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February 13, 2006

On Chores

I think Scott (and Jacob Levy, who he quotes at length) gets a lot right here. The discussion over housework has a strange tendency to take the distribution of chores as the only mutable variable, while leaving the actual quantity alone. In fact, my hunch is that in an age of multiple wage earners, standards of tidiness will simply have to go down. Put it this way: folks with more money can buy a better car. If you have less money, you buy a lesser car. No one disputes betters cars are more desirable, but with cash in limited supply, you cut back on horsepower in favor of other things. Similarly, if you have a lot of money and/or time, you can strive to attain spotlessness or pay someone to clean your house. If you lack those resources -- particularly time -- scrubbing the floors daily (or weekly, or at any time save when they start sprouting mold) seems like a perfectly natural place to cut back.

The problem, of course, is when the two parties can't agree on an appropriate cleanliness level and then don't find compromise, leaving (usually) the wife to sacrifice her own time to reach this higher level of tidiness. That's bad. But while the key in that situation is obviously better communication and negotiation skills, the more global problem has an element of unreality to it, an unwillingnes (often on both sides)s to admit that conceptions of cleanliness that worked in past decades should still be sought today. Guys playing a free rider game are obviously in the wrong, but disabusing ourselves of unrealizable domestic ideals is worth some thought also. Without doubting that the disproportionate amount of time women spend on homemaking should equalized, it's perfectly acceptable to shrink it both through better distribution and a more realistic chore list.

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» Housework: Reflective equilibrium for slobs from Majikthise
I'm not an authority on housework. Don't do much, don't discuss it much. But now there's blood in the dishwater and I can't resist weighing in. I agree with Scott: Bourgeois standards of neatness are a needless burden, especially on [Read More]

Tracked on Feb 14, 2006 12:59:45 PM


Good point, I think, both on the recent discussion and as a general principle. I think sometimes society wastes a lot of time blah-blahing about change (e-commerce, latch-key kids) but fails to actually effect productive adjustments. Of course a huge part of the economy is dependent on maintaining old-fashioned cleanliness standards.

Regarding the Warner-Yglesias-Waring discussion, it seems like it's never occurred to anyone that, regardless of where men's & women's cleanliness goals start, in any long-term situation consensus is needed. My wife is not especially a cleanliness-freak (although her threshhold of dirt & dust is lower than mine), but I still spend time actually discussing what cleaning needs to get done before, say, guests come over. It's an ongoing dialogue, and one that assures pretty good balance - it's kind of hard to ignore the inequity if I say, "OK, you do the bathrooms, mop the floors, dust the furniture, and I'll set the table."

It helps that she hates to vacuum, and to me it's hardly even work - she'd rather mop for an hour than vacuum for half that! Yay, compatibility.

Posted by: JRoth | Feb 13, 2006 4:22:29 PM

I've had my recent say on household chore distribution over at Matt Yglesias's TPM abode.

My position is summed up in the last sentence of the comment:

Fathers and Mothers, are your sons being trained through experience to assume their share of ALL of the tasks that must be performed in a household?

Posted by: JimPortandOR | Feb 13, 2006 4:23:00 PM

IJust closing an italics tag.

Posted by: Ezra | Feb 13, 2006 4:32:50 PM

conceptions of cleanliness that worked in past decades

Note that these changed drastically during the 20th century. Before the washing machine, the idea that clothes might be washed after each wearing was lunacy (or so I have read). Housework has expanded to fill the time available, with standards shifting to match.

Posted by: Allen K. | Feb 13, 2006 4:42:58 PM

Sounds like a lot of guys trying to make excuses for dust bunnies under the bed. :)

I'm not one to talk, but still. I doubt a lot of women are gonna be persuaded by this logic.

Posted by: weboy | Feb 13, 2006 5:20:09 PM

If you go back far enough, you meet the ladies who spent their time at home while the kids were young, doing makework to keep from going ditzy from boredom ; their standard had nothing to do with efficiency.

Flip side, there really is less work keeping things to a standard rather than forming dirtglue.

Regardless of who does what, ventilate when using cleaners. Inhaling toxins is not conducive to health ( I doubt those wallplug scents are good for you either ).

Division of routine work can fall to who seems to resent doing a particular job the least - if there is offsetting credit for doing so.

Posted by: opit | Feb 13, 2006 5:46:24 PM

You guys are overlooking the fact that rightly or wrongly, many - perhaps most - women have internalized the belief that a high standard of cleanliness is one of those things that women, but not men, are judged on. It is damn hard to shake that off.

