Husbands, housework and harmony: Why do men who earn less also do less housekeeping?

This just in from the Atlantic:

“Things change when the wife earns more than the husband. In that case, he does less than he otherwise would. In female-breadwinner households, the greater the income disparity, the less housework the husband does.

The Cassinos speculate that being out-earned by their wives threatens mens’ masculinity, so they react by doing less cleaning, a stereotypically feminine task.

The only exception to this double-injustice? Cooking. In Cassino’s study, between 2002 and 2010, men upped the amount of time they spent cooking each day. And cooking didn’t follow the same gender-threatened trend cooking did: The more their wives earned, the more time the men spent in the kitchen.

Cooking, they speculate, has become manly—more of a leisure activity than a chore, and one that can involve flaming-hot meats, no less.”

Sobering reading. Full disclosure: division of housework has never been totally smooth sailing for us. And oddly enough, it was at its roughest while he was unemployed. Funny, too, that cooking was the task most seized upon, or at least, the least avoided, though in our case that’s how it has always been.

Rather than “the best househusband ever” as a friend suggested (and as you might EXPECT) I found myself not only bringing home the bacon but having to pick up far, far too much slack around the home. A symptom, I suspect, of general all-round unmotivation during that time. I won’t try to speculate on the issue of lost masculinity, though I will say that the fact our normal/prior division of labour – which does inevitably have some degree of gender influence – was not perfect to start with and this wouldn’t have helped.

Cooking is great, but it doesn’t cancel out cleaning

Yes, I know we should all settle for nothing less than a complete equal who pulls their weight and more around the house without being asked. (And no, it’s not always the dudes who are slacking, but a) it truly often is and b) I like alliteration.)

But I’m gonna be honest. That was not my reality.

In our case, he’s the much better cook. I probably produce one ‘wow’ meal in a decade, where he knocks them out on a regular basis with little effort. I’ve always been glad about this because we both get to eat better – and cooking is a significant part of keeping the house running.

But when it comes to cleaning? I’m accepting of the fact that I am better at certain cleaning tasks and that my bar for ‘clean’ is actually higher. (When we came back from overseas and were temporarily homeless, we stayed with my parents. Thankfully. I don’t think I could have handled living at the in-laws’ – let’s just say we don’t seem to share the same standards.  It really isn’t just a gender thing in this case, it’s more so that we come from families with very different habits. However, I’m not okay with doing all the cleaning, for obvious reasons.

It was quite some time ago that I first read this Modern Love piece in which the author basically uses animal training techniques on her husband. (It worked – and apparently he eventually even began to use them back on her.)

How patronising, I thought. And how frustrating. The basics are so obvious.

And yet. I hate to say it, but maybe there’s some truth to it. I’ve found myself trying some of these tactics in the past, and I gotta say, the results were pleasing. Carrot over the stick, any day. (Gadgets also help, in this case. And I now know that steam mops can also be used to clean the shower. #lifeprotip.)

That said, making the effort to thank each other for the little things on a day to day basis goes both ways. It’s something we both do regularly now and appreciate each other more for it. Particularly now there are two dogs in the picture (must update you guys on that!) who can be a handful, as well as the chickens and a yard to look after.

For a relationship with less history, I doubt I would have bothered. If I was single today, I would be looking for a fully fledged adult, no exceptions.

Mothering the manchild

I can’t believe I’m about to type this and I’m sure I’ll get some grief in the comments. But more than one woman I’ve chatted to recently has voiced the idea that sometimes we almost have to treat them like children, which I’ve found myself nodding along to… Again, ridiculous, and I know this isn’t everyone’s experience, but it isn’t an isolated one. I came at it from the Modern Love animal training perspective, but I suppose the same holds true for training kids.

FWIW, in these cases the women were either the same age or a little older than the men. Maybe there’s real truth to the differing rates of maturity. How often we wind up in mothering roles just as much as partnership roles. Much as I hate the term ‘manchild’, it exists for a reason; I am honestly noticing too many real-life examples around me of late.

I really do think everyone should live on their own before living with a partner. Going straight from the family home to cohabiting seems to be a common factor in this issue. We got together young and while I’d lived on my own for a bit, he never had. I have a natural tendency to step in and handle things that need doing when they don’t seem to get done.

The trouble is, once you’ve set a default and fallen into a pattern, breaking it is difficult. When you’re good at something it’s easy to get stuck doing it all the time. I had a real moment recently when he mused out loud about how stressful it is managing money and how naive he was – how much I actually used to shoulder when I did everything financial for both of us.

Communicating my needs clearly is something I’ve been working on. I live very much in my own head. Introverts often have a rich inner world and countless thoughts that don’t actually see the light of day. I’ve been trying to be more conscious lately about explicitly communicating the important stuff and making sure it gets through and isn’t just locked away inside my brain, or lost in translation.

Finding a balance

I would love to have perfect income equality and household division of labour equality. Realistically getting to 50/50 in the former is unlikely, but the latter? I’m firm in the belief that a workable and equitable system is possible and necessary so that neither party (generally, me) gets the short end of the stick.

The general weekly routine feels reasonably painless these days, more so than it used to. The house will never stay clean for as long as I’d like (things fall apart by the middle of the week, and that’s only with adults and dogs, no kids!). And if, months on, he insists on leaving things of his out lying around that invariably get chewed by the dogs, well, that’s not my problem. But it’s a meeting in the middle.

