Our monthly column on raising feminist sons takes on chores.
Housework troubles me. The entire second shift that we have to tackle at home after a long day’s work: childcare, cleaning, meal planning, financial matters, car stuff, keeping up the lawn, PTA meetings, sports and activities for the children and arranging childcare, troubles me. It troubles me because in heterosexual relationships, the burden of the second shift still seems to fall predominantly on women.
I’m surmising this from a cocktail of experiences from my personal life. Among my friends, the women seem to take the bulk of these responsibilities. The jokes… the jokes about a man’s inability to do housework, the inability to care for the kids, the overall inability…. in fact, there’s just a lot of talk about male inability to do many things. It’s not just talk, it’s an assumption, one that is often sighed out between clenched teeth. The school, the library, the hospital where I delivered my baby; they all assume that in terms of the home, I’m the lead with him fulfilling a marginal role, if any at all.
I am not a professional anthropologist, but sometimes I’ve wondered why it appears a generation of males suffers from learned helplessness when it comes to domestic tasks. Our mothers did a fair job getting across to us as girls that we shouldn’t wait for Prince Charming to save us. But somehow the lesson didn’t come through for a lot of boys. Many seem to be waiting for a down-and-out Snow White to come in and clean their hovel. Men that are practicing attorneys, surgeons in charge of saving your life, or even your average person who on a daily basis operates a motor vehicle traveling at 60 miles per hour, will often claim that they can’t get the laundry into the hamper or figure out a soccer schedule. The “hapless hubby” is still alive and well in modern mythology. Enough that there are Facebook memes and jokes about it.
Reverse that, and imagine a meme or a joke about women claiming they couldn’t operate the lawn mower or even reasonably assess when it was time to mow the lawn without the assistance of a male. I’m not sure people would even understand the joke. Yet it is tolerated when our male partners claim they can’t figure out when it’s time to do household tasks unless reminded. Repeatedly.
In Lean In, Cheryl Sandburg advises that we, as women, seek partners who want to do their equal share in the home. That is great, and in my opinion, accurate, but I’m not seeing a lot of open discussions about just how that’s being implemented. I rarely hear of households where the work is well-divided. I hear instead, a lot of hand-holding, coaxing and finally, resignation.
Maybe it’s that we don’t want to sell out our partners. Maybe we fear they won’t change, or worse, can’t. Maybe we are embarrassed that as much as we ache and fight for equality we can’t make it happen in our own homes. Or maybe…maybe we actually have come to believe that they are incapable.
Whatever it is, I want to talk about it.
So I thought I’d go first.
I currently cohabitate. Our relationship is less than three years old. We have a ten-year-old boy (my son from a previous relationship), a nine-year-old boy (his son from a previous relationship) and a seven-month-old baby girl. All three children live with us full time. Prior to our current relationship, we were both full time single parents who carried the full burden of the “Second Shift”, albeit assisted greatly by our families and network of friends.
My son and I moved into my partner’s home which he has had for fourteen years. I own my own home elsewhere that I am currently renovating. I am minimalistic about my possessions. My partner likes a well-feathered nest. He would tell you I like to live in bare rooms. I would tell you he loves clutter.
I am 39 years old. I am employed as a social media manager, which I do mostly from my home office. I enjoy a second career as a professional actress. On average I book one to two jobs a month that take me abruptly outside our home. This, combined with some work trips from my social media job, means that I am outside our home environment an average of 10-15 days a month. During these stints I bring the baby as she is still breastfed.
My fiance, MB, is a 47 year old male. He is employed as a police officer, possibly the least loved profession in the United States. It is of note that his profession is extremely high stress. In one day, he can come home from a brutal suicide, a horrific murder and a rape report. Even one of these events would land an ordinary person in therapy for years. It’s unrealistic to expect that he always comes home ready to jump into family work.
I take care of our daughter as I work, adapting my hours around her sleep schedule. When he arrives home from work, he helms childcare and homework while I make dinner. We both run the kids to their various sporting activities, depending on who feels like it more, and the kids clean up after dinner. On his days off I put in more time at my job and he takes care of the house and kids.
