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Chores: a microcosm of a relationship April 16, 2012

Posted by mareserinitatis in career, family, feminism, food/cooking, homeschooling, societal commentary, work.
Tags: , , , ,

It’s been a busy week.  I’ve been meaning to respond to a post about chores over at Wandering Scientist, but haven’t had a chance until now. Still, I’ve been parsing it in my head quite a bit.  Here’s the gist of it:

Anyway, here is the scenario: Consider two couples, Janet + Steve and Joan + Tom. Both are dual career couples with a couple of kids. Both are genuinely loving couples. Janet and Joan both consider themselves feminists, and if asked, both Steve and Tom would say that they consider their partners to be their equals, and that they think men and women in general are equal. However, Janet and Steve have an equitable home arrangement, while Joan and Tom do not, and Joan is unhappy about this. Joan and Tom argue about it with some frequency, but the issue never resolves between them, leaving Joan quite frustrated. Janet and Steve argue about the chores from time to time, too- after all, chores basically suck and most people would rather be doing something else- but for some reason, their arguments resolve the issue at hand, and Janet is pretty happy about her home arrangement.

What do you think? Why can’t Joan and Tom resolve the chores issue, but Janet and Steve can? Is the different dynamic within these two couples due to a difference between Janet and Joan or a difference between Steve and Tom? Or is it something external to the couples? Or are there multiple differences at work? What might they be? For instance, do you think the amount of money that each partner makes plays a role?

This post struck a chord with me because at one point I was Joan but now I’m Janet.  Many of you know that I was married before and that it didn’t end well.  Part of that is because I didn’t like being Joan any more.

As much as the scenario says that Joan is in a loving, equitable relationship with her husband, I honestly don’t think that can really exist if there isn’t a satisfactory division of labor within the household.  My experience tells me that husbands who do not step up to help around the house really view their wives as inferiors: the man’s view of this is very ego-driven.  The work that needs to be done is below him, so the wife should do it.  I say this because if it’s important for it to be done, then why aren’t they pitching in and helping with it?  The answer is that they feel it’s not important enough for them to spend their time on it because their time is worth more than their wives’.  And if their wives keep putting up with it, it’s also not really a big deal to them, right?

Unfortunately, wives will very often buy into this.  Husband complains about something not being clean, and obviously she’s supposed to take care of it.  I don’t know how many of my friends have complained about this exact scenario.  What she should say is, “If you want it clean, you have two arms and a brain: put them to work.”  Instead she excuses the behavior and comes up with some excuse why he can’t do it…yet resents him the whole time.  And there we see the lack of communication: if you want him to do it, don’t give him the silent treatment…tell him to do it!  (Although I can tell you that asking nicely is always important…no matter who is doing the asking.)

I think a lot of women put up with it because the alternative seems a lot scarier: leaving the husband and doing it all on your own.  (And having done that, I can say it’s pretty rough.)  I’m sure a lot of women think it’s worth putting up with because they don’t feel (maybe rightly so) that they can handle that amount of work (although I suspect a lot of them won’t find that it’s THAT much more work).  I think a lot of them also don’t see it as a problem with the relationship, so it’s not worth leaving him over.  I don’t agree with that view, however, because I see this particular issue as a reflection of how the whole relationship operates.

So my opinion is this: he sees his role as worth more than her being less overwhelmed, and she won’t express how important it is to her or is too insecure to confront him.  Quite possibly, this is exactly what they observed in relationships when they were younger.  They are emulating that because they aren’t sure how to do it any differently or haven’t gotten sick enough of it to try.

To me, this is just a reflection that making decisions about household work has nothing to do with loving the spouse and more to do with how you view gender roles.  Women do x while men do y.  If you think a man can’t do x, then you are viewing your spouse through a gendered lens which is likely to override things like honest communication and caring in a relationship.  How many times does the spouse who refuses to help with work make a point of saying how much they appreciate the spouse who is?  Or do they just complain about things that aren’t done?  Do they ever offer to help out when it’s apparent the spouse who is ‘supposed’ to do the work doesn’t get it done?  My observation is that they don’t often appreciate the contribution of the spouse who is supposed to do the work, or if they do, they seldom vocalize such appreciation…or offer to help.  This is what wives are supposed to do, and there is seldom the question asked, “But is this right for OUR relationship?”  And if that question isn’t being asked about the housework, what about the other roles that each has?

