t know if this is relevant, but in my experience, some people (usually but not always male) have a much higher mess tolerance than other people (usually but not always female). I look around at my room (which these days is perpetually in a state that my father would have called “a pig sty,” though at least now my chair isn’t covered with unfolded laundry), and the level of mess sorta kinda mildly bugs me, but not enough to do anything about it. Whereas many of my friends would find my room intolerably messy. Likewise, I quite often go a week or more without doing dishes, and I don’t even really notice until I run out of clean ones. Unfortunately, when that mismatch of messiness tolerance exists, the person who cares more will often end up being the one to do most of the work, just because at a gut level the other person doesn’t really see it as an issue.

    2. This isn’t directly related, but I think it’s intertwined: As we’ve discussed in past situations, I think in our society, by and large, men are socialized to not clean up (after a meal, for example), and women are socialized to clean up. And even when men do have the “clean up after a meal” impulse, it often doesn’t kick in until significantly later than it does for women–a lot of women I know start getting antsy if there are used dishes on the table five minutes after everyone’s stopped eating. And this dynamic is so pervasive and so unremarked most of the time that I didn’t even notice it until you pointed it out at one of the SH workshops. Since then, I’ve been making an effort to remember, to be one of the people who picks up the dirty plates after a meal and takes them to the kitchen, but it’s still far from automatic for me. So I think one piece of all this is that we as a society ought to start socializing our male kids to make cleaning up after dinner an ordinary and normal part of what they do, just as we apparently already do with our female kids. (At the same time, we as a society could probably stand to do a little less pushing of our female kids in that direction.) But that doesn’t help you and Kevin.

    3. I was struck by the question of fairness, because it reminded me of a fairly common poly question: if you have two or more partners, do you divide up your time equally among them? The answer that the poly community tends to give, in my experience, is that equal division of time isn’t important; what’s important is finding a division of time that works for everyone. If that turns out to mean that partner A gets four hours a week of your time while partner B gets forty, if everyone involved feels that that’s enough time, then the numerical difference doesn’t matter.

    Of course, if one or more of the people involved feel that equal division of time is an inherent requirement of fairness, then the distinction is irrelevant. But my point here is that I agree with you that the goal should be to divide in a way that feels fair, rather than requiring strict half-and-half. And although that may result in somewhat politically unfortunate results, I think there comes a time when it’s worth compromising political goals (while being aware that you’re doing so) in favor of being able to live happily together.

  8. Ahhhh I’m not surprised there are so many comments on this topic!

    I, too, find this to be similar to the situation here at my home, which is made up of myself, my DH, Ken (yes we’re really Barbie and Ken!), and our two beautiful Balinese cats (our fur-children).

    Ken is retired, on a fixed but better-than-nothing pension, and I’m doing my dangdest to create an income from home through my writing. It’s what I truly want to do, but had hoped to build up some savings before diving into it full-time.

    I’ve been thrown into this by a series of life events: My recently-widowed elderly mother requiring a lot of care; both of my own ankles being injured (one sprained, one fractured); and now my husband’s care.

    Our household duties have shifted like the wind and tide, according to the current demands.

    In 2003, after I broke both arms falling down a flight of stairs, Kenny jumped right in and did Everything(!). As I’ve become stronger, I do what I can (amazing how long it takes to regain strength and dexterity).

    On Dec. 20, Kenny had a massive heart attack, and now I find myself struggling to do everything while he recovers.

    Under “normal” circumstances, I’d do most of the cooking, he’d clean the kitchen. (we have a dishwasher, so one of us loads, the other unloads)

    We’d share doing the laundry (one loads, one empties, hangs and folds).

    One of us would dust and the other vacuum (we swap this out when I discover he’s cut too many corners on the dusting).

    The litterbox usually falls upon me to do, but once in a while he’ll surprise me and take care of it.

    Personally, I think men should be responsible for cleaning the toilet since it’s primarily their.. shall I call them.. drippings?.. that run down the front of the bowl and are just SO gross to clean.

    However, I haven’t gotten him to agree that these are actually of his doing (the cats ate the only other males here, and I swear they only use the litter box!), so I clean the toilet but have him scrub out the tub & shower upon my request.

