Saturday, July 29, 2006

Dismaying Story #16: The "But I Have Asked Him for Help" Excuse

This post is part of a continuing series entitled The Hunt for the Vacuum Cleaner Gene. This series uncovers the many excuses we use to perpetuate some old-fashioned stereotypes. Many people believe it is normal and inevitable for women to be responsible for the bulk of the housework and parenting within their household. This series includes motivational posts that argue "why" these beliefs are largely unfounded, as well as instructional posts that move on to discuss "how to" effect change in your household. Today's entry is a "why" topic.

Let's get right to the heart of the matter, because one issue will overshadow everything else until we get it out of the way. I've had ladies say to me: "You might have some great ideas, Andrew, but you haven't met my husband. There's no way he's ever going to cook a meal or run a load of laundry, and he'd rather wear a diaper than change one. Getting him to do more around the house isn't just hard, it's impossible."

If this sounds familiar, I have good news. Usually there is much more to a case like this than simply a stubborn husband. The posts in this series will show you many other factors that are often behind these types of situations. More than that, these stories uncover the excuses women make for their unfair work sharing arrangements. Imagine the powerful difference you can make in your life once you learn to recognize and avoid these excuses.

To get you started, this post challenges the notion that there is nothing you can do to get your partner to pitch in. I want you to gain the conviction you'll need to work toward a more equitable deal.

Oh ... and if your husband chooses to wear a diaper rather than change one, I take no responsibility for that.

Dear Andrew,

I tried asking my husband for help with the housework in every way imaginable. I nagged. I pouted. Once I even left the vacuum cleaner in the middle of the living room for a week, hoping he would notice the dirty rug and do something about it. None of this got me very far. Once in a while I could get him to wash the dishes if I really insisted, but before long he'd be back puttering in the garage or watching TV in the basement. Meanwhile I ended up looking after the kids and doing my best to clean up behind them. Eventually I realized bugging him was a losing battle. Now I don't bother asking anymore.

Signed, Vanquished Cleaner

Dear Needlessly Vanquished,

Sadly, your story is all too common. Research studies over the years have shown consistently that women shoulder the bulk of the housework and parenting, even when both spouses work and when the women would welcome more help. For example, a recent study by Lee and Waite appeared in The Journal of Marriage and the Family ("Husbands' and wives' time spent on housework: A comparison of measures", vol. 67, 2005, pp. 328-336). They studied 265 married couples and found that women still shoulder almost two-thirds of the total household workload. This is clearly a difficult issue to resolve.

But take heart. Many couples are able to work out an equitable deal, even when their marriages don't start out that way.

To understand your situation better, think of yourself as a mountain climber. You've lived beside a particular peak for many years and from time to time you get the urge to climb the thing. So you pull on a pair of hiking boots and arrive at the foothills brimming with determination. Every time, though, you end up frustrated by the icy surfaces, vertical cliffs and oxygen-poor air. None of these hurdles can be conquered by sheer willpower alone. After trying and failing several times, you decide the task is just too daunting for you. You know that other people have reached the summit but you can't imagine how you could ever do so. Like you said, you don't bother trying anymore.

Okay, but what if you were better prepared to tackle the mountain? You could anticipate the problems you might encounter and pack appropriate climbing gear. Taking some training would help you develop the skills you need to deal with those challenges effectively.

It's the same with your quest for a helpful husband; you attempted a difficult task with little preparation. As you will see in the coming posts, the road to household workload sharing is littered with a surprising number of land mines. These can include societal and family expectations for gender roles, mother's guilt, marital insecurities and challenges in balancing dual careers, to name just a few. It's no wonder so many couples struggle to navigate their way through all of this.

You need to understand the potential pitfalls and have an action plan for dealing with them. Happily, this series provides exactly that. And by the way, you haven't asked him in every way imaginable, because you haven't tried an approach that works. I'm confident this series will give you the chance to do so.


Note to Faithful Readers: Presenting a large, multi-faceted subject like this as a series of short blog posts is like performing a striptease over a period of many weeks. Any of you who would like to see this material collected into book form are welcome to leave a comment. Or if you happen to work at a publishing house, feel free to visit the sidebar and contact my literary agent. :o)


  1. Readers might be interested in this email I received regarding The Hunt for the Vacuum Cleaner Gene:

    "This is the only fight my husband and I have. I think the main issue is I stay home all day and he works. He sees it as my "payment" for "getting" to stay home. I have told him we will never have a solution until he can see the other side of the story. I do have dinner ready and waiting for him every night and it might be my fault in this. I will definitely be reading your articles."

    The issue of the stay-at-home mom is a common one and will be featured in a future article.

  2. My husband and I fought about domestic chores for years. I felt like he did nothing around the house and he felt like his working 50+ hours a week was more than sufficient.

    Then it occured to me that because he was working 50+ hours a week, we weren't seeing eachother very often and spending what little time we had together fighting (over dishes) was not the way I wanted my marriage to be.

    What has worked well for us the last few years is the following:

    I work from home so my hours are very flexible. Because of this, I don't mind that the "bulk" of the housework is my responsibility. I just needed some help.

    I do all the cooking and he does all the yard work - that works out perfectly. I do the dishes because it's "cooking" related and he does the shoveling and taking out the trash because it's "yard" related. (Well taking out the trash really isn't yard related but it's outside.)

    Keeping up with the rest of the house isn't that big of a deal because we take the time to pick up as we're going along. This was our biggest hurdle because we both like to fall into the habbit of leaving things lay. However, it takes SO much longer to do things when you only do them when they get to the point that you can't stand it anymore than if you just pick up as your going along.

    I hate to grocery shop so we do that together on the weekends. He doesn't mind it and then I get his input on what he wants to eat during the week. That way there is no complaining about what I'm cooking during the week. Also, it gives us a chance to spend some time together. Sometimes we go pick out movies together to watch that weekend or we go out for lunch. It's kind of our "Saturday afternoon date".

