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Should Husbands and Wives Split Housework Evenly?

cleaningGender relations is a hot topic for discussion. The roles of men and women have evolved over the years, but old-school norms still hold a lot of power. Stephen Marche, author of THE UNMADE BED, shares his perspective on housework and how couples can split up the job. Then his wife, Sarah Fulford, offers her point of view.

After you read the article, answer our poll question at the bottom: Do you and your partner split all chores equally?

His View of Household Contracts

Stephen Marche: My wife has always done more housework than I have. I sense vaguely, half-consciously, all that my wife has done in the times in and around her big job and the kids: the straightened coffee table and the fluffed pillows, the swept floors and organized shelves in the kitchen with their glass jars for salt and sugar and flour, the magazines evenly spaced in the bathroom magazine racks, the coziness that follows a thousand tender putterings. Whole aspects of cleanliness essential to her—a thick line of dust across the bookshelves, the position of the appliances on the kitchen counter—they pass me by completely. I shouldn’t say “completely.” I notice a messy room, but I don’t care. I certainly don’t care enough to straighten it myself. I cannot bring myself to care. Or at least not enough, not nearly enough to stop writing this and go down and straighten the room.

When people are young, they think “we’ll make a contract.* Household contracts are well-suited to the technocratic young people who have it together enough to move in with one another. The thinking goes like this: We have a problem—a fair division of housework—therefore we need a solution: a contract. We want to avoid subservience, therefore we will provide means to mutual obedience to a mutual will. The enlightened legalism has a satisfying finality to it. Every couple who draws up a domestic contract thinks they have finally figured out adulthood. They cheerfully imitate their elders and draw up to-do lists and concomitant schedules, which they then post in a neutral place. Sometimes they even go so far as to sign these documents.

Sarah and I did not go that far, but we had contracts worked out in fine detail: who did what when, with weekly tasks in rotation. It was strictly the hard stuff: cleaning toilets, scrubbing bathtubs, sweeping floors, doing dishes. Equality remained as elusive as ever. The contract is only as solid as the terms of its interpretation. The question of what constitutes a clean bathtub has as many answers as there are people. What happens when one person rushes and the other lingers? Because you can tell the difference. But there are deeper problems as well; housework by contract is like sex on a schedule: it misses the point of the action. If a relationship is about contracts and schedules, it is rational. But if you have only a rational relationship, why are you bothering? You’ll do better with hookers and cleaning ladies—the costs and benefits are more clearly aligned. We want intimacy in love, a house full of intimate love, and intimacy cannot be a contractual economy. It wants gifts. Even in households with domestic contracts, what both sides desire is a gift over and above the contract, the necessary but not required, obvious but not expected gesture.

Her Perspective on Housework

*Commentary from his wife, editor Sarah Fulford: I have silently, privately made a vow to myself that I will never fight with Steve about housework. I will never accuse him of forgetting to take out the garbage, or blame him for leaving his dirty lunch dishes in the sink, or ask him how it’s possible he never, ever manages to put his dirty socks directly into the laundry basket but tosses them on the floor near the laundry basket so that I have to pick them up. Why? (1) Such fights are so boring, so predictable, so familiar, and so utterly pointless I can’t bear to have them or hear myself initiate them. They go like this: My accusation (“How could you have left three dirty cups in the living room?”), his defensive response that usually involves an angry itemization of all the things he has done to benefit the family in the past day or so, my passive-aggressive silent treatment at the fact that he won’t just admit that maybe he should have picked up after himself, the lack of resolution, the sour air that lingers, the failure to improve the conditions of our marriage. (2) The fact that Steve is kind of right: he does do a million things each day for the sake of the family and does have a lot of credit in the bank and maybe it’s okay if he leaves his dirty coffee cups around the living room when he’s the one who picked our son up from school because I’m at work and he’s the one that is going to take the kids to the park after dinner to give me the only forty-five minutes of quiet I’ll get all day before the bath story-bed routine and he’s the one that is going to stay up late working to earn money that we can put into the children’s education fund that he set up and keeps an eye on. Maybe it’s okay that I do a little more around the house because overall it kind of evens out. So now when I find that he has managed to leave three of his sweaters lying around the living room, I just pick them up, take them upstairs, fold them, and put them in a pile, and instead of getting mad, I think about the fact that Steve spends half an hour or more each evening helping our nine year-old with his homework. I never help with homework. I’m better at picking up sweaters.

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