    And yes, I hate to ask for help, because it makes me feel like I “owe,” even though he doesn’t usually worry about it.

    Part of me feels that since I’m still having to work for my income, that theoretically, he should show support by making it easier for me to accomplish my work.. hence.. keep the housework done.. but guys look at the house differently than women do.

    I’m not male-bashing here.. I actually asked him about this and here are the results:
    A man will consider the house “dirty” if there is actual dirt involved.
    A woman equates “dirty” with clutter and things out of place.

    We exchanged our perceptions and I explained that I cannot think/function in a cluttered environment, and my work requires that I think/function, and I asked if he could please help me with this. He shrugged and said,”ok.” It was a bit anti-climatic.

    There are also different types of clutter. The “OK” type that I create whenever I work on a writing project (piles of clippings, books, magazines, maps, etc that are elemental to my project), and the “not OK” type that includes junk mail, boxes and innards leftover from shipped items received, old receipts and dirty laundry lying about. He’s still a little confused about this, so I try to tell him when a “mess” is an “okay” one.

    So far (we’ve been together for 6 yrs, married for 4), he’s done pretty well. He makes a small pile of his laundry, he loads and starts the dishwasher, he tears down the boxes, takes out the trash, mows the lawn and honestly does more laundry than I do.

    The only thing he misses are the lids of the pots that never seem to get loaded in the dishwasher, and the spatters on the stovetop, which I methodically clean every night just before retiring.

    So I’d say that I’m genuinely lucky. We’ve found that if we do some of the chores together (folding laundry, vacuum/dust) that it feels less like it’s “his” or “her” chore to do.

    It will be a while before we share the duties again, but maybe I can slip those pot lids back in while the “re-training” is going on!

  9. I can relate to this situation on many levels and its a problem I’ve encountered in both same sex and heterosexual relationships. My solution at this point is to hire help because I don’t care to do housekeeping either. I did this when I was in graduate school and we were making $36,000/yr combined and I do it now that we make considerably more. I’d rather forego a few DVDs a monthh for the cleaning ladies who come every other week and keep the relationship between my boyfriend and I civil. It doesn’t take away all the things that need to be done around the house but its an immense help to both of us.

  10. Interesting problem. I’m female but I have a higher tolerance than most. And admit that my reaction to the “I can’t work when the dishes are in the sink” sounds like excuse-making. Close the door to the kitchen and WORK. If you had an office outside the home and you had to leave, you’d leave. Put on some “work” clothes, pack up a lunch or a thermos of tea, close the door as if you had to commute 10 miles, and forget about it!

    Still, some ideas: I think it helps to figure out what I have a tolerance for: my work desk and the related room needs to be uncluttered, but I have found ways to hide dirty dishes. I separate out the laundry that I run out of most quickly so that I can do that without doing everything. It also helps to put the housework on auto-pilot, find ways to meditate or think about stories at the same time. Also, simplify like a fiend: minimizing grocery runs, separating lights/darks as they’re created, cooking simple things and/or bulk…

  11. Mary Anne Mohanraj

    Stacy and Barbie, I agree that the chores are much easier to do and less grumble-making if we do them together — unfortunately, with the baby’s not-sleeping, we’re on a pretty split schedule these days. I get up around 4 a.m. and go to bed around 9 p.m.; Kev gets up around 10 a.m. and goes to be around 2 p.m. So we don’t have a lot of overlapping time in which to do chores — when we’re both awake, one of us has the baby while the other one eats or showers or does chores on their own… Hopefully once she starts sleeping through the night (which Kevin swears she will do someday, though I have my doubts), we’ll have more overlapping time together, and then yes, I think doing more clean-up together will help.

    Although there’s still the issue that I have to initiate most of the joint clean-up, and even though he agrees to do it, that little quiet resentment thing sometimes comes into play, especially if he’s in the middle of working (or playing a computer game :-).

