by Nancy Wick 

I was thirty-nine and I was finally getting married. After years of entanglements with inappropriate men leading to heartbreak and disappointment, I had found a good man who wasn’t afraid of commitment. There was only one problem: I was worried about who would do the housework.

Housework is inescapable. When people live in a house, it gets dirty and needs to be cleaned. People need to eat, so food must be purchased, meals must be planned and prepared and the dishes must be washed; people wear clothes that get dirty and need to be laundered. I had done all those tasks as a single person and then a single parent, but now I was adding a husband to the mix. Would it mean less work for me . . . or more?

There was a time when this question wouldn’t have come up. Men had jobs outside the home, women didn’t. So women’s work in the house was their contribution to the family. That was the world of my childhood. Dad had a job in the steel mill; he worked forty hours a week and brought home his pay. The only chores he did were home maintenance tasks and yard work. Mother cooked the meals, cleaned the house, washed the clothes, and did the bulk of the childcare. And so it was in my friends’ families too.

When I was in junior high school in the early 1960s, I—like all girls—was required to take three non-academic classes: cooking, sewing and home management. The boys, on the other hand, took wood shop, metal shop and electric shop. I didn’t really think about it at the time, but the school system was clearly assuming that students would grow up to live lives like their parents: the girls would need to know how to do housework and the boys—even if they didn’t become carpenters, electricians or metal workers—would need to know how to fix things around the house.

But taking the classes didn’t mean I liked the role I was being assigned; I picked up on the feeling that housework was not valued. At home, my father pointedly refused to do any of it. If my mother went somewhere in the afternoon and was late coming home, for example, he didn’t step in to do meal preparation. He sat in his chair and waited for her, fuming that she was not there to make his dinner after he’d worked hard all day. He did not help with the dishes before my sister and I were old enough to do it. Nor would he clean or do laundry, even if Mother was sick in bed with the flu. I got the distinct idea that he thought housework was beneath him, something a man would never do.

I thought housework was boring, drudgery, something that had to be done but no one wanted to do. I didn’t mind baking—supplying the homemade cookies my father demanded for his packed lunches—but preparing dinners didn’t interest me, nor did cleaning the house (although I was required to clean my room once a week). As for sewing, I went through a phase of making clothes because it was cheaper than buying them, but I went about it with impatience, unwilling to rip out botched seams, always finding ways to hide mistakes rather than correct them.

Meanwhile, on television, situation comedies seemed to imply that housework was something only women could do competently. There would be an episode in which the wife would go away for the evening, leaving the husband in charge. He would be shown wearing an apron, usually with ruffles, standing in the middle of a kitchen disaster: a pot that had boiled over, a bottle of milk overturned on the floor and a screaming baby in his arms. The wife would come home, survey the damage and put everything right in a jiffy, after which she would embrace her poor befuddled husband and promise to never leave him in such a situation again.

I couldn’t help thinking the husband was pretending to be inept at housework so he didn’t have to do any. And what a neat trick—making her think she had some special ability that he lacked.

By the time I was heading into marriage, it was the 1980s and a lot had changed. Second-wave feminism had risen during my college years and many married women had paying jobs. But the dynamics inside the home hadn’t changed as much as people thought. In many marriages, wives were still doing all or most of the housework, despite the fact that they worked full-time and often made a significant amount of money. Arlie Hochschild hadn’t yet written her classic book, The Second Shift (published in 1989), but lots of women knew all about that shift. I didn’t want to be one of them.

Judging by what I knew of my husband-to-be, I might have expected that housework wouldn’t be a problem. I’d made no secret of my feminist beliefs, after all, and he hadn’t objected when I told him I didn’t intend to change my name. But housework loomed in my mind as a bigger deal precisely because it seemed trivial. Fighting over who does the laundry is surely not as important as fighting over how to spend joint income or how to raise the kids, is it?

Maybe not on the surface, but bickering over who will clean the toilet or mop the kitchen floor points to a deeper issue of equality. Housework is a service, so whoever does the housework is a servant to the others in that household. This implies that the person who is served deserves more respect than the person doing the serving, just as a rich employer gets more respect than the servants he hires to do jobs like housework. And since housework is constant—a project with no completion date—the inequity is reinforced every day.