When we blended, we both were relieved to finally have someone to share the second shift. But to our shock it wasn’t easier. It was harder. Finally we had to sit down and look at what we were doing wrong. Our big mistake was not taking our work seriously, and not talking through how we did the work we did and our separate approaches. We were both working too hard at separate tasks and I was feeling that as a woman in a household with two boys and one man, I was doing more than my share.
His complaint was that I approached everything like it was a business. Finally, after a few fights, we got down to brass tacks. I do see work for the home and family as work. It’s honorable work and I think handling it from a business perspective shows my respect for it. Keeping a home and rearing children is hard work. It deserves our respect, organization, and consideration as work.
Step One: What we do at home is work. We need to identify our work styles and set goals for our home and family work.
This was a shift for my partner. He wasn’t entirely comfortable with designating what we do with our children as “work.” It felt impersonal. However, MB loves me. He could see I wasn’t happy and regardless of any discomfort he felt with identifying it as work, he was willing to try discussing it this way to see if we could have a better outcome.
For MB, he had been a full-time single father since his son was quite small. Growing up, his mother had been a stay-at-home parent off and on, eventually entering into a career in politics. Chores were not gendered. She trained her sons in household management. I can attest to this as on one of her visits over to our house, she thoroughly trained my son and stepson in how to vacuum a room. His household skill set and homemaking still set is in the “expert” category.
As a Work-Outside-the-Home parent, he was a “deep cleaner.” The house would stack up all week, but not unreasonably so, and once a week, he’d tackle all the household chores. This worked well for a small household with a small load of laundry and dishes. However, this style was not working well with an expanded number of children. The four loads of laundry a weekend had bloomed to eight. The few dishes left suddenly seemed like hundreds.
As a Work-At-Home parent, I frankly, had no system whatsoever due to my constantly changing schedule. When I was home I’d clean, but sometimes I’d find myself working away and during that time the house was a disaster. Our routines consisted of eating dinner together every night I was home, and a bedtime ritual that we keep up today. Consistency was not my strength. However, we did not own as many of each item as MB and his son. So dishes, laundry and cleaning happened quickly and were done on a more frequent basis, if even unpredictable.
So our work styles were wildly different. Neither one applied well to a large family with a baby.
We both agreed we needed to clean more on a daily basis and do a deep clean on a weekly basis. We agreed we needed to declutter so that when there was a creative mess, such as a school project or a puzzle on the table, there was enough open space in the house that it didn’t feel overwhelming.
Sounds simple! We will clean more and clean on weekends and donate to Goodwill. But it’s nowhere near that simple. For one thing, our work styles were still different. What we needed was a full overhaul and some goals.
So we set our goals:
MB’s goals: Daily focus on the children and the family, house secondary. Very important kids are on time to events that are scheduled and attend the things they are committed to. Family meals important, homework important. Laundry and dishes secondary. Messy bedrooms okay, common areas mostly tidy, clutter okay.
Reasonably Clean house wanted.
ME: Daily focus on the kids and the children. Homework very important. If we are late sometimes or miss a few classes, eh, that’s okay. Clean house necessary to focus and work during the day as childcare for the baby was complicated when there was a lot of dishes, laundry or mess to move around. Family meals important, clean home important, messy rooms NOT ok, common areas “company ready,” clutter is annoying.
Very clean house wanted.
Given how different our goals are, there was no way “agreeing” to clean more was even going to work.
Step Two: Set Common Goals
Here’s what we came up with eventually:
US: Kids are the most important part of our Second Shift. Homework is important. Getting to things on time is a sign of respecting your education outside school and will be honored. Family meals are important. Main rooms will be decluttered and kept company clean. Bedrooms will be less strict but still clean with no laundry on floor. No dishes in sink, ever. No clutter in KO’s work area. Boys will be more actively involved in cleaning and very active in decluttering process.
ROADBLOCK: Many women feel that because their standards are higher than their male counterparts, they are the ones who must do additional cleaning. This causes resentment and anger.
MB doesn’t mind a messy house during the week. It makes me crazy.