    Anon 7 — the division of money is very real, and I think most couples take that into account. (Which is especially difficult if the one who brings in more money actually enjoys his work, while the other one is unhappy and frustrated with their work-state — you end up not having any financial leverage for wanting more time to yourself, other than the happiness argument.) That’s part of what makes it complicated for us — this year, Kev’s making a little more than me, but not too much more, so it feels easier to demand an equal division of other labor. But it’ll be interesting next year — if things go as planned, I’ll be making half what he does for my teaching, and I’ll have about half as much teaching/admin work to do. So it’d seem reasonable that I take on a lot more housework — EXCEPT that we both want to do lots more possibly unpaid work. He’d like to spend a lot more time researching math (which might or might not lead to more academic papers, which might or might not eventually lead to a higher paying job if we wanted to move). I’d like to spend a lot more time writing, which might or might not lead to publications / money. So we both try pretty hard to protect the time needed for our satisfying creative work, and since that time is infinitely expandable, it does make the arguments complicated. In the end, I think the only dynamic that works here is to balance the actual financial needs of the family with both of your respective happinesses…which does assume that you have a good relationship, communicate well, are listening to each other, and care enough to make voluntary sacrifices to make the other person happier. It’s tough.

    David — the problem with the solution you offer is that a) we really don’t have much outside income to spare, and b) even if we did, both of *want* to work more. Rather desperately, in fact, because we love our work. So it’s not really a matter of trying to get necessary work done — we could do a minimum of real work and keep our jobs. It’s that we both feel like we’d like to spend lots more time doing our work (which won’t necessarily bring in any more money), and then we resent housework that keeps us from it. Does that make sense? This may be a problem that only comes up for those in fields like ours, where you can do tons and tons and tons of work for no guaranteed financial reward! 🙂

    And both David and Jed said that there isn’t any ‘should’ about it morally speaking, that we should just balance happiness. And that works on a practical level for any given couple, yes. But it does trouble me when the net result is that across the board, on average, women spend an extra 10 hrs a week (I made that number up) on what they perceive as necessary housework. Maybe they’re wrong about what’s necessary — maybe women have been conditioned to think more cleanness is needed than actually is. But maybe it really is the other way around, that men just aren’t trained to see and recognize the number of small necessary tasks that go into a clean and smooth-running home (especially one with kids). And that’s problematic, on a social level; it’s culturally-institutionalized sexism, that makes it harder for women to succeed in their careers, or take leisure time for their own peace and sanity. I hate feeling like I’m contributing to that.

    I suppose one could make a big chart, write down everything you both do housework-wise for a week, and then have a big conversation about which parts were actually valuable to the family, and worth prioritizing. But the effort of doing that sounds exhausting. 🙁

    And anon-12, I had to laugh when I read your post, because essentially I agree with it — but I can’t do it. Because we have a big open floor plan on the first floor — living room / kitchen / dining room is all one big room. So there’s no door to close! If I’m on this floor, I’m aware of the mess anywhere on the floor. And between 4-9 in the morning, that’s where I have to be, because Kev is sleeping and I’m keeping an eye on baby. If the room is clean and she’s in a good mood, playing quietly by herself, I can get 2-3 hours of writing done then. But if it isn’t clean — well, then I almost always end up cleaning instead of writing, because I can’t shut off the part of my brain that’s noticing the mess. Maybe that’s just a little OCD of me, I don’t know! 🙂 I’m already pretty hyper-efficient and organized, so the housework processes are already seriously streamlined; I agree that if they weren’t, that would be a good place to start. For example, we mostly order our groceries to be delivered, which costs a bit more, but saves about two hours per week. That trade-off is worth it to us.

    Thanks for all the comments, everyone. So far, Kevin’s night-time dishes doing is holding up, and it’s lovely. 🙂 I’m much happier about the division of labor. It takes so little to please me…

  12. I’m really enjoying the gender discussion and I would add more but I’m working while Ed has Max so I don’t want to take the time. Here’s one thing we did as a PRACTICAL suggestion:

    We made a chore chooser. On an index card is a job. You take one out after dinner and do it. The jobs are designed to be small ones that take about 10-15 minutes but need to be done–vacuuming the living room, cleaning the counters, etc. There are jobs set out for Brynnen, our 6 year old, so that everyone gets a job (though her pink index cards also include things like “help Mama” and “free night”, because after all, she’s a child). Everyone puts in their time and the jobs get done (with three people, it gets three jobs done and no one spends too much time). You don’t get to pick your job (though trading is permissible). These are jobs that only need doing every couple of days (on the whole) so they go out of rotation until the cup is empty.
    We don’t put in our regular work–dishes, laundry, and cooking/grocery shopping–because we happen to be happy with the division of labor there. (Also, these often take more than 15 min.) But I don’t see any reason why you couldn’t add them (“do one load of laundry, start to finish”, “Swiffer the floors downstairs”, etc.). You could set it up so that you had to do 2 or 3 over the day.

