Monday, August 28, 2006

Dismaying Story #41: Traditional Work Sharing - Does It Work?

Dear Andrew,

I am a proud husband and father of one great 18 month old baby. My wife has been a stay at home mom for almost two years. My wife does a great job with our son. My problem is that I get upset when the house isn't clean, laundry isn't done, or when there are dirty dishes etc. everywhere.

Before we were married, we discussed our wishes of having her home to be with the kids.

I was raised with a working mom who always had a spotless house.

Should I expect my wife to do all of the housework? Please help me understand what you would consider to be correct expectations.

Signed, Husband Who Doesn't Help Around the House

Dear Husband,

Sure, you can let your wife do all the housework, especially if you would like her to be overstressed, overworked, more crabby than she needs to be, less able to cope with your baby's needs, more likely to be depressed and have high blood pressure, and less likely to find you sexually appealing. Hey, if that's what you're aiming for, then by all means camp out on that couch while she works away.

Regular readers of this site will be aware of a continuing series of articles I have been running, which I refer to as The Hunt for the Vacuum Cleaner Gene. The most recent installment in that series, entitled The "It's Only A Little Work" Excuse, discusses how research shows inequitable work sharing arrangements have negative consequences not only for the couple, but also for their children. I suggest Husband should read that article.

Today's question is not part of that series but it very well could be, because it raises a very relevant issue. Many of us learned how spouses "should" interact by watching our parents. In this case you say your mother always kept a spotless house and now you expect your wife to do the same. Girls are commonly raised to have the same expectations for themselves, although your wife may not feel that way -- there must be some reason you wrote to me.

My experience has been that working fathers can sometimes have a skewed perception of the workload their stay-at-home wife faces. Dealing with a baby is a full-time job during the day. The child needs bathing, changing, feeding, entertaining (LOTS of entertaining), walking, soothing. Then there are all the tasks she must do to support those activities, like running out to buy diapers or formula, preparing bottles and food, preparing and cleaning up after the bath, laundry, and so on. It is no secret that the amount of housework explodes when little ones arrive.

That lunch hour you got? And the leisurely ten minutes you spent talking to a co-worker by the water cooler? She doesn't get those types of breaks. Instead, she gets the mind-numbing stress of rarely having an adult conversation anymore. She faces a never-ending stream of tasks she must perform, many of which could be categorized as drudgery.

Now back up and realize that her job didn't begin at the same time you arrived at the office. She was probably up a few times in the night and your baby required care from the moment your wife got out of bed in the morning. To catch up on that lost sleep (and to have the energy required for the evening and the next night) most moms truly need to nap during the day when the baby naps. There is just no other way to fit in a decent amount of rest during a 24-hour period.

Your expectation, however, is that she should forego this need. Instead, during those times when the baby does not demand immediate attention, she should make sure ALL the housework gets done up so you can walk into a spotless house when you come home from work.

To me, that is clearly an unfair expectation. In many cases it is the wife who has had the harder workday, not only physically but also emotionally. Don't believe me? Try switching places with her for a week. You'll soon understand.

When you arrive home from work, you and your wife have both just put in a full workday. The two of you are "Even Steven" in terms of your work contribution so far for that day. There is still plenty of work, however, that must be done. Your child still must be cared for until bedtime. The house (which you both sleep in, make dirty, etc.) is still in use and must be maintained for the rest of the day. You both could use a change of pace by that point in the day. You get yours automatically because you leave the office and come home. The only way she gets a change of pace is if you help to provide it.

A "fair" model is to share the workload equally from that point forward in the day. That means she does whatever housework she can through the day, but there will inevitably be more to do while you are around. How is it fair that you should work 8 hours a day and she should work 16 or more? Roll up your sleeves and take care of life together in the evening, then maybe BOTH of you can have a bit of leisure time to enjoy. Sometimes that might be alone time (which is important) and this can also allow the two of you to spend some time as a couple. What a concept -- having some time to strengthen your marriage, even after you have children. I highly recommend it and sharing the housework makes it easier to accomplish.

You are correct in thinking that this model of fairness was not typical in your mother's day, although you might be surprised to learn how many households worked this way even back then -- not as many as today but still a significant number. In my view, however, not all social norms should be automatically carried forward to new generations, and this is a good example. There is growing awareness that the traditional model for domestic work sharing is inequitable, and studies show this model is becoming less common as the years go on.

