Over the years, my husband and I have divided the domestic duties. I’m not sure it comes out perfectly even, but it seems to work. I cook, take care of the kids during the day and do most of the cleaning, while my husband handles laundry, fixing things around the house, and at night, he cleans up after I’ve made dinner…sort of.
Hours after dinner and the cleanup are done, I wander into the kitchen to find the counters and stovetop haven’t been wiped down. There might be a random cup or spoon still on the table and the odd crust of bread or a lemon wedge on the floor. Without fail, I’ll find the sink drain filled with the detritus of the meal and maybe an item left out on the counter that belongs in the fridge.
So, is my husband a jerk who thinks it’s my duty to finish off the cleaning? Or is it that he simply doesn’t share my standards (or, ahem, what he calls my obsessive compulsive disorder) of what a clean kitchen looks like? To him, the kitchen is clean when he is finished. To me, it’s not clean enough. This same scenario plays out in many areas of our domestic life—he helps out but I run the show when it comes to keeping our house in order.
Siobhan Freegard, who started NetMums, a British online parenting magazine, explored the gender distribution of domestic chores in an article for The Telegraph. She explained that her company tried to reach out to stay-at-home dads but found “all the research came back saying that even when women were going out to work and their partners were at home they were still making all the executive domestic decisions. They were still running the house. I do think that, to a certain extent, it is part of women’s nature. Or maybe it’s their nurture. Either way, they can never fully let go.”
Freegard accepts that women’s preferences explain why women are still primarily responsible for households. Yet, predictably, many mainstream and angst-filled feminists tend to distill this phenomenon to the same old tired excuse: sexism. One writer for The Atlantic dramatically called it, “the scourge of the female chore burden.” Even businesses have gotten in on the “poor mom” narrative with commercials featuring older dads doing a mea culpa to their daughters–who are now wives and mothers–for not setting a good example on sharing the load of housework (check out this tear jerker laundry commercial for an example).
Even more bizarre, Melinda Gates, one half of the philanthropic powerhouse Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, thinks this is an issue of grave concern to those living in the poorest nations. Gates calls this “time poverty” and she’s making it a feature of her philanthropic priorities. This seems an odd choice for the Gates Foundation, which usually focuses on the many life-and-death issues facing women in poorer nations, like women’s health, childhood vaccinations and other grave development and economic issues. One wonders if women who live in Angola, Afghanistan and Liberia–countries with the highest rates of infant mortality–or women living in Malawi or Niger–countries that have the highest rate of poverty– care about who does the dishes or the laundry. Gates actually went so far as to say, “Unless things change, girls today will spend hundreds of thousands more hours than boys doing unpaid work simply because society assumes it’s their responsibility.”po
That may be true. Certainly there are cultures where men are less willing to do any of the domestic chores. Yet these also tend to be nations where women are denied access to education, have limited ability to own property or marry whomever they choose. These women in developing nations still need a true feminist movement and champions of continued economic development that will bring women prospects for work outside the home, better healthcare, and greater opportunities and freedoms that so many in and the West take for granted. And, sure, then they can start complaining about men doing their share of the vacuuming.
As for women in the West, what’s lost in so many of these conversations is how men do contribute on the domestic front. While my husband seems incapable of wiping off a greasy stove, I haven’t taken the garbage out to the bin in years. I don’t change light bulbs. I haven’t worked on the car or climbed a ladder to clean out the gutters. When the sink backs up, my only job is to call my husband. I don’t kill bugs or shovel sidewalks after it snows. I wouldn’t know how to start the mower or the hedge trimmer. This is my husband’s job and I’m happy to take a back seat. Is my husband suffering from time poverty for these duties? And this of course overlooks that he works much longer hours than I do to earn enough money to support our family.
Rather than encouraging women to be bitter about housework, feminists should suggest alternative solutions like encouraging – heaven forbid – relaxing housekeeping standards so they are more in-line with your partner’s standards. And when it comes to women in developing countries, best to tackle larger issues like hunger, lack of job opportunities, and basic human rights—rather than foisting our First World concerns on them.