    There isn’t a great solution to the issue except we try to encourage that everyone is a good citizen of the household and the house only works if we all pitch in. When M. is old enough, we’ll add him to the mix. (From the photos of your house, we undoubtedly also have a higher mess tolerance…)Good luck.

  13. But maybe it really is the other way around, that men just aren’t trained to see and recognize the number of small necessary tasks that go into a clean and smooth-running home (especially one with kids).

    You’ve got me on the kids. But are you sure that specifying that the home be “clean and smooth-running” isn’t just the conditioning question all over again? A generation or two ago it might have been arguable that men just don’t know anything about housekeeping, but in a generation where people of every gender often live alone for years at a time, I don’t think it holds up.

    FWIW, it wasn’t until after my parents were divorced that I discovered my father was the neat one and my mother was the messy one. From what I can tell, Dad’s major secret seems to be to put things away (or put dishes in the dishwasher, or make the bed, or what have you) immediately when he’s done with them. (He credits his time in the Navy.) Unfortunately, I’ve inherited Mom’s tendency to leave dishes in the sink and books and papers piled wherever they happen to be when I get distracted.

  14. Ok, just have to add my 2 cents here, because I’m not the typical women in this respect. When I was a child, I was infuriated by watching the way chores were divided (especially at large family holiday gatherings) — the men watched football while the women cooked, and then went back to the game after dinner while the women cleaned. I vowed never to be stuck in the kitchen while my husband lolled about, and I ended up married to a man who does nearly every kitchen-related chore we have. He also has a lower tolerance for clutter than I do, (though we both have a relatively high tolerance compared to some folks), so he ends up being the one to initiate clean-up most of the time.

    I do, eventually, notice mess and make a sweeping effort to sort/ organize occasionally, and in some areas I notice more frequently than Tim does (the surfaces in the bathroom other than the floor is the only thing that springs to mind). But, for the most part, we’re the opposite of “most het couples” here. I’d even say he probably does more chores than I do — esp. right after my c-section, when he did *everything*, even once he returned to work full-time (which meant he’d come home and do chores for 1-2 hours right after work every day).

    I don’t know why we’re like this — it might be my childhood feminist vows and the fact that Tim was raised mostly by women — but I thought I’d chime in here.

    Then there’s people’s (almost universally disapproving, when they notice) reaction to being a woman who doesn’t automatically clean-up right after dinner, but that’s really a different, though related, issue. But I will say that it annoys me that Tim gets high praise for something that I’m looked down upon for not doing automatically. Hrmph!

  15. Heather’s comment reminds me to mention that my father did quite a bit of cooking and cleaning when I was a kid, both during the five years when my mother was ill and after she died. Not sure whether he did a lot of chores before then.

    …I was going to say more about my father and his relationship to housework, but then realized it was exactly the kind of thing I keep meaning to post in my blog about him, so I’ve now posted over there: “Hobby is doing dishes.”

    …One other thing occurs to me on this general topic, sparked by something Heather said: people’s cleaning styles can also be at odds. For example, back when I was involved with Beth, I washed dishes at her place a couple of times, but I didn’t wash them the way that she wanted them washed (iIrc, I washed each one individually instead of filling the sink with water and washing them in that), and eventually the tension over this got to the point that (by mutual agreement) I just stopped doing dishes at her place.