Initially what he offered was that if I were unhappy I should simply not do any housework, at all, and he would do it all on the weekend. What we were fighting over wasn’t just housework, it was territory. MB had his own system and he didn’t want to give it up or change it. He’d honestly rather I just sit on my ass and let him run it the way he did and do all the cleaning.
But in the meanwhile, his system, which had worked for a single dude and a kid, did not work for five people and the house was getting filthy.
And I was running around like a crazy person cleaning constantly.
I know this is the point where a lot of people give up. However, somewhere between my day job and my Second Shift I still needed time to be creative. I wasn’t going to give this up. Ever. I also wasn’t willing to compromise a clean house. Since MB cared less he decided there was no issue with coming up to my standard, if it was what I wanted. But it isn’t as simple as that. We were stuck here a long time, it’s just that I didn’t relent and he wasn’t willing to break up with me over housework. We weren’t even arguing it from a gender roles position. I’ve thought a lot about it and the advice I can offer is this: don’t give up. Keep insisting it is a joint effort. You step in and do more than your share, it will last a lifetime.
Reality Check: It can last a lifetime.
Let’s say you live with someone who never cleans the toilet and refuses to do so. You clean it weekly. That’s 52 times a year. In ten years you will clean that toilet 520 times. Pretend it takes 15 minutes to clean the toilet and he’s watching YouTube. That means you clean the toilet 520 minutes a year, or roughly 8 hours and 35 minutes a year. Over ten years you will have spent 5,200 minutes cleaning toilets or 86 hours and 35 minutes cleaning toilets. That’s three and a half days just cleaning toilets.
But you think, okay, that’s just three and half days over ten years. Who cares?
Okay. But say he doesn’t do the dishes, ever. Let’s pretend the dishes for the day take 30 minutes and during that time, he watches YouTube while you wash up. Now the numbers are 210 minutes a week, 840 minutes a month, 10,920 minutes a year, or 182 hours spent on dishes. You’ve just spent over a week of your life, doing dishes, for twenty four hours a day. In ten years, you will have spent 109,200 minutes a year doing dishes, or almost 76 days doing dishes. Add that to the toilet and you’ve now been doing housework for 79 and a half days, twenty four hours a day.
Now stop thinking about toilet and dishes for a moment – what could you do in 79 and a half days? That’s probably more than most of us get for paid maternity leave. Couldn’t he have done with only watching only 39 and a half days of dog and cat videos on YouTube so that you could have some of your life back?
The fight might seem worth it if you look at long term.
I’m not saying everything in a relationship is tit for tat. Basically, relationships don’t follow math. Both people have to put in 150% and do 150% of the work and somehow together it makes 100%. Great relationships exist where there isn’t equal housework, I’m sure of it.
But they don’t for me. I know what I need, I know what keeps me going. While cleaning is an art form (I will argue that to the end of days) it’s not my art form. I have other plans for those 79 and a half days of my life.
Step Three: Come up with a plan. Draft some systems.
I loved this part. Despite my lack of implementation of a schedule previously, I’m actually very good at making schedules, budgets and planning, just not following them. I have a background in production (films, commercials and special events) When MB and I identified what was happening in our home as work, I suddenly was able to see I needed to organize it the same way I did any work that was important to me. This was my home, after all, my kids, my partner. For us, our home is our heart, our retreat, and we are what keeps us solid. I need a place to come home to roost after zooming around and he needed a sanctuary after being kicked and punched and yelled at all day. I have built most of our systems and they are in place.
These systems include:
- Schedule of housework
- Schedule of deep cleanings in the house.
- Dentist and doctor appointments
- Bills & Finance
- Sports and activities for the kids
- Parties and Events
- Meal Planning
- Shopping for Meals
- Household Supplies
- Clothing & School Supplies
- Vacations & Date nights
However, just because I designed the systems does not mean I am the sole person who implements them. Because I get little notice when I book a job, a few days at most, my partner MB must be fully integrated and aware of my systems to maintain them when I am gone. This actually works really well. I made the teacher conference appointments this time, but last time he did it and I didn’t attend. By having a system and talking through it, we were both able to sub out for each other seamlessly.