I know that when people are coming over to my house, I enter into a frantic bout of dusting, vaccuming, straightening, and generally giving the place the once-over because I firmly believe that a messy house is "bad". If someone does come over when I hven't cleaned recently, I find myself apologizing for the mess repeatedly and feeling bad about myself.

The fact that these standards probably need to be rethought given that women are not at home all day is all well and good, but unlearning behavior is even harder than getting one's spouse to help with the cleaning.

Posted by: fiat lux | Feb 13, 2006 6:23:50 PM

True enough, but to some degree, that's the point. A certain percentage of this must be dudes helping more around the house, accomadating those internalized standards. But some, conversely, should be the process of unlearning. After all, that woman shouldn't work, or go to school, or be assertive, were learned behaviors that had to be shaken loose. Behaviors that were corollary beliefs to those should also be fought. Bad ideas need to be confronted.

Posted by: Ezra | Feb 13, 2006 7:54:07 PM

I was horrified recently when my husband's friend and his wife came over and saw the house in complete wreckage (we're remodeling) with dirty dishes in the (brand new!!) sink. She's a Republican and I know she will attribute my slovenly ways to my political views rather than my demanding job and un-domestic spouse. The puppy, who apparently is sensitive to the evils of Republicans, tucked her tail and hid rather than displaying her usual effusive greeting.

Posted by: J Bean | Feb 13, 2006 8:03:53 PM

I'm suspicious of this line of reasoning. I suspect that part of the reason cleanliness is being sneered at is because it's feminine.

But it's no matter. We're not talking about perfectly clean homes. I don't see why 2-4 hours of housework a day is considered over the top--I live in a small apartment by myself and between cooking, washing dishes, and basic tidying up, I probably do an hour or 2 a day, and then on weekends when you actually clean and do laundry, that's probably something like 6 hours of work. That's for a single person in an apartment--when I had a man and a house and a yard, my entire fucking weekend was sucked up by house and yard work. Add children and the work is probably more than double what it is for a single woman in an apartment.

And I'm not especially neat. Right now there's an empty shoe box and a pile of CDs sitting next to me, the dishes still need to be done, and I haven't made the bed. I live nicer than a stereotypical college age bachelor, sure, but that's because I like to be able to live sans roaches and malaria.

Posted by: Amanda Marcotte | Feb 13, 2006 9:37:17 PM

Of course, there is a hazy area between hobbies and housework for a lot of women--half of my summer weekend work would go towards gardening, which is more of a hobby than housework, and resembles traditionally masculine activities because there was an end goal that one could be proud of instead of the Sisyphean task of just trying to stay ahead of the housework.

Posted by: Amanda Marcotte | Feb 13, 2006 9:40:45 PM

I'm a mother of three ADHD boys. There is a full moon right now. I feel as though I've spent every waking moment of the past couple of days breaking up fights, picking up toys, washing clothes, and shopping for and preparing food--it's bloody depressing, really. I am perpetually exhausted and my house is never, ever completely tidy: I shoot for essentially clean--meaning no insects, mold, or other sundry pathogens, especially in the bathroom and kitchen--and cross my fingers in the hope that my mother-in-law doesn't suddenly stop by.

Yes, husband helps when he's not running the business; usually, though, he's running the business. Yes, I could learn some organization skills; write more and clean less; and let go of those outrageous standards of cleanliness that were drummed into my head as a growing girl. But as others have pointed out, it's very hard to unlearn things. And I have the sort of kids who leave a wake of destruction every time they walk from one room to the next--it's not some mild little mess to which one can easily turn a blind eye. In my case, cleaning chores--and lots of them--can mean the difference between walking across the room without incident and needing surgery to remove fourteen tiny Lego blocks that got embedded in the soles of one's feet.

Posted by: litbrit | Feb 13, 2006 10:06:25 PM

"That's for a single person in an apartment--when I had a man and a house and a yard, my entire fucking weekend was sucked up by house and yard work."

But that's the crucial question. I don't think there's anything wrong with having these standards, but I just don't think that basic sanatation requires anything like those kinds of hours.

Posted by: Scott Lemieux | Feb 13, 2006 11:07:06 PM

OTOH, chicks definitely do worry more about a dirty house, and I'm sure some of them have unreasonable standards.

But cut us a break--we do get judged on it way more harshly than you do. Growing up, I knew some kids whose homes were dirty, and the comment was generally, "I can't believe she puts up with that/doesn't love her kids enough to take care of her home." I still remember a friend of mine coming to my messy apartment and saying, "Wow, I thought girls were supposed to be clean." And this was a liberal California boy in the mid-90's, attending a very liberal arts college. And it gets much worse when you have kids.