    Relatedly, I think one reason that I’m slow to do housework is that I can get kinda perfectionist about it. If I’m going to do dishes, I want them to be really clean afterward, with no grease smudges or fingerprints; if I’m going to clean the stove, I want it to be clean even in the parts I can’t see. In my experience, a lot of people who have low mess tolerance also don’t care too much about doing a deep cleaning–the surface appearance of general cleanliness is the important thing to them. Sometimes friends of mine have washed some dishes by hand at my place and then put them away with grease smudges all over them; that achieves the goal of getting the dishes off the counter, but I always end up re-washing them to remove the smudges. (But now I have a dishwasher, so this happens less often.)

    And the chore of “cleaning the stove” can sound to some people like a one-minute job (just wipe a sponge over the top, scrubbing a bit at anything that sticks), but to me it’s a much bigger deal, involving removing burners and such, so I’m more reluctant to start on it.

    …I should add that this is a continuum, not a binary; I tend to be too lazy to do the really deep cleaning, like lifting the whole stovetop off and getting anything that’s fallen under it, or steam-cleaning the carpet.

  16. In my household, I went with the maid method. It is the best money I have ever spent. My husband on the other hand, did not agree with the maid initially. He said, “I forbid you to get a maid”. At that point, I had the maid here the next day. During the week, the daily chores still pile up, but just having everything “clean” makes a difference in my stress level. I know have eight more hours of free time because I am not spending that time deep cleaning my house. I highly recommend budgeting for maid service. I would rather not go out to dinner one night just so my home can be sparkling clean by another person.

  17. Mary Anne Mohanraj

    Fran, I like the chore chooser! I think when Kavi’s a bit older, we may try it.

    Various people keep mentioning maids, and I agree that in general, they are well worth considering, but I will state once more that our budget is currently max-ed out on the maid front; we can’t comfortably move money from anywhere else right now. Thank you for your suggestions, but we are looking for non-maid options at the present time. 🙂

    David, the point you raise is interesting — Kevin does note that he lived alone and managed all his own chores then, so he claims that he is capable of keeping a home clean enough. But to be honest, if I had to live with the level of neatness that was sufficient for him (I’ve seen how he lived when he lived alone), I don’t think I could live with him. We would own apartments next door to each other and visit. 🙂 Maybe it’s just conditioning — I don’t know, that defines what is a necessary level of cleanness. But….

    …a friend e-mailed me an excellent point that I am going to copy out wholesale for you all, on the family front:

    “Degree of cleanliness is more of choice before kids than after. You can’t leave a bunch of baby-choking, trip-inducing stuff around with a baby. You can’t leave spills. You have to keep everything relatively clean to decrease illnesses. How are you going to feel if you haven’t cleaned well and your baby gets food poisoning? Or slips and knocks out her tooth because you couldn’t be bothered to clean up some paper from the floor? The degree of cleanliness simply increases once you have a baby, particularly once they start on food and are mobile. You’ve already recognized this, I think, but I think the time-committment will continue to increase for a number of reasons, the most important being that mobile food-eating kids make terrible messes constantly. As my much-honored and so-far-always-right pediatrician has said, a toddler’s job is to explore, get things out and destroy the house. Your job is to cope and keep things safe.”

    She also noted that no one had brought up ‘dealing with the finances’ as something that one should get credit for — I do count that as part of the household labor, and Kevin does get credit for doing all of it, since I hate it so much. But I don’t think it takes nearly as much time for us, on a day-to-day basis, as other chores, like laundry. I could be wrong, since he does most of it in the middle of the night when I’m asleep. I should ask him how many hours a month he spends on it.

    Also, for those with houses and yards, we should note that many men take on most of the outside work, as well as most of the repair work, which I think can help balance the housework. This is not true for us, though; I think I do about as much outside work as Kevin, ditto household repair. I kind of like it — assembling a piece of furniture or hauling around a lot of garden pots is a nice change from dishes! Though I do make him come do things that require a lot of upper body strength because my arms and hands are pitifully weak. More so than most womens’! 🙁

    Heather, I’m glad you chimed in, because of course, it’s not a strict male/female division — there’s a lot of individual personality in this. But I do think there are some broad trends here. You and Tim are just fabulous exceptions to the general rule. 🙂

