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January 08, 2008

Should Kevin do more housework?

man vacuuming

It's an ongoing debate in our household, the question of housework.  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...

Cross-posted to An Ongoing, Erratic Diary.

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