Household Tasks: Are Dads Doing Enough? When Is Enough Enough?
It’s any day of the week. My wife is dragging another bin of laundry in the door from the garage, and I’m charging through the hallway with a screwdriver. Moments later, my wife is holding the handle of a knob while I tighten it, and then I’m putting laundry away alongside of her. Moments after that, I’m cooking dinner while my wife puts dishes in the dishwasher. Later tonight, I’ll probably empty the dishwasher and she’ll load it again.
My wife and I never have conversations about the division of labor around the house. Things just get done. We both do things we dislike doing, and sometimes we kick and scream before putting our heads down and getting them done. I’m not trying to suggest that we’re great worker bees or that our house is always clean. But I’m suggesting that my wife and I are a great team and we love each other. And surprisingly, in this age of studies and stats, love goes a long way.
There’s been a lot of talk recently about a woman’s “second shift” as an extension of the “have it all” discussion that went on a couple of years ago. The 30-years-ago-old-world role of women was in the home, but women are still finding that after they come home from their jobs, they’re still doing more chores than their husbands. Fair enough. The numbers don’t lie, right?
Scott Behson (who we liked, so we put a ring on him) drew up a great counterpoint for the great house chore divide, noting that one popular study “only includes meal preparation, cleaning, laundry, child care, grocery shopping, and bill paying in its categorization of ‘household chores’”. The study doesn’t take into account, Behson says, things like shoveling snow, mowing the lawn, fixing clogged toilets, painting, grouting, doing taxes, working on the family’s car and fixing pipes.
“The big problem is that ‘definitive’ studies like ATUS and PSID emphasize tasks that are typically performed more by women as ‘household chores’, while either minimizing or excluding more typical men’s chores,” says Behson. Oh snap! Coincidentally, Behson was named in a “Who’s Who in Work-Family Research” by the Sloan Work-Family Research Network.
As well, another dad blogger, Kenny Bodanis, wrote a response to a study that found that “sharing child caregiving may increase parental conflict.” Or, in other words, if men start changing diapers, the you-know-what hits the fan between mom and dad. What Bodanis found, however, was that “there is not automatically conflict within a relationship when a man cooks or does the laundry, but rather when a husband attempts to, for the first time, tackle roles normally handled by his wife.” This refuted the widespread headlines declaring that dad shouldn’t step on mom’s toes around the house.
The Atlantic ran a duo of pieces on the topic this week; first, University of Kentucky psych professor Alexandra Bradner’s “Some Theories on Why Men Don’t Do as Many Household Tasks”, where Bradner finds that women are overwhelmed, in-part, by “invisible tasks.” When Bradner asked women to submit some of these tasks, she received things like: sick child duty, travel planning, photo organization, holiday preparation, emotional support work, hairstyling, and online searches for sports equipment.
First of all, let’s acknowledge that sick child duty is probably the worst of the invisible tasks. Second, let’s put travel planning and holiday preparation into the “maybe” pile, and photo organization, hairstyling and online searches for sports equipment into the “no” pile.
And finally: emotional support work isn’t a task, it’s what you do when living around people, which is your only option on Earth.
While Bradner makes some good points in suggesting a “motivational hypothesis” that some men simply know there are tasks to be done but have prioritized others ahead of them, and that
She also drops the bottom out of the middle, however. “In other words, it might be that men do not contribute equally because they can’t,” Bradner suggest in another hypothesis. “If your husband doesn’t become assimilated to our workplace culture of manic ascension, determined to pursue what U.S. politicians, novelists, and landscape painters have historically cast as limitless possibility, he’s fired.”
What Bradner forgets is that there’s a giant delta between chasing the CEO gig and being fired for taking your child to his little league game. The average worker gets some combination of vacation hours, sick hours, and sometimes, personal holiday hours. Operate outside of those and it comes out of your paycheck.
I myself, for example, have no such luxury right now. I’m a temp for a company, and as such, receive no benefits. If I take time off, it’s out of my paycheck. So, though when I was out of work, I loved taking my son to school, I just can’t do it now unless I want to bring home a smaller paycheck. And smaller paychecks, Bradner seems to ignore, may not afford my family the ability to pay for things like internet access (which would certainly knock “online searches for sports equipment” off of my wife’s invisible task list).
Bradner also says that it might be a good idea for couples to keep a running log of some invisible tasks to see if you’re measuring up against your spouse. “Let’s log our daily chores and compare notes to see who’s more miserable,” said no parent ever.
Bradner’s article is also addressed by another dad-and-Atlantic blogger, Andy Hinds, who countered with a simple axiom: “whoever cares the most wins.” And of course, winning to Hinds means doing the chore, (which to Bradner is losing). Hinds says that Bradner’s suggestion that couples keep a log might cause a “marathon of martyrdom” in which parents try to log more than the other ad infinitum.
Hinds suggests that Bradner might be onto something, but her theories need to be highly customized to each family unit:
I wouldn’t demand that the 80 hours it took me to build plywood tricycles for the twins go on the ledger; and by the same token, I would argue that my wife spending the equivalent of a week’s work per year cooking for dinner parties doesn’t fit into the list of “core” invisible labor categories.