So I approached my fiancé with some trepidation. “I want to talk about how we’re going to live after we’re married,” I said to him one night. We were sitting on the old faux-suede couch in the living room of my rental house, where we’d settled to watch a little TV.

He gave me a quizzical look. “What about it?”

 “It’s about housework,” I said, rushing on before he could respond. “We both work. I can’t see myself staying home even if we could afford for me to, which we can’t. So I don’t want to do all the housework. I want us to share cooking and cleaning.”

            “Is that all?” His shoulders relaxed and his face broke into a smile.

“Yes.” I paused. “This is important to me. I can’t marry you if you won’t do this.”

He grabbed my hand, laughing. “You don’t have to give me an ultimatum. I don’t mind doing housework. I’ve certainly done enough of it since my divorce.”

I relaxed too, thinking the problem was solved. But it wasn’t—not quite.

After we were married, my husband and I started a system whereby we alternated who cooked dinner. The person who didn’t cook, we agreed, would do the dishes. We each confessed that there were chores we hated—grocery shopping for me and laundry for him. Luckily, I didn’t mind doing laundry and he didn’t mind doing grocery shopping, so those tasks became our permanent chores.
But as he prepared to go to the grocery store the first week, my husband asked me what he should buy.

Caught off guard, I looked at him blankly over the top of the newspaper I was reading. “I don’t know. What are we eating this week?”

“How should I know?” His brow furrowed in irritation.

I put the newspaper down. “You know as well as I do. Looks like we need to make a menu plan, then buy what we need.”

“I don’t know what to put on a menu plan.”

“And you think I do, just innately?” I let the question hang there for a minute, as if I expected an answer. “Look, neither one of us is a great cook. You know the kind of things we eat. How hard can it be?”

He glared at me. “Oh, so I have to make the menu plan because I do the grocery shopping?”

I softened. “No, not necessarily. We can trade off on that job.”

“All right. Why don’t you do it the first time . . . since you think it’s so easy.”

“Fine, but you’re doing it next week.”

We both laughed. Our first argument over housework had been relatively easy to resolve. But it wouldn’t be the last.

We had agreed that every week the house needed to be vacuumed, the bathroom cleaned, and the furniture dusted, but we hadn’t discussed how that would work. The first few weeks of our marriage I found myself doing these chores whenever I noticed that they really needed to be done, all the while dropping hints to my husband about it:
“Hey, that rug’s looking grimy.”

“I could write my name on the coffee table.”

But he seemed oblivious.

Finally I confronted him. “You know, we agreed that we were going to share the housework, and you’ve done that with the cooking and the menu planning. But you haven’t vacuumed or cleaned the bathroom a single time since we’ve been married. You haven’t dusted the furniture either.”

He looked surprised. “Well, you haven’t asked me to.”

“So I’m in charge of the chores? You only do them when asked?”
“I don’t know when things need to be cleaned.”
I raised my arms and my voice as if seeking divine help. “They need to be cleaned when they’re dirty. How hard is that? Why do you think I recognize dirt better than you do?”
The obvious answer was sitting there between us, but he didn’t say it. “I don’t want to be doing things around the house that you don’t want done.”
“So the house is my domain then? I’m in charge?”
“Yes.” He raised his own arms, flicking his hands toward me as if to say “of course, isn’t that clear?”
“And I’m to tell you what to do there.”

I took a deep breath, trying to think how I could get him to understand my feelings about that. I stepped closer and got right up in his face. “You know what that makes me? That makes me the nag. I’m not going to be the nag. This house belongs to both of us. We both get it dirty and we both clean it.”

That argument brought “the schedule” into our lives. We made a chart of weekly chores and monthly chores, divided them into groups and decided that in any given week I would do Group A and he would do Group B, and the following week, we’d reverse it. Posted on the refrigerator, the chart told us our assigned chores, which we agreed to complete by Sunday evening. And nobody had to be the nag.

But old attitudes die hard. Our first Christmas together, six months after we were married, my mother-in-law asked us what gifts we would like. She was a generous woman who loved to give us presents, so we each supplied her with a list. On Christmas morning, I was surprised to unwrap a cookbook—an item that was definitely not on my list.

“Why would she get me this?” I asked my husband. “I didn’t ask for it.”
“Oh, I put it on your list. I thought we needed a good cookbook.”

