Toward a new theory of housework

Where less is more….

©andy katz

Two facts in juxtaposition: first, in nearly four decades of marriage and domestic tete-a-tete I do nearly all of our housework, save for washing and ironing my wife’s clothing, she does that. Second, I don’t do very much housework.

So, we’re slobs, right?

Not entirely.

It’s a question of priorities.

At least since Arlie Russell Hochschild’s The Second Shift, 1989, husbands and male domestic partners have been accused of demanding a Legionne d’honneur with palm frond enhancements simply for turning on the vacuum cleaner, or dusting the bric-a-brac.

I don’t dust. As a result we have a fair amount of the stuff on hand at any given time. Lisa really doesn’t mind. She gets allergic, sure, but it’s more of a seasonal thing, pollen in the air. I do do windows, infrequently, and clean the bathroom, often.

Around the same time as Hochchild’s study appeared, an article ran in the Utne Reader, the author was a woman, an unsung shero whose name escapes me after all of these years. But her thesis was simple: was housework, done by either partner, really important enough to spend the irreplaceable moments of one’s life performing?

Her answer: maybe not so much.

She described her home, her family. They weren’t slobs. The home she described wasn’t an early contender for Hoarders. Crucial surfaces in the bathrooms and kitchens were cleaned daily. For the rest, however, it was largely catch as catch can. And that was okay.

How liberating was that?

Liberty, however, always comes at a price. When Hochschild argues that “If men lose power over women in one way’’ [by no longer being the sole source of support], ‘’they make up for it in another way — by avoiding the second shift,” she begs the question of whether or not there is power to be found in that “second shift”. After four decades of doing the lion’s share of housework, I think there is. And that leaves me wondering, to what degree, if any, are women who feel their mates aren’t pulling their weight domestically ambivalent about relinquishing the authority over what transpires within the four walls of home and hearth.

“I’m not allowed in the kitchen!” my wife insisted some years ago during a rare quarrel over shared responsibilities at home. That gave me pause. To the best of my knowledge, I had never suggested the kitchen was off-limits to her. Was my protest to the contrary an attempt to deny her reality. Was I guilty of gaslighting?

©andy katz

Or, perhaps it was more like this: mise-en-place is what professional cooks call everything they need to create a particular dish or series of dishes, set just so. Everything in its place. Even the most casual cook, intentionally or not, creates his or her own mise-en-place over time. It becomes an extension of one’s nervous system, as individual as a fingerprint.

Small wonder someone trying to step in might not feel entirely welcome.

I also pay the bills, do our taxes and manage our humble investments. That perforce leaves me with near total authority of what and how we spend. Were I to keel over right now from a coronary, or get run over by a rogue MTA bus I worry that she wouldn’t know how to access our joint banking account, or even her own 401k.

Pretty much the only thing I don’t do is wash and iron her clothes. It’s not that I’ve drawn a line there, rather she likes her ironing done a certain way, and she uses those anti-static sheets in the dryer, which I always forget because I think they work just as well whether you remember to put them in or not.

Of course, that’s a point where many women express frustration — he’ll do the chore; he just won’t do it very well.

When our son was younger and we assigned chores around the house, we never knew for sure if he tanked them intentionally in a passive-aggressive avoidance strategy, or had we failed to ensure that he understood not only what needed doing, but how?

Not surprisingly, it was easier just to do it oneself.

Along with that term from a 1940s movie starring Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer, “gaslighting”, I propose another, from a far more recent movie. In 2008’s Gran Torino, Clint Eastwood’s character, Walt Kowalski, a grizzled Korean War veteran, is faced with adjusting to a new world. Kowalski’s relationship with his adult sons has become fraught because he never trusted them to do any task, however trivial, correctly.

So yes, I would argue that men who avoid the second shift aren’t necessarily gaining power, but rather avoiding it. To what degree is that their own choice?

Power and responsibility go hand in hand. That’s as true in the domestic sphere as it is in the world of business or politics. If you’re a working woman straining under the burden of childcare, housework and a full-time job, and you believe your mate isn’t pitching in, I would ask: are you absolutely certain you want him in control of your living spaces? You’re willing to cede responsibility for doing the dishes, dusting the family heirlooms, wiping out the toilet bowl, cleaning the windows, sure, but are you also willing to step back, and let go just a bit?

Not Walt Kowalsky the situation?

Having someone else perform household chores means that unless that someone is a professional house cleaner they might not be done the way you’d like.

©andy katz

Is that okay?

