Weekly Update 3: Housework edition

There have been many, many discussions around the interwebs about housework and being, specifically, a scientist.  Mostly, the discussion has centered around the idea that women more than men worry about balancing work and life, about an equal distribution of labor in the house, and therefore they write about it a lot and articles about work-life balance are often directed at them rather than men.  Janet, aka Dr. Free-Ride, has a nice collection of links as well as a write-up of her own.

I think about work-life balance a lot.  I think about housework way more than I should.  When I think about them, I recognize the cultural norms I’ve internalized that make me care about that stuff more than Mr. Geeky does. And while I’ve become more comfortable about bucking those norms, they’re still there nonetheless.  The shift to my being mostly in charge of the house, whether I actually do all the actual work or not, has been somewhat gradual, but is also an effect of two main things: 1) upbringing (both mine and Mr. Geeky’s) and 2) the job market.

In the area of upbringing, both of us have similar experiences.  Our mothers were responsible for keeping house and taking care of children.  In my upbringing, a couple of things happened that shifted my experience away from the typical gender labor distribution.  First, when I was born, my father was in law school and it was my mother who went off to work to support the family.  My father stayed home with me when I wasn’t being cared for by paid help or friends and relatives, which during the summers, was almost all day.  Though I couldn’t bring any of the details of that time to life now, almost 40 years later, it certainly had an impact on me.  Second, my mother hated housework so that, even once she quit her job (when I was about 7), she outsourced the housework immediately.  I have very few memories of her cleaning.  She did do all the cooking and grocery shopping, but she mostly enjoyed those jobs.  And my dad, in addition to the standard yard work and taking the garbage out, would often roam around the house cleaning up clutter.  In Mr. Geeky’s house, his dad didn’t do anything (as far as I know from what Mr. Geeky has told me) outside of the standard male chores: garbage, yard work, home repair.  He did spend plenty of time with the kids as did my dad, though my dad changed quite a few diapers while Mr. Geeky’s dad never did.

So Mr. Geeky, while being a feminist, had as his learned experience within a household, the idea that the woman does the housework and the man goes to work and takes out the garbage.  Intellectually, he knew this was not always a fair arrangement, but from a practical standpoint, his muscle memory doesn’t automatically move him to do the dishes or laundry.  That said, when we were a young couple without kids, we did almost everything together–cooked, cleaned up afterwards, laundry, cleaning when friends came over.  It was only when kids got added to the equation that the work load got redistributed, and that’s where the job market comes in.

Everyone knows the humanities job market sucks and that was the market I found myself entering about a year or so before we decided to have kids.  Almost before I could plan a career, my career died.  There were no jobs for me.   And while, as I’ve said many times before and it’s the story of many an academic woman, I could have gone off to another place to pursue a different career, I opted to maintain my relationship with Mr. Geeky, take “just a job” and play it by ear from there.  Partly, too, because my career fizzled out, I was sort of adrift trying to figure out what to do.  I didn’t have enough information about my future to make any good judgements.  Many of the conversations I see that say, well, you (woman) should have put your career first or on equal footing with your spouse’s.  Well, if you don’t have any idea what career you want to pursue, that’s kind of hard.  Like economics, many of the judgements people make about careers and relationships and work-life balance assume completely rational behavior.  I’m only now becoming slightly more rational.

Individual couples make all kinds of different arrangements to make dual income situations work.  It’s true that sometimes those arrangements place more burden on the women than the men.  In our house, I stress way more about the housework than Mr. Geeky does.  I’m certain that some of that is internalized norms about judging a woman by the state of her house.  It is what it is and we just have to figure out a way to manage that.  Currently, this whole FlyLady thing is really working.  It requires no more than an hour of my day.  Because things are more organized, it’s very easy for me to delegate work when I need to.  It seems corny, but it’s true.  When I started doing this, I told my family, but didn’t expect them to do much of anything to contribute unless I asked them.  Here’s what’s really helping:

  • I keep the sink shiny, which means no dishes in it.  And when your sink is shiny, you feel like the counters need to be, too.  It just happens.  Mr. Geeky and the kids do kitchen cleanup after I cook and I’ve noticed a real difference in the quality.  When it starts out nice, no one wants to mess it up.
  • Unload the dishwasher every morning.  I do this while waiting for my coffee to brew.  It takes five minutes.  It means that I can stick dishes that accumulate throughout the day in (so they’re not on the counters).  If I’m not around, it means the dishwasher is empty and awaiting dishes from dinner, cutting down the work the kids and Mr. Geeky have to do.
  • Put in a load of laundry every day.  I do this after I’ve showered, which I now do shortly after Geeky Boy does or when he leaves at 7.  I put the clothes in while my second cup of coffee brews.  So far, there’s only been one day out of 14 where I haven’t had a full load of laundry to put in.  That should tell you something about the amount of laundry we generate.  I’m also able to easily ask someone else to throw a load in.  It’s great not to be doing six loads on the weekend and feeling like a martyr.
  • Fold and put away a load of laundry every day.  I do this as I’m getting ready for bed or have one of the kids do it.  Again, not having to fold and put away 6 loads or more over the span of a day or two makes it seem much less burdensome.

