I’ve heard it from married female friends many times over the years, almost always in jest: stories from early on in their marriages about their husbands’ extremely confused ideas about how marriage was going to be for them. I see it in comment sections on social media, too — women complaining that when they first tied the knot, their husbands thought they were going to do *fill in the blank* for them now that they were married. The blank to be filled in was generally some kind of household chore. The laundry, the cooking, the cleaning, etc.
Why is it that so many straight, cisgender men apparently still view marriage as a kind of relief from their chore burdens? We’ve come a long way with gender equality, but inequity in the household is very much still a thing. It’s as if young men pick up along the way the idea that getting married is like taking on a maid or a personal assistant. Like, “What a relief I’ll have a little extra free time because she’ll be taking care of the laundry now.”
Anecdotal evidence abounds, but studies bear out my personal observations. As of 2012, married women in the U.S. were doing twice as much housework as married men, and despite the dramatic influx of women in the workforce, women actually spend more time caring for their children than they did in the 1960s.
This trend has persisted through the pandemic, and has even worsened in some areas. Pew Research regularly surveys married and cohabitating opposite-sex couples regarding their satisfaction with the division of household chores in their home. In 2019, 49% of men compared to only 39% of women thought the household chores were split fairly. In 2020, during the pandemic, the numbers adjusted to 55% for men and 38% for women. As for who does more household chores, 59% of women said they do more housework, while only 20% of men said they do more and 46% think chores are shared equally. Same goes for managing kids’ care and schedules: 74% of mothers say they do more, while only 20% of men say they do more and only 34% say these responsibilities are equally split.
To me, the gaps in these percentages are telling — a significant portion of heterosexual partnered men have a tendency to assume everything is hunky-dory while a significant portion of their wives and girlfriends are fantasizing about suffocating them with a pillow in their sleep.
It’s hard to imagine that we still have young straight couples getting married, and a few weeks after the honeymoon, a newlywed man will turn to his wife, who works full-time just like he does, and ask if she’s washed his favorite work shirt. Or pout that she wouldn’t wake up earlier than necessary to make him a sandwich for lunch. Or wonder aloud why the house is a mess. Too many young men go into marriage thinking they’re taking on a helper, when the reality is, getting married means more work all around — for everyone — not less. Add children to the mix to see that work increase exponentially.
So, how do we reverse this expectation? It’s got to be more than verbal instruction. Is it because young people are still seeing this dynamic modeled in their homes as they grow up? Maybe all the gender equality talk in the world isn’t necessarily going to undo 18 years of a kid watching their smiling-through-gritted-teeth mom do a ton more housework than their lazy dad.
In my house growing up, my dad usually got home from work about two hours before my mom. Occasionally, he did the dishes. He’d cook maybe once or twice per month. I have zero memories of him vacuuming or folding laundry. I do, however, have plenty of memories of my mom slamming kitchen cabinets in frustration, her eyes rimmed red with the tears she held in, as she prepped dinner after a full day at the office. Despite working full-time, in fact despite usually working more hours than my dad, she bore almost the entirety of the responsibility for household chores until my sister and I were old enough to help. My ex-husband grew up with live-in household help and had literally never done chores in his life prior to adulthood. In the beginning, his expectation was that I took care of the home. My expectation was that I would not end up like my mother, slamming cabinets and gritting my teeth in frustration. So, for me at least, the modeling I grew up with was an antidote to this kind of inequitable bullshit. I guess that’s something.
My teenage son, bless him, is an oblivious slob. In a parenting group I’m in on Facebook, one for parents of teens, mothers often complain that their sons are pigs, that they sometimes will clean their son’s room, and that they’re astonished to find it just as messy as before only a few days after they’ve cleaned it. Ya don’t say. When my teenage son’s room gets to a certain point of messiness, I cut off gaming until that shit is tidied up. Just last night, I pointed out gum wrappers, guitar picks, and balled-up socks strewn about his room and made him pick them all up. “Someday you’re going to be someone’s roommate,” I told him. “Someday you’ll be someone’s partner. Don’t be the guy who needs to be trained. Don’t be that guy.” I’ll be damned if my kid leaves this house with the idea that a future partner will do his chores for him.
And I think that’s how it has to be. In my single-adult household, the modeling that happens here looks like what I just described — via expectation. Both kids are required to pitch in with chores, often to the tune of my gently lecturing that as long as you are able-bodied, you must pitch in wherever you are. You live here, so you do dishes, clean bathrooms, vacuum, fold clothes. If you go to a friend’s house and they serve you dinner, you help clear the table and offer to wash dishes.
In homes with two caregivers present, the modeling can be via both expectation and what kids witness of those caregivers — an equitable distribution of daily work. No newlywed man should begin married life thinking they’ve just taken on a handy dandy housekeeper and caregiver. And no newlywed woman should begin married life realizing she just unwittingly married a lazy, selfish douchebag.