After we took Aaron and his fiancé in to our home, they chose a day to pay us back with a surprise “straightening up”. Because I’m a grown-up I accepted the gesture in the spirit it was offered, but for months afterward I couldn’t find anything. It was as though our home had been invaded by mischievous poltergeist — the drawer where I kept my favorite spatula suddenly contained steel shish-kabob skewers, which I never use except occasionally to poke through muck in the kitchen sink; my favorite carbon fiber monopod wound up in the closet next to umbrellas, which we also never use because we’re from California. I’m pretty sure Lisa’s still looking for her favorite walking shoes.

It stands to reason that our lives are the sum totals of our own unique experiences.

I’ve written elsewhere about my parents’ marriage — it most ways it followed the customs and mores of the Greatest Generation. My mother was a homemaker and my father certainly never sought the applause of bra burners and women’s libbers. Yet as his wife’s health failed, he stepped in to do every sort of household chore without complaint. He wasn’t the sort of guy who did things to make a point. If you told him “real men dust” he would shake his head while wiping down the mantel and prepping another load of wash.

While I was too much the entitled teenage Boomer prick to lend much of a hand, I did have his example, which conveyed far more power than any lecture on social justice or gender equity.

Years later, after we were married, my wife and I ran afoul of the IRS. We found ourselves owing a substantial amount to the government. Although we maintained joint accounts and filed our taxes jointly, the IRS never contacted her directly, or attempted to levy her salary, as they did mine. For several years during the mid 1980s I never brought home more than $75 per week, regardless of how much I earned. The rest went to pay our back taxes.

©andy katz

(In case you’re wondering, why didn’t they just arrange to make regular payments? When you’re paying back the IRS, they determine how much you’ll pay based on their assessment of your expenses. Because my wife’s finances weren’t visible to them, or so it seemed, we felt we couldn’t take the risk of laying it out to them. Suffice to say we’ve been square with Uncle Sam now for a couple decades….)

This was also around the time Lisa took a position as an office nurse in a small, three-physician medical practice. She drew blood, did BPs and kept charts. Five years later, that practice consisted of seven office, fifty MDs, more than a hundred ancillary employees and Lisa was general manager, second only to the founder and owner.

Our talents lead us whither they will.

By the time our son was born, Lisa had completed her MBA at Pepperdine Univesity. Given these circumstances, it should come as no surprise that I became Aaron’s primary caregiver.

©andy katz

Childrearing differs from housework because there really aren’t any shortcuts available. Leaving windows to smudge a bit is fine, but kids need 100% of their parents’ best efforts, and a bit more.

We never did quite agree, even to this day, on who exactly was “in charge” raising our son. I often felt as though I was carrying out marching orders, while Lisa insisted it was me when I was boots on the ground.

During Aaron’s first two years there were few jobs I could do that would also enable us to hire quality child-care for him, and really we didn’t want to go that way. So I started my first free-lance photo business, which didn’t pay very much, but offered the kind of scheduling flexibility that meant Aaron wouldn’t be at the mercy of strangers.

Sometime his grandfather would call. “So, are you doing anything?” the man who taught me how to hang bedsheets on a clothesline in order to dry evenly would always ask near the end of the conversation. Meaning, did I have a job yet?

“Babysitting, are you?” other people quipped.

Many assumed I was divorced and out with my son on one of “my days”, or even widowed. What else could possibly explain a solitary man setting forth into the public sphere with just a baby for company?

Women complain, with some justice, that a man performing even the simplest of childcare chores incurs waves of approbation from friends and family, while their own efforts go largely unheralded.

That’s a fair point. But in my experience that praise was often accompanied by friendly-seeming questions aimed at determining whether or not I had stolen the child; was there a mother on the scene, and, oh, where did she happen to be right then? Combine that with the way fathers, especially new fathers are portrayed in film and TV — utterly incompetent, handling baby as though she were made of Baccarat crystal, dependent on mom’s direction for pretty much everything — and what results isn’t the most encouraging of environments in which to be a male primary caregiver.

What I found to be particularly frustrating was often I was excluded from grown-up conversation. You’re out with friends at a restaurant for lunch, or having an early dinner with the folks — kids find that shit extremely boring, and tend to act accordingly. Telling them to go play or sit quietly works … in the movies or on TV, but almost never in real life. They tire of their own company and must be aggressively engaged if the entire evening isn’t to be disrupted. While Lisa spoke eloquently about the mechanics of managed healthcare to her parents, who would hang enthralled on her every word, I would try to keep the little one quiet and out of their hair. In my mind I replayed my father’s question: “Are you doing anything?”