Getting specific, we have a fairly inequitable division of labor (strictly in terms of housework) in our house right now, and I am the beneficiary of it.  I wasn’t always the beneficiary.  When my husband was doing his PhD, I was helping out a lot more than I do now.  I had a summer off between my BS and MS, and the house was completely spotless.  On the other hand, when I was prepping for my orals, my husband was driving down the Minneapolis and spent the weekend taking care of cleaning and laundry.  He still does that right now as he’s ‘only’ doing a full-time job, while I’m working part-time, working on a dissertation, and dealing with partial homeschooling and general running around of offspring.  And we’ve both gotten so overwhelmed that we had to hire a cleaner as well as expecting the older boy to help around the house much more.  (And, to be perfectly honest, our house is still not in good shape.)  We do it this way because, in terms of who has time when, it makes sense.

He has and probably always will make more money than me.  Significantly more.  And he has never once held that over my head nor used that as an excuse for why he couldn’t do something.  I therefore think it has nothing to do with money, although people use that to justify their position.

If it’s an equitable relationship, both parties will look at what needs to be done and try to make sure that the labor is divided evenly so that no one is too overwhelmed.  My husband has asked me to do the laundry when he’s had to be gone.  Okay…it’s not ‘his job’, but he usually does it.  And if he can’t, then I need to.  Likewise, if I can’t run a kid to the doctor, he needs to do it, even if that means taking time from work.  In an equitable relationship, the work isn’t necessarily based on roles.  Very often, it switches.  The idea of the relationship is to work together to help each other out.  Admittedly, we definitely prefer to do certain things.  I do most of the cooking (at least if we’re not grilling something), and he does the dishes. I hate dishes, and he doesn’t like to cook.  But he will cook if I’m busy, and I will do the dishes if he’s busy.

The last comment I have to make is that some couples do have different standards: my husband needs things to be a lot more neat than I do.  That’s one that can be very hard to communicate sensitively, but it’s important to know when you should just let it go.  Maybe having kids has helped both of us to deal with that better.  When we weren’t as swamped as we were now, we sat down and discussed things that the other person did or did not do that drove us crazy in regard to cleaning.  (I remember he didn’t like that I would put clothes in first and pour soap directly on them.  I quit doing that, but now we have a front loader and it’s a moot point.)  However, we’ve just learned to appreciate when the other has done something (like the laundry) and not worry so much about specifics (it didn’t get hung up right away and so has wrinkles). We don’t always go about our cleaning the same way, but we’ve come to just be happy that it gets done at all rather than done the way we want it done.  If we do it ourselves, then we have the option to do it a specific way, but otherwise it’s just best to appreciate that someone is willing to pitch in and reduce your personal stress level.



1. Miss MSE (@MissMSE) - April 16, 2012

My husband and I have discovered that we see completely different types of “mess”, and so we try and clean the aspects that bother us. He’s very bothered by clutter and disorder, which we call ‘stuff’ and I’m much more bothered by stains and dust, which we call ‘goo’. Sometimes I need him to deal with ‘stuff’ so I can tackle the ‘goo’, and as long as I phrase it that way, he doesn’t feel like I’m nagging him. We’ve agreed on this as a way to non-critically communicate: it’s not a statement that I’m upset about his failure to do something, it’s that I need his help to deal with the problem that bothers me. We also try to acknowledge that he has a much stronger smell-triggered gag reflex than I do, so most of the smelly jobs fall to me because they bother me less. So far, this system works for us, partly because it’s open for re-negotiation at any time.


2. nicoleandmaggie - April 16, 2012

Good points all!

@MissMSE– I’m definitely anti-goo and stuff not so much.


3. Link love « Grumpy rumblings of the untenured - April 21, 2012

[…] chores post, this by Cherish the […]


4. Cloud - April 21, 2012

Thanks for the link and the post! I caught some flak in the comments over at Laura Vanderkam’s post on this (http://lauravanderkam.com/2012/04/round-up-time-waste-deleting-email/) for saying that I’d leave my husband if he weren’t willing to pull his fair share of the work at home. I’m glad to know I’m not the only one who thinks this way!

It has been interesting reading everyone’s responses. I’m planning a follow up post summarizing what I learned,but I need some time to think before I write it.


5. wellheeled - April 21, 2012

My mother has always done more chores than my dad, I believe that is because my dad is, well, lazier than she is, and my mom is much more efficient at things that he is.

THAT said, I think as time has gone by she has learned to keep more time for herself and let things go. Once my dad looked over at the kitchen and said, honey, that window-sill is looking kind of grungy, isn’t it? And my mom looked at him with a big smile and said, yes it is! that’s so observant of you. thanks for offering to clean it.

And not a peep out of my dad after that.

I tried SO HARD not to burst out laughing.

In my current relationship, I’d say the chores are pretty even. My goal is to make enough money so we can outsource all the hated chores.


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