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Housework is WHOSE work?

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Catherine W. Idzerda
October 6, 2009
— A million zillion years ago, when the first two blobs of life crawled out of the primordial ooze, the female blob was already resentful.

She was tired of doing all the cleaning around the mud pit. After evolving all day, now she had to pick up his blob socks, find something for supper and vacuum the potato chip fragments from around his recliner, where he spent most of his time watching other single-cell organisms play golf on the television.


As for the male blob, he felt like he was doing OK, pitwork-wise. He certainly did more work that his father ever did. Besides, every time he made an effort, she was critical.


Eventually, household roles got sorted out and things went along more or less smoothly era after era.


And then … things got bad again.


"It's a general rule that for the majority of married couples, where both members of the couple are employed, the woman does more housework," said Autumn Behringer, assistant professor of sociology at UW-Rock County.


Women everywhere will read that and say, "Well, duh."


And men everywhere will read that, roll their eyes, and say, "Do we have to talk about this again?"


Yes, we do have to talk about it again.


And no, we can't have this conversation while you're watching television.


First, the facts

In a study published in 2007 in the Journal of Family Issues, researchers at the George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., and North Carolina State University found that men living with their girlfriends do more housework than married men.


When the couple is married, the amount of housework a woman does increases, as though the marriage license means a slip back into more traditional roles.


The study, which included 17,636 men and women in 28 countries, asked men and women to report how much of the housework they did.


In the United States, men's average was 37.3 percent, and woman's average was 70.6 percent.


Remember, that's self-reporting, meaning that both sexes gave an opinion about the amount of work they each did.


Now women everywhere are saying, "Ha! I knew it. They don't do as much housework, and they admit it!"


Now men everywhere are wishing for a succinct message about what they're supposed to be doing.


Guess what?


The men have just summed up the problem in a pleasing, golf ball-sized nutshell.


"In the past, when men became husbands, they knew what their roles were; when women became wives, they knew what their roles were," Behringer said. "Now we don't have a set definition."


Now crabby-pants of both genders are wondering why things had to change.


"Women's roles have evolved," Behringer said. "Women left the private domain to go into the public domain. It's a lot harder for men to go the other way."


The public domain has perks such as salaries, the respect of other people and status.


Work in the private domain is under appreciated, unpaid and not fun.


"They call them 'chores' for a reason," Behringer said. "Nobody likes cleaning toilets."


Raising children is valuable work and can be rewarding but—let's be honest—mothers and homemakers have never received the respect they deserve.


Less talking, more communicating

Let's get back to that moment, several paragraphs ago, when men had it right.


Because men's roles have changed so much, sometimes they find it difficult to know what's expected of them.


To add to that problem, women have higher standards of cleanliness.


In part, that's because culture tends to view the house as a reflection of the woman, Behringer said.


If the dishes are piled up in the sink, nobody wonders why the husband doesn't tidy up.


"Some women are unwilling to lower their standards," Behringer said. "It's why some women will not relinquish control of their households."


Now women everywhere are thinking, "He does a lousy job on purpose so he won't have to do it again."


Now men everywhere are thinking, "Yeah, why should I have to rinse the plates off completely before putting them in the dishwasher?"


Part of lowering standards—perhaps it would be better to say changing standards—is to keep the criticism to a minimum.


"Nobody likes to clean the countertops and then be told they missed a spot," Behringer said with a laugh.


Finally, parceling out household jobs shouldn't require a G8-style summit.


Women don't need to talk about the way the dirty countertop makes them feel—a simple and direct question is usually best, Behringer said.


Her formula for success?


Simple, calm, respect communication and compromise. No launching an attack, no pointing out the other person's deficiencies, despite how satisfying that might feel.



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