Sports season does mean time crunches, and next season I anticipate outsourcing grocery shopping/food delivery from time to time if needed. Also, at some point in the future I think it would pay for us to get a semi-regular cleaner in to outsource a bit of the load – that was always part of my homeowning vision.

With things having settled onto more of an even keel, I’m keenly aware of the need for balance and fairness. Winding up in a situation where I am doing all/most of the earning AND most of the chores is not an option. That is one statistical category I ain’t falling back into.

TLDR: I think back to certain periods in the past and how much tension the division of labour caused, and wince. It’s taken time to reach a better balance, but it’s so worth it. Seriously, it shouldn’t be this hard, and yet it’s still an issue in many households.

6 thoughts on “Husbands, housework and harmony: Why do men who earn less also do less housekeeping?

  • Reply Taylor November 9, 2016 at 10:47

    The thing I love most about your posts is the honesty. It keeps me coming back for more, every single time. Thank you for being so transparent about life, both the good and the bad <3

    I can't comment on the husband/wife divide since I'm in a same-sex relationship, but I can definitely say that I'm glad it's not something I have to think about. I don't think anything is ever entirely perfect or "equal" (regardless of gender) and for the most part, I think that's okay. But yeah, I would never want to feel like a mother in my relationship. I think the main thing is just having someone who is a partner, in the truest sense of the word. So glad you guys are finding that balance.

  • Reply SavvyFinancialLatina November 9, 2016 at 14:25

    My hubby is currently not working and I definitely see similarities in what you write about. I’m trying to keep my hopes up and positivism. I love him, but it’s hard sometimes! The only good thing is that I’m working and the reason he is currently unemployed is because we moved for my job. But he keeps putting off finding a job. And it’s not like the general activities at home for me have decreased. It’s tough. A topic I find hard to write on the blog.

  • Reply Little Miss Moneybags November 9, 2016 at 16:47

    Peanut and I don’t aim for a division of 50/50, and we never have. 50/50 may be equal but that doesn’t mean it’s fair. Some tasks are easier for him, and some are easier for me. Some are preferred by one or the other of us, and some chores we’d happily never, ever do again. Also, we’ve noticed that the amount of money that each of us earns doesn’t always correlate with the amount of time or effort it takes to earn that money.

    So we try to divide it up along those types of lines – who cares about a particular chore, who has more time to do certain tasks, and less about who brings home more of the bacon. This has led to us completely shifting most of the housework multiple times – when I stayed home with kids and didn’t work for pay, I did all the inside housework and laundry, meal planning, shopping and cooking, and he did yardwork. I did most of the childcare, because duh, but he did nighttimes aside from nursing. Now he stays home with kids and he does the yardwork, most of the inside housework, half the laundry, no meal planning but most of the shopping and all of the cooking, and most of the childcare (and fortunately there’s little to no nighttime parenting required anymore!). It feels mostly fair, even though it’s definitely not 50/50 equal.

    (Another thing we’ve found that helps is to do as many chores as we can jointly – shared misery and all that.)

    • Reply eemusings November 9, 2016 at 17:43

      Interesting – I don’t disagree that equal doesn’t always mean fair, but not sure what you would perceive as 50/50 specifically? I’m not aiming to split every single chore equally down the middle – each doing exactly half the cooking, half the vacuuming, whatever. I’ve seen somewhere the related concept of both partners getting equal amounts of leisure time, which is more how I approach it. I’m not okay with doing, say, 10 hours of housework a week while he does 2 or 3 (regardless of who’s earning what). I’m okay with doing the dishes pretty much all the time for practical reasons, as long as he takes primary responsibility for something else. Right now I tend to do dishes, bathroom, laundry, looking after the chickens; he does the living areas, floors, lawns, most dog training. The overall division of labour now feels reasonably fair, where in the past it hasn’t, even when he was not working outside the house.

  • Reply raluca November 9, 2016 at 22:48

    My mantra is simple : I am in a relationship with an adult. He is my equal. An adult knows how to feed himself. An adult knows how to clean for himself. An adult knows to work in order to have money to spend. Relationships with children are not my thing and that’s not negociable.

    The actual time commitment is less important to me than the feeling of reliance. I don’t want my spouse to rely on me for cleaning services, money and cooking services. I would accept it if my spouse was to become disabled and no longer be able to work, but I will not accept it while he is whole and able. If you’re allowed to vote you can damn wash your dishes, earn your money, cook your own food.

  • Reply Erith at Cracking Retirement November 12, 2016 at 08:45

    I must be spoiled. For quite a few years, I earned several times what my husband did, although we both worked pretty full-on, I just happened to earn more than him (IT v Engineering). We both travelled loads, and it was pretty manic.

    However right from our early days, we agreed on certain things. e.g. we would both spend the same time ironing – even if I ironed 12 shirts and he did 2, it didn’t matter. We both spent the same time doing chores etc. First home made the meal, checked the kids homework etc. Weekends we split the tasks, one took the kids to sports, the other did the grocery shopping, washing etc

    Now both retired, we continue to this day, we take turns depending on what we are doing. I was out all day, he cooked the tea while I did other chores.

    In my experience the males in the next generation are also taking their turn…..

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