But also, there are things he likes doing that he wants to do. By making our list we were able to point to things and say what we liked to be the “lead” on. I love finances and I wouldn’t give them up without a fight. He was relieved I like doing them so much. He is great at finding childcare and will probably be the person to make decisions on our daughter’s daycare.
ROADBLOCK: Breaking the System
Our systems work because we both agree to stick to them. It takes a lot of time and energy to build systems. It’s like sticking to a diet. Breaking the system is breaking the faith. I will say this too, breaking the system often shows a lack of respect for the other partner. It’s a way of showing the kids that you don’t have to do it and that no one can make you do it.
Think I’m wrong? I’m going back to my minutes and hours. Look at this example.
I do the meal planning and shopping. I spend 30 minutes making a list and a meal plan. I travel 20 minutes to the store, spend an hour shopping with a baby that grabs at everything. I drive 20 minutes home. I get home, unload. That takes me 10 minutes with the baby. I put everything away, cleaning out the fridge as I do so. That takes 15 minutes. I write out my menus and post them on the fridge so anyone can make them. That takes 10 minutes.
I have now invested 2 hours and 5 minutes of my time and energy on meals for that week. Yearly I’m spending over 4 days on procuring food and planning to cook it, that’s not even counting cooking and eating it.
But I work late, and let’s pretend my partner, who is new to sharing the Second Shift reneges on our agreement and just gets Taco Bell. Or worse, sits with the kids at home and feeds them whatever they throw together so the whole meal plan is off? Now, you’ve crashed the budget and the system.
That means my work above, is partially wasted. If we can’t share the system, the system is obsolete. But the next theoretical question is: why did he do it?
Because he didn’t think he could handle all three kids and cooking.
Roadblock: Competency and Expertise
MB raised a small baby to a toddler to a child. He is not “Mr. Mom,” he is not my “second in command,” he is my co-pilot. People were often amazed when I’d be out without my newborn daughter and give me confused looks. “Where is she?” they’d say, and when I said she was safe at home, with daddy, they often smiled smugly, “Oh how’s he doing with that?”
To which I liked to say, “He’s better at it than I am.”
I would put his Second Shift skills set at an “expert” level. MB was from a home where both his mother and father had been raised in military homes. Neither parent ascribed gender roles to work and both he and his brother were expected to fully clean and participate in the household. His mother believes that cleaning and organizing needs to be taught specifically. When he became a single father, she didn’t rush over to fix the world for him. She trusted, and rightly so, that he could handle it.
But suppose that weren’t the case.
Suppose MB felt that he couldn’t handle cooking and wrangling three kids at once. Even though moms do this all the time, I still see the cavalry called when some guy ends up alone with his own children. Grandmas and pizza delivery are called and it’s a vague state of emergency “he’s alone with the kids” as if the kids are going to go Lord of the Flies on him and decide he’s Piggy and he needs a female there to defend him.
Now what are you teaching the kids? The Second Shift isn’t just about housework, after all, it’s about childcare, the education of children, and the implementation of values in the home. If the male partner shows our children that he can’t “handle” them and cook a meal, he’s saying that there is a task that he, as a male, is incapable of, and our male children should never aspire to be able to do. We work so hard to show our girls that they can be anything and that nothing is beyond their capability. We need to work equally hard to show our boys that they can do domestic tasks with expertise.
The biggest roadblock I see is that often the partners agree to the system, but can’t execute it. Suddenly they have to admit that what their partner does is pretty hard work. There’s been about a million bad movies and maybe two good ones made on this exact “appreciate mom” theme. Time for those and the “Daddy Daycare” movies to all go in the same trash bin. They are outdated.
So you feel intimidated and suddenly realize you don’t know how to handle your own kids and you have no idea where she keeps the potholders. As anyone with a new baby will tell you- there’s nothing like trial by fire, and thank God for the internet. Everything you need to know you can learn on the job or read up on later.
But some men don’t like finding out this is hard work and don’t want to stretch into competency. It may be easier in the short term to simply use them as inept babysitters for the kids when we need it. But long term no one wins.