In addition, there is a labor division in more than just doing the job--there's a labor division in whose job it is to know what's got to be done and make sure it gets done. For instance, being the quartermaster and realizing that the house needs milk, detergent, eggs, and bread, remembering what kind of peanut butter the kids will eat and which they won't--that's work. And if you buy the milk exactly half the time, but only when you're told to and you have to be told which kind of milk to buy, I'm sorry, but you're not participating in an equitable distribution of labor. And please notice that I'm assuming one cheerfully performs the tasks--if they're undertaken reluctantly, it's much much much less equitable. There are some men (and women for that matter) who simply don't see "honey, we need milk" as part of the work that needs to be factored into the accounting.

And among some men, there is a really ugly element of "all housework is stupid and girls are just kind of nuts to care about it, but being an enlightened man means we must indulge them and do as we are told unprotestingly." And that's not true, and it's not fair.

For most people, their home is their most valuable asset. Knowing that you can leave a stain on the wall longer than a stain in the toilet is valuable knowledge—walls are easily repainted but toilets are expensive to replace, and a stained one takes thousands of dollars in value off your house. Likewise, doing the work of maintaining a fridge inventory and knowing that if you get just one more ingredient, you can make a quick meal tonight with food that would otherwise spoil can add up to at least hundreds, if not thousands of dollars a year in saved food. And, um, the utility of not cleaning out a disgusting stinky fridge.

So I'm saying there is value for both parties in having an in-house expert who will tell you that you cannot mix bleach and ammonia to clean your windowless bathroom, because it's mad toxic. Who says, "Jesus Christ, don't use steel wool on the nonstick pans!" Who knows that if you use cold water and soap on a bloodstain, it'll come right out. This expertise is something that is, in our culture's default setting, not terribly respected.

So, yeah, there's a "Martha Stewart" pissing contest that I totally appreciate a lot of men would not want to be dragged into, and that a lot of women would probably be much happier if they could free themselves of. Home beautiful ain't for everybody, and we should all be free to choose hobbies we frigging like.

But before the Martha Stewart phase, there is a huge financial and social utility that both parties derive from a clean home. And if you act like you're doing your partner a favor when you're totally going to reap the financial or other benefits of having cleaned that damn toilet, then that's totally not fair. You just made her pay more for something you both gain from.

Again, I think part of the problem is that men haven't been raised to respect housework as an investment strategy--it's just shit women do, and like most shit women do, it's basically pretty worthless except to other women. They don't look at it like car maintenance, where you're a fool if you don't change the oil every 3 months and if you let salt build up on the undercarriage in winter. Which is kind of crazy, because, unlike houses, cars are depreciating assets. You'd think we'd value the expertise to care for them properly and efficiently more than the ability to care for cars.

So, I guess my point is that a lot of time, couples, and especially men, view hosework as a "relationship maintenance" issue when they should more sensibly view as a "financial investment maintenance" issue. If men had more expertise in this area, I think it would be far easier for couples to negotiate.

The lesson? Women, do the work of teaching men how to clean stuff, and respect how they do it. And men, when your wife tells you a job needs doing, fucking BELIEVE HER.

Posted by: theorajones | Feb 13, 2006 11:27:56 PM

Scott, my point is that my house was hardly spic and span. I passed the white glove test maybe once a month. I grew up in West Texas where you actually would accumulate what would be month's worth of dust anywhere else in a day, so my tolerance for it is pretty high. And since my boyfriend was a musician, we always had an assload of gadgets and equipment lying around. Neat and clean were not our ways of life.

Now, like I said, my garden is a lot of work, but I love it. (Like blogging.) But I felt I did the bare minimum of housework to make the place liveable, especially since my then-boyfriend was allergic to the cats and if I didn't stay on top of the dusting, he would suffer.

But I also quarrel with the idea that men have lower standards than women. I used to be the hands down worst slob imaginable, at least clutter wise. I'd never toss laundry in the hamper, etc. And both men I've lived with couldn't take it, and instead of doing what women do and simply cleaning themselves since they had higher standards, they screamed at me until I did it. Eventually I learned that having the house relatively clean was not only nice in and of itself, it spared me from getting screamed at. Make of that what you will.