    My husband takes care of all car related things, changing oil, repairs, rotating tires etc. I take care of all doctors appointments, braces adjustments and music lessons.

    It's a give and take.

    Occasionally on the weekends I set the timer for 30 minutes and make everyone clean something. I don't care what it is but you have to go as fast as you can and you can't complain. LOL The kids think it's a game and the husband doesn't mind because it's only 30 minutes and then I get off his back.

    That's what has worked for us.

  3. Ahhh, but what if your Hubby has the Vacuum Gene and then goes "Tim Allen" (Home Improvement) on it?

    Seriously, he sucked up the linoleum kitchen tiles - tried to glue them back down and I had Basset Hound Glue Paw Prints throughout the entire house.

    Then came the glue remover. You don't wanna know. It's terrible. I'm moving.

    Great site! -Margie

  4. Wow, did you hit a sore thumb on this one.

    I once piled ten garbage bags in front of our front door nearly blocking the passage out. What happened even surprised me, everyone used the back door to go outside. Go figure.

    I finally decided to put it in the trash myself because it started to smell and some of the bags leaked whatever was inside. That left me double duty of having to wash the floor as well. So much for my lame brain idea.

    I think in the end it's really just easier to do everything yourself and save yourself the idea of nagging.

    I could join you in writing this book you're proposing but unfortunately most of what I have to say on the subject would give you an R rating.

    Check you out later,

  5. Hi Kellie: Your story has several great elements in it. You actually are getting help from your hubby. Apart from the traditional male tasks (yard work, car, etc.) he helps by picking up behind himself (huge - not all men do), sharing the grocery shopping, participating in your 30-minute cleanathons and perhaps more you didn't mention. I don't know if the work sharing is strictly equal, but there is definitely sharing, which is critical.

    Hi Margaret: This sounds like a case of good intentions meeting bad luck and maybe a dash of poor judgment. Good intentions - now that's something you can work with, am I right?

    Hi JB: I hope the leaky garbage bag incident didn't happen during a hot week with a power outage. I agree that this topic is a sore thumb for many couples, even in these so-called liberated times. I seem to get more interest and comments on this topic than on any other. I also agree that nagging can be an incredibly ineffective and stressful approach, however I hope to be able to show you an alternative that is loads better than the "give up and do everything yourself" strategy.

  6. Wow, great blog. Keep up the good work.

  7. Anonymous4:53 PM

    Hi Andrew, This is a very informative, well written blog. Bravo!
    I have my onw unusual experience to share.I lucked out with a man who has no issues with sharing housework. I think it was due to his up bringing. His parents were together but his father spent time away due to his job and then he had two younger siblings for which he cared for while his mother worked. He took on responsibility at a young age and then when I met him he had been a bachelor for two years and actually he had issues with sharing house duties with me. I wanted to help but he did not want to give up his way of cleaning. It was all so unusual to have a man fighting for cleaning rights. We have an understanding ... he cleans his OWN bathroom and we share equally all other duties. This is crazy but I love outside lawn work and he enjoys cleaning windows, laundry and dusting so we have a great deal going on. Again great blog with tons of info I shall come back to view. :o)

  8. Hi Lola: Thanks so much for dropping in!

    Hi Raven: Hi again! Thank you so much for leaving such a nice comment. Your story is statistically unusual but not unheard of. I know of another couple that went through a similar transition at the beginning of their marriage. She had lived at home, he had an apartment and worked as a cleaner and cook in several commercial kitchens. He was better at cleaning AND cooking and it caused stress for her. After growing up in a more traditional household, she didn't know where she fit in her new household. Latest reports are that she has no complaints about her housecleaning hubby. :o)

    Thanks again for sharing, everyone, and c'mon back anytime. I'll leave a light on so you can find your way!

  9. My first husband and I could never sync on housework. he always said he thought we should share, but then would always scream at me why I hadn't done X,Y, and Z :) He worked more than me but we were both exhausted. We had some real issues, we just never worked them out.

    Now this one first surprised me by declaring I was messier than him, so he would have to help me. Then he also pointed out it was in his religion (it actually is). On our 2 day honeymoon though, he told me it was my job... and worked rather hard to get me to agree (in a way i shall not describe here :) And I realize now his sense of humor. When we spent this 7 weeks together, he did the majority of the housework, like he originally promised. If he asked me to do something, he would do something of equal difficulty. Maybe someone was cmoing over, and he would never TELL me what to do, but rather ask me if I could clean the dishes so he could vaccum the floor. He would ASK me to cut up some tomatoes so he could cut onions. Things like this. Or, as in my favorite example, he would wash all my clothes (BY HAND) for 7 weeks, and iron them all and fold them and do this while he would tell me to lay down because he would see I was tired. i could see he was tired too. But he insisted.

    I have come to realize he really does believe in true equality, regardless of his joke about it being my job :) Practice speaks louder to me than words. I went from lipservice to equality to actual practice of equality (or even me taking a lighter load).

    Thank God anyway because he is totally right, I am so freakin messy and he is the neatest neat freak ever. He irons UNDERWEAR and SOCKS.

  10. Andrew - this is a great post. I am extremely lucky in that I'm married to a man who obviously possesses "the vacuum cleaner gene" it's alongside the "ability to cook" and "desire to unload the dishwasher" gene(s).

    I knew before I married him, what a great guy he was - and how he wasn't the kind of person that wouldn't lend a hand to keep a clean home. I don't know that I would have married someone who expected me (or their wife) to be their maid and/or cook. Yikes. That's a scary thought!!!

    Thanks very much for the comment on my blog. You brought some good perspective to the "discussion". Take care!