    And Jed, your deep cleaning point is interesting. I have to admit, it drives me a little crazy watching you do dishes, because you are so slow! And yes, the dishes are absolutely spotless at the end, but I don’t actually care whether they’re shiny clean spotless — I just want them clean enough to eat off of. Which I guess is another matter of degree and personal comfort/taste. 🙂 It drives Kevin crazy when the dishwasher doesn’t get all the crud off a plate, for example, whereas I figure, ‘eh, whatever’s still stuck on there, it’s sterile now’ and just put the plate back on the shelf. Unless he’s watching. In which case it soaks for a while and then gets scrubbed or goes back in the dishwasher. 🙂 I do like things to get deep cleaned, but that’s more of an once-a-month thing, not a daily maintenance thing. My mother would disagree.

    (My solution with Jed is to walk away and not actually watch him doing the dishes. I go do something else, and then the dishes are done when I come back, and I don’t notice how long it took him. 🙂

  18. Mary Anne Mohanraj

    One more note — my friend wrote that reading these comments “she was mentally assigning age/economic/family status to each person” It would be really interesting, I agree, to have that info, to put all the above comments in context. So if you feel like volunteering some or all of that info, please do. 🙂

    I.e., I’m 36, and Kevin is 37. We have a seven-month-old daughter and a dog that sheds a fair bit, occasionally throws up on the carpet, and needs periodic walks and poop pick-up. We both work, but his job is full-time, and mine is more complex than that — very part-time the next couple of months, then full-time for a few more months, then we’re both ‘off’ for the summer, though we’re still supposed to be researching/writing then, etc. We don’t have a lot of extra cash for hiring help (and if we do hire help, we prioritize babysitting over cleaning, for the sake of our sanity).

  19. Your friend wrote:

    The degree of cleanliness simply increases once you have a baby

    I’m surprised to hear that. With about two or three exceptions, my experience (observing friends who have kids) has been the opposite: it seems to me that even people who used to care a lot about keeping the place neat and clean tend to greatly relax their standards within a few months after kids arrive on the scene.

    At any given moment in most of the households I’ve seen that have infants or toddlers, chances are good that there will be toys scattered all over the house, that there’ll be a bunch of dishes sitting around unwashed, that there’ll be quite a bit of dirty laundry, and that various liquids and solids will have spilled all over stuff; and the parents tend to take it in stride. There are usually clean-up times, and periods when everything’s pretty much in place, but it hasn’t at all been my experience that most parents try to keep the place cleaner than it was before kids. More kid-safe, yes; cleaner and less messy, no.

    And I don’t think I’ve ever seen parents (after the first couple of months, anyway) worry that spilled food will result in food poisoning, or that a piece of paper lying around will result in injury.

    So, those of you who are parents, what do you think? My external observations may be skewed. Do you try to ensure that the place is spotless specifically so that your kids won’t be harmed?

    …Unrelated, re dishes: yeah, I’m with Kevin re dishwasher crud. And re hand-washing, I agree that it’s a personal comfort/taste thing; to me, grease stains and fingerprints on dishes automatically make them not clean enough to eat off of, and in fact make them kind of gross. I’m always a little bit shocked when friends of mine put away my dishes in states that appear obviously dirty to me, but I try to remind myself that different people have different standards for this stuff.

  20. We’re 28 & 29. Upper middle class. Right now, he works full-time at home and outside, and I go to school part-time and work part-time; though, historically, we both worked full-time outside the house. He makes much more than I do. No kids, just cats. (I think they call us DINKs. 🙂

    Also, I wanted to add that we don’t necessarily do our 1/2s of the bathroom or kitchen at the same time. It usually begins with an off-the-cuff negotiation (“I’ll unload the dishwasher if you take out the garbage”) and then letting the other person decide when they’ll finish their 1/2 and agreeing to a time.

    The major flaw of regulating chores on such a micro-level is that you don’t really hit all areas at regular intervals, but I’ve learned to just let it go.

    I’m also a big believer of setting ourselves up for success, so I’m religious about donating/selling things we don’t need anymore (less stuff = less clutter) and planning meals that require a minimum of cookware (less dishes).