Posted by: Amanda Marcotte | Feb 13, 2006 11:47:26 PM

"But cut us a break--we do get judged on it way more harshly than you do."

theorajones--I definitely agree with that. My point is simply that--to the extent it's possible--there are times when it's worth, resisting rather than reinscribing these standards (which are, after all, products of patriarchy, and by definition burden women much more than men.) But I certainly hope that nothing I wrote suggests that I don't value the expertise invovled in cleaning or other household tasks. I really am just talking about Martha Stewart pissing contests; cleanliness is an important sill, and shoild be a joint responsibility. (I also concede that I'm a pathetic single man renting an urban apartment, and that no matter how much I assume that having a family and a house increases the work, I'm probably understimating it.)

Amanda--I should perhaps emphasize that when I questioned the assumption "that both men and women inherently prefer quite fastidious and time-consuming standards of neatness," my point was that *neither* gender has any kind of fixed preference, not that women naturally care more. There are obviously a lot of men who place a high pirority on neatness! (And as I think I said in comments at my place, I don't talk about men who have fastidious standards but expect women to do all the work beause I hope that to my audience the fact that they're grade-A assholes is self-evident.) And while given my own preferences I can understand if I implied that any housework that's beyind the minimum standards is irrational, I don't think that's true-- gardening is probably a much more productive and rewarding hobby than any of mine. I just think that it's useful to draw conceptual lines between what has to be done and more discretionary activites. (And, of course, any generic esitimation of the time involed is affected by partners with allergies, the size of your house/yard, children, etc.)

Posted by: Scott Lemieux | Feb 14, 2006 12:33:02 AM

Agreed. And as usual, I was thinking out loud some. I think I put my finger on why reducing standards isn't going to work--reducing standards actually is going to require more power balance inside relationships. Men can claim to be slovenly if that's effective, but my point is that often as soon as they realize that the slovenly act will be resulting in an untidy home because they've partnered with a slob, the housework "strike" turns into loud demands placed directly on the woman to work more. Women are not empowered to criticize men's housework abilities, but the reverse is not true. This alone is a huge obstacle towards even getting necessary tasks done.

Posted by: Amanda Marcotte | Feb 14, 2006 7:30:16 AM

Oh, and since I wandered away to get coffee, I missed the most important point--my ex was NOT a grade A asshole. He was pro-feminist, liberal, and seemed genuinely interested in rectifying equalities between us. (For instance, he was earnest in never using his larger paycheck to obtain more power in the relationship.) But the nagging differiential kicks in--his criticisms of my housework came under the definition "constructive criticism" whereas my criticisms of his housework came under the definition "nagging", due to how we define men and women's identical behavior differently.

Posted by: Amanda Marcotte | Feb 14, 2006 7:34:10 AM

"I don't see why 2-4 hours of housework a day is considered over the top--I live in a small apartment by myself and between cooking, washing dishes, and basic tidying up, I probably do an hour or 2 a day, and then on weekends when you actually clean and do laundry, that's probably something like 6 hours of work."

I mean, I live in a moderate sized apartment and I don't do anything more than dishes in the average day. And I do them in a dishwasher! Once a week I declutter, once every week or two I clean the bathroom. If I did 1-2 hours of housework a week, I'd be genuinely shocked. And yet folks don't seem to think my house unclean, save for when I drop too many jackets on the floor. So something weird is happening here.

This, however, I find wrong:

"I think I put my finger on why reducing standards isn't going to work--reducing standards actually is going to require more power balance inside relationships. Men can claim to be slovenly if that's effective, but my point is that often as soon as they realize that the slovenly act will be resulting in an untidy home because they've partnered with a slob, the housework "strike" turns into loud demands placed directly on the woman to work more."

But that's where you separate the free rider problem from the standards issue. If the trajectory your tracing occurs, then you know it's a free rider issue. But I think you're giving to little credence to the idea that there are genuine points of disagreement on the marginal returns from more housework and that those points of contention actually motion in a positive direction for women. If your guy is letting things go to pot then bugging you to clean them, he's deeply in the wrong and should be confronted, fixed, or dumped. But more thought should be given to how much housework is realistic in this day and age. For my money, if you're working, multiple hours a day is just unthinkable, and standards should change so you can spend that time in leisure.

Posted by: Ezra | Feb 14, 2006 8:44:41 AM

Amanda--to be clear, the "asshole" comment definitely wasn't directed at any individual!

I think you make a good point, and that's part of what I was trying to get at in my concluding paragraph; I understand that it's a lot easier to make these distinctions in theory than in practice, that complaints about overall workload can easily be convers for free-riding, and I don't have any solutions for resolving this.

