Why Are Women Still Responsible for Housekeeping?

Research and well-intentioned advice, be damned. As Maureen Halushak discovers, pressing for domestic parity can be a dirty war

FLARE's Maureen Halushak wonders why the burden of housekeeping still falls on her, not her husband

Photo by Theo Wenner/Trunk Archive

“Man, it stinks in here,” said my boyfriend, Jeremy, after walking into the room where we’d decided to keep the litter box. It had been three days since I’d decamped, two cats in tow, to this man cave from the neat-as-a-pin bachelorette pad I’d lived in for five years. We’d already argued over closet space and whether we would replace his 30-year-old, hand-me-down couch. While I like to think I’m okay with compromise (he kept the larger closet), there’s one thing I won’t budge on: cleanliness. So imagine my distress when—instead of scooping out the offending litter—he walked out of the room, returned with a scented candle, lit it…and then retreated to his threadbare blue sofa.

After the kitty-litter fail, I attempted to enforce regular Saturday morning cleaning sessions. They quickly devolved into hate-cleaning sessions: him accusing me of wasting our precious weekend time, and me wondering (out loud, regrettably) why I bothered asking for his help in the first place. In the midst of one such dust-fueled dust-up, Jeremy mentioned, accusatorily, that one of his friend’s girlfriends had started making him help clean the house, too. The 36-year- old man I loved had transformed into a sullen teenager, and I, his haggard nagging nag of a mom.

I’d always liked cleaning and the sense of accomplishment—and mental calm—it gave me. I also very much liked coming home to an apartment that remained exactly how I had left it (a few cat hairs notwithstanding). Now, not only was I doing more housework— Jeremy’s apartment was much bigger than my old one, and his domestic standards much lower— but the after-effects were fleeting.

A de-cluttered table would attract new debris overnight; a clean fridge would quickly fill up with another round of forgotten takeout containers. Despite the fact that this was by far the best relationship I’d ever had, within weeks of moving in together I started fantasizing about finding someone else—just like Jeremy, only neater.

In the trenches

Would battling over who does what be my relationship’s undoing? At times it certainly felt that way, especially after comparing notes with friends whose partners all seemed to do more around the house. Never mind griping to my 75-year-old mother, who unhelpfully maintains that “men shouldn’t clean.” Needless to say, my desire for domestic parity wasn’t genetic. Growing up, my home was neat, but not insanely so. My mother had always done all of the “women’s work,” both when my dad was alive and she was a stay-at-home mom, and after he passed away when I was 10 and she went back to work. I never offered to help, nor did she ask me to. Jeremy’s upbringing was similarly chore-free, and after leaving home he had the same laid-back guy roommate for nearly 15 years. (As per friendship lore, Jeremy famously declared on their move-in day that he “did not mop,” and held true to that assertion.) So while I could see why my demands might come as a shock to his system, I had absolutely no idea as to the origin of my type-A, neat-freak tendencies. Nevertheless, I was steadfast in my belief that any true soulmate would do his fair share to honour them, especially considering both of us were holding full-time jobs.

The research surrounding cleaning and coupledom—or at least, the research that most often grabs attention—is bleak. “Most marriages break down over mundane household chores,” read one dismal 2012 headline from The Telegraph, citing a survey conducted by a British law firm. Another 2012 study found that almost half of newly married couples started out sharing the day-to-day drudgery equally, but that “over the course of marriage, the husband’s contribution to housework declines significantly, mostly independent of spouses’ income or working hours.” Not good.

Even more troubling was another much-talked-about study, published last year, which found that Norwegian couples who equally shared the load had higher rates of divorce than those in which the women did the brunt of the chores. And research published earlier this year in the American Sociological Review found that couples who divvied up the housework more or less equitably had less sex—surely paving the road to divorce—than those who upheld more traditional gender roles.

Luckily, I wasn’t armed with those stats in the fall of 2009, when Jeremy and I moved in together. Three and a half years later, thanks to nothing more than my relentless nagging—and a few tears—we have fallen into a relatively pain-free routine. (In between all the cleaning and nagging, we also got married and, despite research to the contrary, continue to have sex.) During the week, I cook dinner and Jeremy cleans up, and—since he often works fewer hours than I do—he also handles day-to-day tidiness. We’ve hired cleaners who come in monthly for a complete overhaul; we also usually do one other major monthly clean together. Jeremy constantly stresses that he just wants me to be happy, and if it’s possible to achieve that sometimes-elusive outcome through regularly emptying the dishwasher, he’s all for it.