I urge you to consider becoming part of this trend. You might even find that doing the dishes proves to be a highly effective form of foreplay.

All the best,

Do you have a relationship issue in your household? I would welcome your email or any comment you wish to enter using the link below.


  1. I can vouch for the fact that there is nothing sexier than a man loading the dishwasher, washing the floor or bathing and putting his children to bed. I mean absolutely nothing!

  2. So many people remember only those things that happened when they are older. I am guessing that to really remember that you grew up in a “spotless house” you would have had to have been over the age of 6. And let me tell you something, there is a LOT of difference between being a stay at home mom of an 18 month old, and a 6 year old. And, if you were in school, that gives mom a few more minutes (not much) to get more done. One cannot expect the same amount of freedom when one has a small child as one does when they are older. That is why daycare workers gets paid to do what a stay at home mom does in the course of her work. Andrew is right (as usual) pitch in and see what a happy life you have. You will also be teaching your child how to treat a future partner, with respect.

  3. Andrew,

    What a wonderful website!! Your advice is bang on! Would you mind if a put a link on my own blog?

    Please keep up the good work! I just might be submitting question to you myself, concerning my weird aunt.

    ~ Toni (aka "Autrice")

  4. Okay I'm pretty sure this is my husband...If it is thank you Andrew for your input. I was very stressed in the beginning trying to meet expectations of everyone but have given up trying to meet his, and have become much happier. The truth is our kid is tremendously happy and calm and I think it's from me playing and taking care of him. Im not going to ignore him to do chores. But the issue of cleaning up after 3 people is no easy task. I am not a clean person or have boundless energy like his mother. So while this is an issue about sharing household duties it should be said that Men need to let go of some expectations they have, or at least notice your girlfriend's apartment when you were dating...If dishes are left in the sink..they probably will be left when you're married! So reading this (if it is you DH) makes me happy that he's thinking about it. Nobody likes to come home and help with dishes...nobody loves hanging up laundry, but it's the price you pay to have dinner and clothes.

  5. Julie: I hope lots of guys out there take notice of your comment!

    Kamrin: Absolutely. I thought of mentioning that Husband couldn't possibly remember how "spotless" his mother's house was when he was 18 months old, but somehow forgot to include it. Thanks!

    Autrice: Please do feel free to submit a question, and links are always welcome.

    Chunks Mom: This is a first ... a reader who thinks their spouse submitted the question :o) I have no way of know if you are right but I suspect you'll find out when you ask him.

  6. I saw your comment on one of my friend's sites and have now thoroughly enjoyed what I've read here.
    I could very well have been the wife referred to as well. We have CONSTANT stress in our house over these issues- and it is amazingly refreshing to hear a man have the perspective you have.
    Now to figure out a clever way to get my husband to accidently read your site and subscribe to your way of thinking!

  7. yeah it like we have our own marriage counselor...andrew please give us a discount? riflmbo!

  8. okay chunks mom again...i was remembering a point about dh's post...i just reminded him of this...his mother told me when we first got married that she spoiled her family, always making things perfect and she told me never to start serving him and doing everything cause once you start you never stop. I think this is important. We may have idealized views of our childhood but maybe the truth isn't that way. She says it was a different time when she grew up and got married (60s). and it was just how it was done..She did everything even for her kids..which is totally opposite of my parents..

    example: At DH's parents house..."mom can I have a drink?" Mom-"sure son, crushed ice? Lemon?, hold your mouth open i can spoon it in.."

    At my parent's house..."mom can I have a drink?" Mom- "well know where it the way while you're up will you get me one? oh and the dishwasher is dirty, so load your cup when you're done"

  9. One more important thing - My husband has figured out that if he helps his wife out around the home she is more likely to have SEX with him instead of being "too tired and stressed out"!!!

  10. Just got a good chuckle from Chunk's Mum's examples of their parents home. When I was very young, I spent much time being raised by my maternal grandparents. My parents were both in the military, and didn't want an 'army brat' lifestyle for me, so I had to stay behind because of school etc. My grandma's house was much like DH's in your example. My grandma would do anything, all out, you just had to ask. Yet, when I was at home it more like, if you want it get it your self. And, because they were in the military, there was also chores to do, but they weren't strict about it, they were just things that were expected to be done. I've often thought how different my grandparent's ran their home as opposed to my parents. I think , maybe my mother got used to being served by her mother over the years.