I dropped the book in his lap. “Then why didn’t you put it on your list? I would rather have had a new sweater.”

He picked up the book and turned away to place it on a shelf, saying nothing, but it didn’t matter because I knew the reason—or thought I did. His mother was a pre-feminism woman thirty years my senior. Although he was willing to take his turn at cooking, he didn’t necessarily want his mother to know about it. Or maybe he just couldn’t bring himself to be a man asking for a cookbook for Christmas.

As I thought about our relationship, I found it all rather curious. My husband’s first marriage had been quite traditional. Although his wife worked, she had done all the cooking and cleaning in their household. But by the time he was single again, society had changed, and he had changed with it, at least in principle. He understood feminism and always said he was happy that I was an independent woman with a mind of my own. Still, our experiences with housework showed that he hadn’t really shed the attitudes of his childhood, which had been similar to mine.

We’ve been married for more than thirty years now, and I’d like to think the couples of today no longer face these issues. After all, today’s husbands were raised by less traditional women, weren’t they? But that does not seem to have made as much of a difference as one would hope. In the “Dear Sugars” advice column in the New York Times in 2018, Steve Almond and Cheryl Strayed answered the letter of a woman complaining about her husband being AWOL from housework. Moreover, the woman, who called herself “Domestic Drudge,” was just one of many women who made a similar complaint. The letter, Strayed said, came in response to a call she had put out on social media for letters addressing several topics they’d be bringing up in their column.

“No topic received more responses than the one you wrote to us about, Drudge, which speaks to how common your frustration is,” Strayed said. “Most of the letters could’ve been written by the same person — all of them women who described a situation similar to yours.”

How is it that these women, raised in an era when less than 20 percent of families have a stay-at-home wife, are still doing all or most of the housework? Perhaps it’s just the old cultural stereotype that says housework is a woman’s job, enforced by the fact that if the house is a mess, the wife will be blamed. But women have fought cultural norms before; why does this one still stand? Perhaps for the same reason I cautiously broached the subject with my fiancé years earlier: because it seems so trivial. Feminists have fought for the right to attend elite colleges, to enter professions like medicine and law, to ascend to high levels in their chosen fields, to be free of harassment. These are big things. Housework, by contrast, seems small—petty. But to millions of women trapped in the second shift, it is not small; it is a blight on their everyday lives.

Strayed and Almond encouraged the woman who wrote to them to negotiate a fairer division of labor with her husband, just as I did with mine, and to explain how important such a division was to her. What they didn’t stress, but should have, points to another reason why the cultural norm about housework has endured: she should raise her sons to think of housework as part of their lot (and daughters to think it isn’t exclusively theirs).

Thanks to the system my husband and I worked out, my son grew up seeing both of us do housework, and this by itself taught him that men do these tasks. When he was old enough, he became part of our system, doing his share of the cleaning. I also taught him how to cook and do laundry, telling him that when he grew up he would need to feed himself and keep his clothes clean, that no woman was going to become a second mother to him and he shouldn’t expect it. Now married, he thinks nothing of cooking a meal or doing laundry. The first year of his daughter’s life, he was the one who stayed home with her.

I’m aware that not all women feel the same way I do about housework. One woman I know declared that she didn’t want her husband anywhere near the kitchen; another said that her husband’s standards of cleanliness were not high enough for her to trust him with the vacuum cleaner and mop. Each couple needs to work out between them what they consider to be a fair division of household tasks. But I believe that this discussion must happen and that it should never start with the assumption that housework is women’s work—or that it is a trivial matter. An equal division of labor is as worth fighting for at home as equal pay is on the job.

I am retired now, but in my working years I didn’t have to come home and cook dinner every single night, nor did I have to spend all weekend getting the house clean. As a result, I never developed resentment toward my husband and son for having a get-out-of-housework-free card just for being male. I may not have saved the world in my ordinary life, but I saved myself and at least one other woman from the fate of “Domestic Drudge.”

About the Author:

For many years, Nancy Wick worked as a writer and editor at the University of Washington in Seattle. She’s won numerous regional and national writing awards from the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education. Now retired, Nancy writes personal essays and other nonfiction. Her work has appeared in Minerva Rising, Persimmon Tree, Oasis Journal, Longridge Review, and the anthology Triumph: Stories of Victories Great & Small, among others.