This isn’t to say either of us is completely reformed. Jeremy never, ever cleans the bathroom, and I’ve learned to be OK with this. And I can’t always stop myself from re-Windexing the kitchen counter minutes after he’s already done so, but now I usually wait until he’s out of the room. Am I 100 percent proud of how we got here? Perhaps not, but up to this point I’ve managed to sweep any concerns I may have underneath the (regularly vacuumed) living-room rug.

In the meantime, I’ve noticed that talking to other women about who does what at home is a surefire conversation starter—there is almost always griping—and the growing pile of chore-related research has me re-examining my methods. Are domestic affairs, and how we manage them, not at the root of all major relationship issues—where politics and the personal intersect?

The stalled revolution

The issue of gender roles comes up repeatedly in household research, with another recent study—this one published last December in the journal Qualitative Sociology—finding that in working-class households where women earn more than their partners, men may shirk housework as a means of maintaining “masculine privilege.” The website Buzzfeed responded with a post entitled “Female breadwinners still do most of the housework,” prompting women the world over to shake their fists in defeat, while simultaneously worrying that all of their thankless, pointless nagging had completely emasculated their partners. Or maybe that was just me.

Most recently, when Jeremy very sincerely informed me that he did not “have time to organize the napkin cupboard today, as requested,” I stopped in my tracks. There’s a photo of us from our first New Year’s together stuck to the fridge—directly under the napkin cupboard, actually—that I look at often. Would me, circa 2007, ever dream of making such a request? And would Jeremy, circa 2007, ever reply so politely? Clearly I had beaten the sullen teenager into submission, but at what cost?

After speaking with Amanda Miller, co-author of the masculine privilege study and assistant professor of sociology at the University of Indianapolis, I started to feel more optimistic. As it turns out, while it’s tempting to draw conclusions—believing, say, that the same findings should hold true across all socio-economic classes—that’s actually not the case.

“We did the exact same study with middle-class couples, and the results were not similar,” she tells me. “Instead, many more of the middle-class men are taking on an equal role in the household.” While masculine privilege is “strong and difficult to overcome,” says Miller, it seems that men who have four-year college degrees have different attitudes toward fairness and gender roles than men who don’t. (Another privilege, she notes, for their already-privileged partners.) “Working-class men have never had the kind of power in the workplace that middle-class men have, and they might be trying to exert that power at home,” she theorizes.

As for those other studies that seem to contradict the “happy wife, happy life” school of thought? Miller suggests this may be due to the fact that we’re in the midst of what she calls “a stalled gender revolution.”

“Women have gained a lot of equality in the workplace, but most men haven’t picked up the slack at home to make up for it,” she says. “These college-educated men, at least, seem to be doing a better job than most.” However, since many housework-related studies draw upon older, pre-existing data, this equality shift—largely from men in their 20s and 30s—may not yet be documented in some studies. (For instance, the data used in that discouraging study that found married men do progressively less housework over time was collected between 1988 to 2002.)

This is not to say men from my generation are taking on more of the housework without being asked. “There is some cultural aspect of becoming a husband and becoming a wife that puts a lot more pressure on women for the keeping of the household,” Miller says. In her own marriage, her husband was eager to help with the chores…once she told him what needed to be done. She also notes that “even when the division of household labour is equal, the responsibility falls upon the woman to make sure it stays equal.” When I confess to haranguing my husband into doing more around the house, she laughs and jokingly (I think) asks if “there’s any other way.” And so I begin to see my nagging in a new light: as the gasoline that fuelled my own stalled gender revolution. Sure, gas isn’t the cleanest fuel, but it does move the car.

At the end of our conversation, I ask Miller what advice she might have for fellow domestic warriors. For one, she suggests, have some sort of “formalized system in place,” be it a regularly scheduled cleaning day or even, harkening back to one’s multiple roommate days, a chore chart. She also suggests not getting entirely hung up on the numbers: “I don’t even know what a true 50-50 split would look like,” she says. “I’m a household researcher, and I would say [my husband and I] have a 55-45 split, but I don’t know what we would need to change to make things 50-50.”

But, most important of all, Miller says, is finding a partner whose attitudes about gender match your own—be they egalitarian or traditional. (If both you and your partner are OK with you doing the majority of the housework—as with my parents, who were happily married for nearly 30 years—then all the power to you.)

That advice is echoed by Sheryl Sandberg, a former vice-president at Google and current COO of Facebook, in her recently released female power manual, Lean In. “When it comes time to settle down, find someone who wants an equal partner…someone who values fairness and expects, or even better, wants to do his share in the home,” she writes. “If you want a 50-50 partnership, establish that pattern at the outset.” Sandberg has been criticized by some for her book’s simplistic, nice-girls-get-the-corner-office argument; and also for the fact that when requesting “success story” submissions from powerful women for the book’s companion website, she reportedly asked for only those with “positive endings.” So it’s no surprise that Lean In neglects to mention that establishing a 50-50 partnership may very well involve, say, semi-seriously threatening to stab your mate during an argument over who should have cleaned up last night’s dishes. (To be fair, I was chopping vegetables at the time.)