    Andrew, I really liked the advice in this article. My wife and I were married for six years before our first child arrived. Being a couple for so long, we had lots of time to plan an get ourselves into routines etc. before any children arrived (to mess things up tee hee). We were never in a position for either one to be able to be a stay at home parent. We established a different approach. I worked nights, and my wife worked days. This had the benefit of both of us being home half the day to look after things. The result was that our children never had day care and were always with a parent. As far as household chores, we split that too, and if something came up, we would jump on the specific task together. We also made sure we had the same days off together. And as a pact, there would be no major chores to do around the house. Our goal was that our days off were for us and the family, not for spring cleaning, wall washing or yard work.
    bye for now,

  11. Andrew, I think I'm in shock. I have NEVER heard a male explain as well as you did just what a tough job it is to stay at home with small children AND try to just keep the house running. Even my husband, who stays home 1 day per week (while I work), doesn't fully 'get it', because on his day, he doesn't attempt to do any kind of household work...he is flat out doing the dressing, feeding, entertaining, getting one child to and from school etc. It is such a buzz to hear that at least one male out there realises that stay-at-home parents have a tiring job!

    You are so right about the sharing of work being sexy and appealing! My hubby has taken it upon himself to share all the work with me once we are both at home in the evenings, and this works really well. Once the kids are in bed, we both can relax and unwind. Makes for a much happier marriage!

    I LOVED this post - it's sure to generate lots of discussion!

  12. Marlo: Why don't you print the post and leave it on his pillow...accidentally :o)

    Chunk's Mom: It is interesting to hear of someone from that time who does NOT recommend that things should be the same now.

    Karmyn: I think I can hear the stampede of guys trying to find a vacuum cleaner, can't you?

    Foxxfyre: Sounds like you and your wife have a great, workable scheme. Good for you.

    Jellyhead: Glad to hear about the sharing and the happier marriage. I just love a happy ending!

    I also received the following comment via email, which I will add here anonymously:

    I just read your question and response. I feel like something is missing. I did not really read where you pointed out raising a person is the same as having a job with other adults.

    The differences in the jobs being done. Example: Husband is having a hard day, tired, coming down with a cold, whatever and he takes it easy that day. He does the bare minimum required but otherwise really does not do much. I have worked for a long time before becoming a mom and have done this and observed this. It is not that hard to do with most jobs. Excluding jobs like driving a bus or something similar it is easy to be at work without working all that much from time to time.

    Now, take a parent who is at home. Especially with a little one. Even a big-un. You have to feed them, nurse them, change them, help them to the potty, get them dressed, give them toys to play with, prepare their meals, tend to yourself for basic human needs, you may need to bathe them or yourself (who hasn't been puked or pooped on?), and if you don't do these things , at the VERY least you can count on your child screaming bloody f'ing murder all day long. They might cry so hard that they puke. Or crap themselves. You have to make sure they don't injure themselves while they toddle around. OR keep them from touching anything or moving around anywhere. (impossible) And then there is the screaming that will ensue and develop into something worse. Now, unless your job is like air traffic controller or something, your boss and co-workers will get over the slack you have taken on a given day. But with a child, there is no time out. You never, ever get away from your obligation as a parent. You can leave your job and be home with out ties and with a good break away. Unless a parent leaves home completely at night, there is no clean slate because that mom is still "at her job".

    More importantly, you are raising a person. You are a teacher whether you like it or not. I would like to know how much time that husband's mother spent with her son after she kept the house spotless?

    Also, people's priorities are different. What is tolerable to his wife may be different to him. One is not wrong or right. Just different and it would be better to figure out a compromise than to compare and blame.

    This is kind of a hot button for me as a former SAHM and we now have a SAHdad. You never get away from that job, even when your spouse comes home. You are never on vacation from that. And you can never say (although some do) I quit cause this doesn't work for me anymore and just get a new job/family. I know people do just isn't really the same.

  13. Hey Andrew,

    I like so many others take on the burden of most of the work while our hunters go out to the forest foraging for the paycheck.

    When you suggested that seeing a man do physical labor around the house can be a turn on, I must agree.