(And please check out those plywood tricycles because they’re awesome!)
Hinds is onto something: that some of the things we do in our home that some people consider chores are not really chores. Now, no one’s going to slap you in the mouth and say “how DARE you call laundry a chore?!” There are definitely some tasks, invisible or not, that are universally hated: laundry, dishes and dusting are generally at the top of peoples’ lists. But there’s a divide within the other non-routine tasks and projects we take on in life that may or may not be some form of unenjoyable labor.
For example, we had a dying lemon tree in our backyard, and one day I decided to take a way-too-small branch lopper and muscled my way through the tree until it was just a stump and a pile of branches on the ground. It was unarguably a chore, task, or job. But I enjoyed doing it. I wouldn’t, as Hinds says, demand that the time spent go on the ledger. But, understandably so, it was a one-off; the tree’s down now, so I don’t need to revisit it. If I were outside pruning and trimming daily, I could see how it’d get tiring and not-enjoyable. Still, having that tree was our decision – which brings me to my next point.
I feel like in all of these muckraking conversations we’re having about who-does-what-chore in the household, we’re looking at the smoke and mirrors and avoiding the real issues. You know how the conversation about school shootings ends up being more about gun control than the mental health of the people doing the shootings? We’re doing the same thing to chores. We’re talking about unhappiness, but putting it on chores instead of putting it on marital communication.
The real issue here is that chores are just part of life, and however they get done, they need to get done. How you do it is up to you, but you’ve got to talk it out.
Also, parents don’t tell non-parents enough that there’s an immeasurable amount of daily, weekly, monthly and yearly tasks that you do when you’re a parent. It’s not just squirt out a kid, change some diapers, put a bagel in front of them a couple times a week and plop them in a crib for 18 years. There are dynamic, daily activities that will both vary and stagnate depending on age group. But we parents chose to have a kid, so anything that goes along with it is part of the territory. None of these studies suggest that one parent is simply sleeping in all day while the other is shouldering the weight of the world. Most of these studies and articles admit that one or both parents are working outside of the home, and that both parents are doing some form of work around the house – and it’s important to note that everyone seems to be defining chores and tasks differently, mostly based on how much one person detests doing something. Was changing diapers a drain on time and finances when my child was in them? Sure! But was it a chore to change them? No! It was just something you do as a parent.
We can study and spin results for why men are doing “less” or not doing “core” chores. We can try to ask a hundred people which of their “invisible” tasks make them feel the most stressed. But we’re forgetting that, in all of this, we’re human.And for those married-non-parents: you married a person. A human. Someone with a personality and characteristics. Did you notice, before scooping them up as your own, whether they lifted a finger around their own house? Did they do laundry when you met? Did they cook? Clean? Organize? Do online searches for sports equipment?!
What I’m getting at is this: you know who you married. And though couples can settle down and slip into a rut, it’s your rut. And if you married someone and aren’t happy about the weight they’re pulling around the house, the worst thing you can do is have a child.
My wife complains under her breath sometimes when I’m sitting back in my recliner and she’s emptying the dishwasher – a task she dislikes more than others. When I hear the grumbles, I immediately pop up and relieve her. I constantly ask her to mention tasks to me before she stresses herself out with them. Not because I’m oblivious to the household chores, but because we both have different priorities. I don’t know that she wants dishes done RTFN. She’s got a different flow to her day than I do mine. Some of this has to do with the fact that I employed outside of the home and she’s not, but some of it has to do with our personalities. I knew what I was in for when I met her. I met a hardworking woman who sometimes passive aggressively grumbles under her breath while I sit back and play a game on my iPhone. But if I hear her, I jump up and lend a hand.
And – don’t tell my wife – sometimes I intentionally don’t get up. I want her to ask me to help. I want her to get out of the practice of taking the burden on herself (to the point of actual under-the-breath grumbling) and get into the practice of saying “hey, lend me a hand” or “your turn on the dishwasher.” I hate to make the parallel with our children, but parents know that their kids won’t just decide to pick up their toys. So we have three basic avenues: either ask them (or tell them) to pick up their toys, offer to help them pick up their toys as incentive, or offer a reward for picking up their toys with or without your help. I’m definitely not suggesting that husbands (or wives) need to be treated like a child in matters of chores, but rather for parents to remember what works, aside from scolding and punishing, which doesn’t really “work” and only makes kids dread doing whatever the task is.
We’re miring too much in data. We can study and spin results for why men are doing “less” or not doing “core” chores. We can try to ask a hundred people which of their “invisible” tasks make them feel the most stressed. But we’re forgetting that, in all of this, we’re human. This doesn’t have to do with a patriarchy, feminist rights, work-life balance, or university study. This has to do with whatever it is, deep inside of you that makes you human, and then a husband or wife, a father or mother. We wring peoples’ lives through the stats and everyone comes out unhappy. How is that helping?
I’m just waiting for “blogging” to be put on the core list of tasks so that I can lord over my wife with it and avoid unloading the dishwasher. Kidding. OR AM I?