1987’s Three Men and a Baby was Hollywood’s highest grossing picture that year. Writing for the LA Weekly, critic and feminist author Helen Knode suggested that the main characters, who band together to care for the surprise baby daughter of one, are in reality simply running away from adult relationships with women.

I remember my reaction to that: is she calling them pedophiles? Because that is part of what pedophiles do — in addition to eroticizing children, they substitute relating to peers by relating to kids.

Granted, this was just one movie, a light comedy derived from a French original. And I met Helen a few years later. Her feminism is far more nuanced than to call men raising kids pedophiles. Still, lots of folks aren’t entirely comfortable with men taking charge of the next generation that way. Nor are all of them silverbacks.

He can change a diaper, and arrange a play date, sure. But is he also okay to buy onesies, follow up a well-child exam, or select a pre-school?

According to the Stay At Home Dads [SAHD] network, as of 2014 some seven million men were primary caregivers to their children, with two million not working outside the home at all. These numbers reflect a modest, but increasing trend. But another 2014 survey performed by the Pew Institute resulted in 51% of Americans believing that a child is best raised by the mother, while only 8% believed that a child is better off with an SAHD.

All of this means what exactly?

Raising kids in any capacity is a tough gig, whether you’re a single parent, SAHD, working mom, or old-school, two-parent array able to double-team the ankle biter.

©andy katz

And, of course, my experience is strictly my own. It isn’t necessarily yours. Suffice to say there’s a lot more ambivalence about men stepping further into the domestic sphere than many people might realize. Some of it from surprising places.

The entropy of the universe increases. An intractable law of thermodynamics. Housework is humanity’s oldest and most direct form of combat against universal decay. But that doesn’t mean it must consume our lives. Historians of the homefront point out that each new technological development — the vacuum cleaner, the automatic washer-dryer, the motorized lawn mower, to name a few — increased the amount of time and effort homemakers engaged in housework, because the process of marketing them raised the standard of what people perceived as a clean home.

©andy katz

First ads in print, then motion pictures and later TV all dictated what the interior of what your basic, standard-issue domicile should look like. They really had no choice, either, because clutter distracts the viewers’ eye from whatever it is the filmmakers are trying to show. Let the protagonist be a black-out drunk, or a single-mom working two-and-a-half jobs, and the home is spotless inside. Set directors around the world armed the switches in our minds that would compel us to keep scrubbing and wiping and rearranging before allowing ourselves to put feet on the ottoman and fill our hand with a vin rose or micro-brew.

Maybe it’s past time to retrieve that authority, vest it back into ourselves?

My opinion — worth exactly what you’re paying for it right now — sit back and ponder what is most important.

Is it a clean kitchen (as it is for me)? Invisible windows? A toilet into which the Ty-D-Bol Man would happily skinny dip?

©andy katz

I think you’ll want to keep those chores on your own to-do list, because in my experience no one else is going to manage them to your standards. After decades cooking for myself, I really hope you won’t invite me over to your house for dinner because I probably won’t like your cooking. Nothing personal.

If your partner’s not pulling his household weight, let him start catching up with the less vital task. Must the laundry be separated prior to washing? Folded & ironed thus? If the vacuum misses a spot, will anaerobic Clostridia spores bloom? Accept that when he takes baby in for a well-child exam he’s not going to ask the doctor the same questions you would. Not at first.

Dirty windows are easy to clean. Getting them spotless, less so; clothing is easy fold, not so easy to fold so they don’t wrinkle. When I was in culinary school we students were required to wash our own equipment after the day’s lesson. Because I had worked my way through school as a stagiaire, cleaning up after the chef-instructors had completed their evening lessons, I would plow through the stacks of dirty sauté pans and ring molds. It was frustrating to watch some of the other students, male and female, carry on as though they were polishing a family heirloom.

It takes time and effort to learn how to do these things well. And patience to sit back and await optimal results.

I won’t lie: after nearly forty years together Lisa and I don’t entertain. That’s not our priority. Only rarely are people in our home, so the judgment of others is of little concern to us. Most of our domestic energy is put into managing our half-dozen wiener dog rescues, and there’s not a single one we would trade for a spotless floor or a fur-free sofa. That’s our priority. What’s yours? What must you have, and what can you relinquish … at least for the time being?

Can you take a lesson from Walt?

LA born & raised, now I live upstate. I hate snow. I write on healthcare, politics & history. Hobbies are woodworking & singing Xmas carols with nonsense lyrics

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