Sometimes a Swiffer is just a Swiffer

Most arguments over cleaning aren’t really about cleaning—usually there are some underlying issues that haven’t been addressed,” says Ashley Howe, a Toronto-based couple and family therapist. Much to my relief, she’s quick to say she’s never counselled a couple who split as the result of a straightforward disconnect over chores. (Toronto- based family lawyer Jonathan Kline echoes the idea that bickering over who cleaned the bathtub last, on its own, isn’t a sign to polish off your Match.com profile. Instead, he says, a habitual refusal to do chores— much like infidelity—stems from a much larger issue: inattention. Both Kline and Miller note that if one partner completely abandons his or her household chores, it’s a major red flag.)

In relaying my situation to Howe—I’m a clean freak, Jeremy is more laissez-faire, but we’ve hammered out a system—I realize that even though I consider our domestic issues to be largely solved, there are still lingering annoyances. For instance, I often feel like I’m Jeremy’s cheerleader, as he constantly seeks praise for doing what I simply consider to be his share of the work. In line with what Miller tells me, I remain the chore delegator (though, to his credit, Jeremy frequently asks me what he can do to help) and often, less attractively, the chore dictator. I (rightly) appreciate Jeremy’s willingness, though I (wrongly) resent his continued inability to read my mind.

Howe advises me to focus on the upside of Jeremy’s more laid-back personality. “Usually, what’s bothering you is never all bad or all good,” Howe says. “If he’s a pretty free spirit, what are you getting out of that trade?” Perhaps not hospital corners, but several of my closest friends have noticed I’ve been less tightly wound in the time we’ve been together, so I’ll take it.

Then I ask her if there’s anything I could have done differently to set the domestic tone. “Never say, ‘Can you help me with this?’ because you are implying that roles have already been created and the onus is on the other person,” Howe says. “Instead, it’s, ‘We have a life, and there are things that need to get done in our life that we’re sharing.’” And try to have this conversation when you’re both in a good mood, as opposed to when one of you is fuming over a perceived domestic transgression. Too late, times two.

Like Miller, she also recommends that newly cohabitating couples have a formal conversation about who does what. “You need to sort out what jobs need to be done, who is going to do them and how—and what is a success in that job,” she says. “You have to think of parts of a relationship as a business arrangement, because it does have to function.” 2011’s Spousonomics: Using Economics to Master Love, Marriage, and Dirty Dishes—one of the only readable relationship books I have come across—puts forth a similar idea, that one should think of their marriage in terms of economics, using the theory of comparative advantage, for instance, to divvy up chores. (Meaning that each partner should take on chores that they’re relatively better at, even if the final divide isn’t 50-50.) Truthfully, a formal, carved-in-stone chore chart seems too claustrophobic even for me—and that’s saying a lot. Instead, I’ve realized that I prefer our more fluid approach, despite the fact I’m always the one to dictate what needs to get done.

As for my I-can-do-it-better complex? It turns out this is an issue Howe has struggled with in her own relationship. “For me, I feel like there is a certain way to make the bed that will make me feel like the world is good,” she says. “That’s something I really had to work on with myself, asking, ‘Why is it that I’m this way?’ And I realized that making things look nice tells my brain and body that everything is under control.” (For a fleeting moment, I wonder if we should date.)

Owning up to one’s inner control freak is paramount. “You need to say, ‘This is my thing, and the world doesn’t need to have beds made like that,’” says Howe. “Then you need to determine what would be a version of success—that the bed is made exactly the way you make it, or that the person attempted to make it how you like?”

We end our conversation with one final game-changer: “Over 60 percent of issues in a relationship don’t get solved, they get managed,” Howe says. “You just need to figure out how to manage this.”

All’s Well That Ends Clean?

Based on the progress Jeremy and I have made—despite the constant harping that was my inadvisable approach to household equality, and even in the face conflicting studies—I’m optimistic about my relationship, and also the stalled gender revolution. Jeremy has done a 180 in terms of equally partaking in the household grunt work, which is especially admirable considering that he’d just as soon light a candle and call it a day if it weren’t for the fact that a clean house makes me happy. Maybe we are the generation of married couples who can successfully strike a 50-50 divide (or at least 55-45) on the home front. Of course, we don’t have children, but that’s another story.

These days, when we both have our sleeves rolled up on a Saturday morning, Swiffering in companionable silence, I think of another line from Sandberg’s book: that “sharing the burden of the mundane can make all the difference.”

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