    In my house I take on the bulk of everyday housework even though I work many many hours a day. Oddly enought though I am also the handyman. I tile, frame, drywall, paint, garden and just about anything else that needs to be done.

    One afternoon my husband saw my trying to drag the dining room table outside so that I could sand the top down and refinish it. Perhaps it was guilt but he did help me move it. After a moment he said "hey, let me do that". I was more than happy to let him have a go. It was hot outside and after a few minutes he took his shirt off. I sat inside watching, facinated not only by the fact that he was doing a good job, but also by the fact that I had never seen his body move the way it did. I saw muscles I'd never even realized he had. Horny, you betcha. A few hours later, a little cold lemonade, a shower all know where this is going.

    So men listen up. Women like to see you strain and groan sometimes. It's almost better than whatever the equivilant is of viagra.

  14. Amen Dr. Andrew. Amen!

  15. My husband treats me like a princess. He not a "classic beauty," but when he's in the kitchen, he’s the sexist man alive. There is nothing more appealing than a man willing to put on an apron for the sake of a woman's happiness.

  16. Boy, you are winning me over. You are soooo smart! I put in many years as that working mother who kept a perfect house. Too bad I missed my kids growing up before my eyes and all they knew was a mother working 20 hours a day, compensating for what the husband wouldn't do, saying "uh huh" to their conversations. I still deal with resentment toward that absent husband. Oh, his body was there. And, I now have Crohns from just being so darn rundown emotionally and physically shouldering "all of it." Big price to pay.

  17. Andrew, you were right. I believe it goes like this "mediocre minds think alike" - LOL.

    Although, my rant was inspired by another blogger. I think I will have to read your site more often. I am like a test book, of psych problems. Maybe I can help you post and you can help me see reality! LOL

  18. Personally, I think my husband is sexiest when he is paying attention to me.

    His job is providing for our family and fixing stuff. Mine is taking care of him, our nest, and our soon to be born baby. It works well for us. He puts the seat down, puts his dirty clothes and towels in the hamper, doesn't make messes, and irons his own clothes about half the time. We also cook together from time to time.

    The sight of him loading the dishwasher or running the vacuum doesn't really inspire any additional amorousness.

    I don't need him to do housework in order for me to jump his bones. I guess I'm easy that way! :D

  19. Anonymous4:21 PM

    I am a SAHM for two boys and I have to remind my husband occasionally that I would rather be working outside the home sometimes so that when I clean at night, get up and leave the house, it STAYS that way. As we are home majority of the day, the mess follows me around. It never leaves. When people go to work and no one is home to make a mess, you come home to the same as you left. I don't get that pleasure. He does help with the housework but usually when I'm gone with the boys.
    Also, vacation....bad word!! If I go somewhere with my boys overnight, my husband says I'm getting a vacation or a break. WRONG. Not being at home makes my job harder and he doesn't understand that. As he works a lot he doesn't really get the chance to experience that but I think that's why he won't go camping anymore!!

  20. Michelle12:37 AM

    Thank you for getting my thoughts in writing - I'm printing this out for my hubby to read and maybe he'll comprehend my frustration a little better!

    (a visitor from Dazed81's Adventures In Everyday Life)

  21. OH MY GOD!Anonymous I can't believe what you just wrote. I thought my Hubby was the only one that thought that a three day weekend with all the kids, and all the travel, and all the same needs, and half the equipment, and no where to run around was a vacation!!! The only way I have found to truly get a break is to take them home to my parents house. For the first two days of any trip home my parents totally take over the kids. I can stay up till two and sleep till one. You need something...Go tell Grandpa, Mommy has left the area and been replaced by someone who looks just like her and unless you need a Doctor, a hug , or a kiss....leave me alone.
    Its the only peace I get. Not everyone is lucky enough to have parents that will totally rearrange their schedules to accomodate kids and grandkids. My parents live for it. We live in different states though so that may help. I don't think my sister who lives down the street gets the same reaction.
    A friend of mine is reading this over my shoulder and telling me that she broke her husband of the same issue. They went to the Mts. for a 5 day "vacation". On day two she had her office call with an emergency, rented a car and went home. By the time Hubby got home with three kids in tow he was talking about some time away..just the two of them. Hmmmm, food for thought?