While I’m doing most of these things myself right now, it’s not burdensome, and it’s easy to delegate.  Things I’d like to delegate in the future include grocery shopping and cooking.  From my past experience working full time, I know that there are some nights that I just don’t feel like cooking and though I don’t mind grocery shopping, it would be nice to alternate.  So my hope is that we can come up with a plan so that at least a couple of nights a week, someone else is cooking and that Mr. Geeky makes every other grocery trip.  Aside from that, I really feel like the housework is manageable.  I took this on because it’s me that suffers most when things are not in order.  It was something I wanted to do for myself and it’s spread to the rest of the family and I will keep spreading it until I feel like things are equitable.  Philosophically, everyone is way on board with all of this.  Do I wish that Mr. Geeky was as passionate about making sure the house runs smoothly as I am? Sometimes, but I’m happy that he doesn’t work ridiculous hours, spends a lot of time with me and the kids, and does a reasonable amount of work around the house.  Nothing is perfect.  We do the best we can and when things feel out of whack, we renegotiate–and I am usually the one who has to initiate that since it affects me more.

As several people mentioned in the posts around the blog world, attitudes surrounding parental leave and household chores really need to change before there will be real equity.  Society still looks at housework and childcare as women’s work and that makes men reluctant to take it up wholeheartedly, even men who are in many respects, feminists.  Those societal pressures are bigger than all of us.  Equal pay for women would go a long way to make it possible for people to outsource housework and childcare.  Flexible work schedules, too, without repercussions, would be helpful as well.  And those are things that can be done politically, both at the national and local level.  And if men don’t want to blog about these issues, they can certainly vote and serve on committees and generally advocate for change.

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6 Replies to “Weekly Update 3: Housework edition”

  1. Laura, this post is a gem. I love it. You explained everything so well and easy to process for both those of us who have spent years thinking about it and for people new to this subject. BTW, I read the FlyLady link when you first posted and since then I have had a polished sink, and my counters are cleaner. I haven’t realized the point about the counters until just now while reading your post. It does make you feel there’s a sense of order and control and helps you focus on the right things while actually enjoying the home. I’m training my 2 year old and 4 year old to put things away when their finished and to bring their dishes to the sink when they’re done (thank you Maria Montessori). Also, while doing these (now) smaller, chunked, chores, they are immediately satisfying and can be cathartic. Thanks for your valuable posts.

  2. Ahh, but what does Mr. G stress about? What is important to him? Where does he wish you to step up more? And how do you value his side of it?

  3. Very good question, DM. I know he stresses about things at work a lot. I serve as a sounding board for many of those stresses. I’m not sure what he would wish I do more of. I know he wanted me to go back to work, to make things financially easier for us. But as for other things? Maybe he’d rather handle some of the things I do–finances for instance. I’ll ask him and get back to you. 🙂

    What I most value about Mr. Geeky’s contributions have to do with his even-keeled attitude. Even with the work stuff, he doesn’t get all wound up in knots the way I do. So he’s a very steadying force around here, keeping our whole family in a stable state of mind. He’s also absolutely fabulous with the kids, especially Geeky Girl. I think he’s done a good job of encouraging her to pursue her interests and ignore a lot of the cultural messages she gets. I also think he’s honestly willing to do pretty much anything if he thinks it’s going to be good for the family.

  4. Great post and so relevant to most of our lives. I don’t think most men will take up house work to the extent women do until society feels the state of the house is a direct reflection on men too. I see this every time family members come over- I’m a wreck about how the house looks (even though I usually don’t care much) and my husband couldnt’ care less. But as I always tell him, if the house is a pig stye when his mom walks in the door, who is she going to blame? probably me.So I care how clean the house is. He feels that same pressure about the state of the lawn and landscaping though- I don’t notice the bushes aren’t trimmed but he notices and knows the neighbors will think he is slacking if they are not trimmed.
    Don’t know how we change societies view of this issue though. Maybe it will take another few generations. I know if I visit my son’s house some day in teh future and it’s a mess, I won’t blame either his wife or him (I’ll understand totally) and if there is blame to be assigned , I will distribute it equally between them.

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