Frankly, if I hired someone to co-manage a social media account and they refused to use my system, I’d fire them. I think a lot of men are “fired” from their household contribution and they’re quite happy with that. They join the kids and sit down to be on the receiving end. Not hot. I don’t know how else to frame that except that the moment a man becomes more burden than asset to any self respecting woman, they stop being sexually appealing. That’s not meant to motivate men, like “Oh if I do this I get sex!” It’s just to point out that giant children aren’t appealing as life partners, and if you are not willing to put in your part, you may be eventually jettisoned when she finds out it’s cheaper to hire a maid and a babysitter and take on some overtime, than put up with cleaning up after you. At least as a single parent she theoretically gets every other weekend off.
There is no way around it but to get better at the job, to keep the job. Speaking honestly, it’s a job you should want to keep.
Step Four: Involve the kids.
In all this time MB and I were talking about our work style and coming up with systems, our house was a wreck. There were at least eight loads of laundry a weekend. People used towels like they were tissue. The bathroom was an indoor outhouse and the bedrooms were carpeted in clothing. Toys were all over the house. It wasn’t pretty.
MB said I was the issue. As I said before, consistency isn’t my strong point. He’d tell the boys to do something. They’d do it, whining the whole time and then only do it half way. I’d come in and finish it for them because it was faster. See above, about allowing systems to be broken. I was breaking my faith with MB and not allowing him to train the boys.
He said we should be able to keep our home basically clean ourselves and that the last thing he wanted to support was teaching two, entitled little boys that if they half-assed it, a woman would finish it for them.
ROADBLOCK: It takes more time to teach them then it does to do it yourself.
I’m so busy. The last thing I want to do is stop and call someone back and march them over to the cupboard and stand over them as they get out the toilet paper and hang it.
But if I don’t do it, they will learn they never have to.
I had to think on that. As the mother of two boys, did I really want to send two more men out in the world who thought it was someone else’s job to clean up the sprinkled pee on the toilet seat? Or change the toilet paper? I hate it when people don’t do those things! In fact, one of the things that deeply attracted me to MB in the first place, and that still attracts me, is his high level of competence in most areas, professional, domestic and parenting. Or let me put it this way: I couldn’t personally fall in love with a man who pissed on the toilet seat and expected me to accidentally sit in it for the next 20 years.
So why was I raising those men? Time to stop.
We didn’t sit the boys down. We did a walk through. A wade through, more properly, as it was knee high in clothing and toys by that point. We talked about the home as our asset and said that taking care of things is a sign of respect. And then we went right to it, we cleaned. That day.
I admit, that first day I wanted to hide and give up as it was so discouraging to realize how far gone it already was. They tried every roadblock. Insisting they didn’t feel it was dirty enough, half-assing it. One was given the vacuum to clean all the floors, stairs and entry. The other was given the bathroom to clean, including toilet and shower. After that they had to tidy their rooms. They were carefully taught how to do the steps but they were to do them themselves.
Eight hours later we finally had the bathrooms and the floors done. It took sending them back, repeatedly. MB didn’t relent. “They are capable,” he said, “It’s just that they haven’t been forced to be.” The bedrooms were done. It was dark outside. I had a headache and the house was clean.
The following week we repeated. It took six hours this time.
A few weeks later, and the boys could do the bathrooms and the floors in two hours with goofing around, one if pressed for time.
During these weekly cleans, we chose to observe what they were doing in the house after. The first thing we noticed is that they were a lot more careful about the area they’d each personally cleaned, but not the one that someone else had cleaned. So we started randomly switching up what we’d done, and if you fouled an area you could win a mid week clean.
But what we realized is that there is hidden work in our house, things like decluttering or clearing out drawers, that I had been responsible for. So on some weekends our cleans extended to two days, where MB had me take them all through how I sort and clean and donate items. I have never actually taught someone how to declutter. One weekend we taught them how to do a deep clean: clean the oven, wipe down walls. What was crazy is that the more we involved them, the more everyone saw these hidden tasks. Hell, half the things I didn’t even know I did. What was even more enlightening were the secret things MB did that I had no idea were even being done. This whole time he’d been steam cleaning the carpet when I was gone. I hadn’t thought about the lawn. But it had been getting mowed. He changes light bulbs, fixes dresser drawers, and repairs locks, cleans out heating vents and all these other things I am still discovering.