Nonetheless, I insist that they should be made. After all, I don't think we have any solutions for immediately solving the partriarchal assumptions that creates the imbalance we all believe to be unjust either, but that's not to say that they shouldn't be idenitified and challenged. I don't think it makes sense to carefully lay bare the way in which arbitrary gender roles have been naturalized in terms of housework distribution, but simply take the volume of housework percieved to be required (which is also highly arbitrary, and was largely contingent on the discredited gender assumptions in the first place) for granted. The higher the stakes of these disagreements, the harder they are to resolve (and the larger the effects of unjust gender relations.)

Posted by: Scott Lemieux | Feb 14, 2006 12:33:00 PM

Amanda When you live in dryland dust is a fact of life. It doesn't grow nasties much without getting wet, however.
Ezra I've heard housekeeping described the way you do before. Usually the person making that comment doesn't leave work behind him/herself but does it on the go when they're at the place which needs attention. As you might gather from comments here, the overall situation doesn't fall into that spot.

Posted by: opit | Feb 14, 2006 1:01:46 PM

One thing that my two-person household has found helpful is the Clean Team system. Extremely dorky, but it basically breaks down cleaning a house into a 1-2 hour weekly routine, and then shows how to subdivide the chores between 1-4 people. You wear a tool belt sort of thing containing various cleaning implements. Yes, totally dorky. But, the house is sparkling in under an hour of work, and no one feels like they have the burden of cleaning entirely dumped on them.

But the daily stuff, dishes, laundry, decluttering etc. is still a pain.

Posted by: NotThatMo | Feb 14, 2006 1:14:53 PM

Interesting discussion. I am reminded of college living, when the men lived amongst themselves and the women amongst themselves. A quick look at a bathroom can determine which gender lived there. Women, clearn as a whistle. Men, grime to all hell. Are we to take out of that upbringing? I don't know, but I think its generally a bit of inherent programming as well. Men will generally accept grime easier than women. Or maybe they are just more lazy.

Hell, some of my friends who still live in all male households have showers that even I dread to enter. And that iis coming from someone who thinks 30 mins of household work a day is 20 minutes too many.

I think alot of what Theorojones said is correct, but it also implies ownership of the property. I know in property that I rented, I always cared less about the condition of the household. That could account for why we were always charged money out of the security deposit to cover such expenses at the end of the lease. Ah yes, it was those times when all of a sudden the MEN started caring about the money and value. But by that time it was too late.

Posted by: Adrock | Feb 14, 2006 2:51:31 PM

I agree that ultra-high standards of cleanliness are unrealistic in this day and age, and I am proud to admit that Chateau de Pepper gets a little dusty sometimes. Plus, anytime a place gets too clean, I am reminded of "Mommie Dearest." NO WIRE HANGERS! It just makes me nervous.

But, dang, I see it time and time again that many men don't like frickin' pickin' up after themselves. (This is not a generalization - this is from stories I hear from female friends and my year as an RA. If you are a guy and you pick up after yourself, you're swell.) I just don't see the debate. You dirty it up, you pick it up! It shouldn't matter what's in between your legs.

And I think that more parents should force their little darlings to do chores so that the kids get used to picking up after themselves, too.

Posted by: Pepper | Feb 14, 2006 4:55:04 PM

Scott--I don't think anyone here would disagree that the Martha Stewart pissing contest thing has to go, unless both parties value a perfect home and are willing to work for it (like Amanda's gardening, it's a hobby).

I think many men are amazing--I think I realized a lot of things because I went from being a renter to moving into a place with my future husband that he already owned and had recently renovated, and saw his "maintain the investment" attitude toward it--he still gives me shit when I do things like dribble plant water on the floor and, um, leave it.

OTOH, he talks occasionally about getting rid of the cleaning woman who comes once a week, and I'm like, "is he insane?" He says she does nothing, but I can SEE the difference when she comes. So we do well together because we're both a little crazy, but we seem to respect each others' judgment and accomodate it.

But the free rider issue is way bigger than Ezra seems to realize. And it's really pernicious, because one big manifestation is this game men play where they pretend to be bowing to a woman's irrational emotional needs when they are really just making good on maintaining their half of the investment. If you make it about "keeping her happy," when it really isn't then it's monstrously big win-win for you and a lose-lose for her.

It's not that I think people can't mutually agree upon these standards. It's just that the ability to make demands here is PHENOMENALLY biased against women in our culture's default setting. I think many men are good people, but c'mon, are we really saying half the human population is going to act against their own self interest--both in terms of having free time and of having your spouse feel they 'owe ya one'--in such a dramatic way?

The sexism has to be addressed. Just "agreeing to lower our standards" isn't going to make either the relationship better or the house less work.

Posted by: theorajones | Feb 14, 2006 7:07:03 PM

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