  21. Jed, I’m very similar to you in the “deep cleaning” respect. I remember back when I had roommates that I fooled one by how very very clean the kitchen was after the first time I cleaned it — she mistakenly thought I was a neat freak. But I just really like things to be super, shiny clean-clean after I clean them. When I get around to cleaning them.

    I notice dirt more often than Tim does, and far more often than I notice clutter. I think it’s a different thing, honestly. I don’t mind a cluttered tabletop, but crud on my dishes drives me batty (and yet, since I’m not the one washing them, I have to suck it up/ quietly slip the cruddy ones back in the “to do” pile). But I’m also too lazy a lot of the time to get started on the deep cleaning.

    One of the first chores I took back as I’m recovering from surgery is the laundry. Because, when one fucks up the laundry, they can permanently damage the clothes by not getting the stains out and then putting the still-stained item in the dryer (how is it not universally known that this will set a stain?). Or they can shrink one’s only comfy bra the same way. I am very, very picky about the way my laundry is done, and the once or twice I let Tim do it start to finish (even when he was doing it, I’d usually sort it into special piles or go downstairs to do the transfer from washer to drier) something like that happened. I think this is the same deep cleaning instinct/ method not the same as mine/ dirt vs. clutter issue. It just happens to be one area where I can’t be especially lazy about it *and* keep my clothes looking nice.

    (Note: the laundry thing was me trying to let my standards relax because we have a kid, but instead it eventually got me moving sooner than I probably should’ve after major abdominal surgery. It was the bras in the dryer that I couldn’t just let go. But, yeah, Jed, I think we have become generally more lax now that we have a kid, though we’ll see how we are once he starts moving around on his own.)

    On age/ economic/ family status: I’m almost 35, my husband is 31, we have a 2-month-old son and three cats in a one-bedroom apartment in Oakland, CA. We both work full-time, though I’m on maternity leave until mid-March. We both also write fiction in our spare time. I make more money at the dayjob than Tim does, but if you factor in his novel/ writing sales, he makes MUCH more than I do. I try to listen/ give him time to get his writing done, though I will note that he just writes WAY faster than I do/ can (and he gets started on it faster from a dead stop than I do). I can also go longer between “having” to get my fiction writing done, though we both eventually get itchy to do so in our own time. Sometimes, it’s hard to get him to leave me alone when I’m in a writing mood (he likes to talk to me/ distract me if I’m writing and he’s not), though it’ll be interesting to see how this dynamic changes now that we have the baby. Right now, I’m wanting to write, but it’s hard to demand time when his writing brings in so much money for the family and mine… mine takes a long time and gets more honorable mentions than lucrative sales 🙂 I’m trying to make myself write during baby’s daytime naps, but it seems as soon as I get Word open he wakes up.

  22. Mary Anne Mohanraj

    I think the kids/clean think must vary widely from household to household. At least so far here, I think our standards have actually stayed pretty constant — but Kavi is still mostly stationary. It’ll be interesting to see whether we feel the need to change that when she’s more mobile. Although really, we do pretty much clean up spills right away already, if in somewhat cursory fashion, so I think I’d expect that to continue. We *have* gotten pretty blase about what random fluids may have soaked into the couch/carpet/etc. in the time between spill and clean-up a few minutes later. Eventually, we’ll have to hire someone to come and seriously deep-clean everything, I think! 🙂

  23. I’m a “my floors should be cleaned weekly” person married to a “dust, what dust as long as all the stuff is in neat piles” person. He didn’t even own a vacuum cleaner when we met, so I knew what I was getting into. After a few years fighting about what was clean (me = scrubbing tub weekly, him = no piles on the kitchen counter), he looked at me and said, “we’re getting a cleaning service.” I fought it for a while, but it was the best thing we’ve done. And, I really appreciated it after our twins were born. The cleaners take care of the routine cleaning. THis gives me time to do the things that make me happy, like moving the couches to vacuum under them. Yes, it hurts the budget once in a while, but my husband says it’s better than sitting through marriage counseling to discuss why he won’t dust and I won’t stop piling the mail on the counter.

  24. You must check out the “Feminist Mistake” on this issue. The book overall has a major ax to grind, and much of it is very flawed, but the author’s personal take on the housework thing is great.

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