We moved these items to a shared list. What emerged was a rather scary looking list of things we did on a daily, weekly and monthly basis.
Revelation: Your partner may be doing more than you think.
MB had involved me in some of his systems. However, I am a new home owner and he’d been a homeowner for over ten years. There were repairs and maintenance I hadn’t encountered yet that he was quietly doing. Adding these to the list was an important step to making sure we had an equitable division of labor. What’s more, it was a chance for the boys and I to learn these tasks so they didn’t always stay his and solo. Just as I don’t want to spend 79 days cleaning toilets and dishes solo, I don’t want him to do these tasks solo.
Side Conclusions: Once you start putting it out as valuable time and measuring it, you want to more carefully curate it.
Counting up the minutes and days you cleaned was funny at first. Then we really started applying it. It was amazing that we were spending more time cleaning and organizing our things then we could ever possibly spend actually using them. It defeats the purpose of owning wonderful things if all you do is curate them.
What we determined is that once you decide you are really going to take care of your things, you need far fewer things to take care of. For our boys, their bedrooms were impossible for anyone to care for, much less someone of their age. We decided that their rooms should be age appropriate for them to clean. We made our own room age appropriate for us to clean too.
I bought a copy of The Japanese Magic of Tidying Up and we applied the principles of tidying. At the time of writing we have donated (please keep in mind we combined two households) six full loads of clothing and household goods, as well as one actual truck pick up from the Goodwill. In our garage there are another five loads to go. And there is still more. But their rooms are almost under control enough that they are quite simple to clean.
Was it hard to let go? Are there pangs of regret? Oh sure there are. But regrets pass, honestly and the relief that I’m not spending hours cleaning or sorting socks has been worth it.
Where we are now.
Change means taking a stand.
Tonight, I wanted time to work on this piece.
I made dinner and excused myself right after eating to go downstairs and work. A short while later, the baby, who had woken, joined her father on the bed to cuddle and one of our boys showed up. I headed up stairs for some wine and lo and behold, the kitchen was almost untouched.
Both boys had half-assed their kitchen duty. It was a fast, simple clean up, but I called in both boys.
“Do this.” I said, and pointing to the kitchen, “this is your work.”
I sat back down to write. The kids, despite growing up in single parent households, still default to me when there are two parents in the room. There are times when MB will say, “Hi, BOYS? I’m RIGHT HERE.” and make them come to him instead. So when my nine-year-old step son needed some help on homework, I sent him to Dad. When my ten-year-old interrupted me for the third time about something, I send him to his step dad.
It also means stopping and addressing things right when they happen, if you can, and taking time to train the kids. If the kids are headed out the door leaving a huge mess on the kitchen table, I have to haul them up, make them fix it and then refuse to write tardy notes. There has to be natural consequences to not doing your work, and the hard part is that sometimes the natural consequences are dealing with me. If they leave a mess, I don’t clean it, I make them clean it when they get home from school. I hold them accountable. I don’t do their work for them. If they leave something a mess, they must come back and clean it up. Every. Single. Time.
It has meant challenging assumptions and actively showing my kids that I have confidence in my partner’s abilities. When amazed people see me out and ask where my baby is, as if leaving a baby with her father is the most dangerous, reckless thing I could have done, I take the time to voice strong confidence in my partner and counterweight that idea that a man can’t be trusted with an infant. When people call him “Mr. Mom,” a term I personally think is kind of degrading, I say, “Nothing of the sort. He’s 100 percent Dad.”
It’s meant talking in ways I am not always comfortable about what we are doing. It has meant giving up power and control for us both to share tasks. It’s meant holding my ground when I felt I was doing more. And on some days, that cracking open into a realization of how hard my partner’s day has been. By actually talking about our work in the home, we’ve both actually come to understand what we do outside the home better and respect it more.
It’s meant trying some of his solutions and some of mine and finding what worked. There have been a lot of fights, a lot of cleaning, a lot of decluttering and a lot of learning. There is probably still more ahead.
No Supermoms here. No Mr. Mom. Just two people keeping a household.