Why Can’t Men do Housework?

Sorry men, but this question is inevitable.  It’s on the minds of all females from grandmothers on down.  If our female dogs could talk, they would probably ask the same question.

To begin with I must issue a caveat.  Being a male I suffer from some degree of testosterone poisoning, which can cause distortions in perception.  My wife reminds me of this often because she seems to be more aware of this poisoning than I am.  Nevertheless, I’ll give this my best shot.

Family researchers have addressed the issue of work and family relationships for decades.  The now famous declaration of 40 years ago by family researcher Jessie Bernard that marriage produces two marriages rather than one, hers and his, amply describes the battleground in marriage resulting from two different perspectives.  No where is this battleground more obvious than in doing the unpaid work for the family, namely housework and taking care of children.  Many research studies on the marital relationship have shown that women are far more unhappy in marriage than men and are more likely to express anger about the marriage’s shortcomings.  Wives typically complain about their husbands not helping with housework, doing very little childcare, being too busy with other things and not being emotionally available.

Men do not seem to understand where these complaints come from.  Take housework for example.  Why put everything away?  You never know when you will need it.  You certainly do not want to get a clean glass every time you get a drink of water they remind you.  And take vacuuming, how often do you really need to do that?  And why pick up things?  If there is a trail through the room that you can walk on, isn’t that good enough?

Let’s take the following scenario.  Lisa and Bob are a dual-career couple.  They both have good incomes and make about the same amount of money.  They never really talked about division of labor before marriage and these household work roles just evolved over the years. Lisa does most of the cooking and the housework.  Bob does the outside yard work.  Occasionally Lisa has to work late and comes home to find the house in complete disarray.  “I come home at 7:30 after working my you-know-what off all day to find the kids don’t have supper yet, clothes all over the house, nothing was put away in the kitchen. He looks at me and says, ‘But we’ve been playing since I got home.  I’ve been taking care of the kids.  Isn’t that good enough?’  I just went into a rage and screamed, ‘No, that’s not good enough!’”

Some of our popular explanations for this difference in perspectives do not quite solve the dilemma.  For example, the notion that girls are somewhat overtramatized by their mothers about housework and develop a sensitivity to small details and a set of rigid standards and boys are socialized to being taken care of by their mothers and, consequently, spend most of their time making a mess rather than cleaning one up paints a picture that behavior, once set, does not change.

Researchers have dispelled the notion that the time involvement of husbands in childcare and housework has not changed.  Recently, researchers at the University of Michigan reported that since 1965 men have increased the amount of housework from 12 to 16 hours a week while women have decreased their time from 37 hours to 27 hours.  In fact, some men are now considered the primary caregivers and stay at home while their wives work.  Researchers have found that these “role-reversal” couples are not truly role-reversed, however.  The women in these families still provide much of the behaviors that are associated with nurturance, such as taking care of a sick child and putting the child to bed.  Researchers conclude that mothers and children may be “hot-wired” for attachment and bonding resulting from the birthing experience.  Children tend to prefer mothers for nurturance and mothers seem to prefer doing nurturing behaviors.  This preference tends to perpetuate the mother’s greater involvement in childcare.

Housework is a different matter, however.  Anyone can sweep the floor.  A survey in June 1996 by the journal American Demography found that men’s ideology is the best predictor of their involvement in household chores.  Men are more involved in doing household chores when they think they should be.  The solution may rest in how to raise men’s consciousness that they should do more housework.

Perhaps knowing the benefits of greater involvement in housework and childcare would help men decide that they should do more.  Researchers Claire Rabin and Pepper Schwartz found that men who do more housework and childcare have better sex lives.  This finding alone should be enough to create a stampede of men hurrying home to do housework!  Men who are more involved in housework and taking care of children help lower the stress level in the home and actually live longer.  Their wives are happier and feel more respected and loved and will, in turn, give more to the relationship.

Like Lisa and bob, couples must address this battleground. Below are a few suggestions:

  1. Bring the discussion out in the open. If dating have a conversation about this before marriage.
  2. Compromise. Devise a plan that works for both schedules.
  3. Look at alternatives such as outside help.
  4. Post agreements in an open space and revisit to see how it’s working.
  5. Be realistic. we’re humans and not machines.

(This article is republished from The Abstract Elephant Magazine)

About Dr. Roberts

Dr. Roberts has worked for the past 25 years in the field of Child and Family Development. He has a PhD in Child and Family Development with an Emphasis in Marriage and Family Therapy. He also has an EdS degree in Counseling and the MDiv degree in Theology. He directed the Marriage and Family Therapy program at Appalachian State University, Chaired the Department of Family and Consumer Sciences at Long Beach State, and chaired the Department of Child and Family Development at San Diego State University. Dr. Roberts is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in the state of Georgia and had his own practice before starting his long career in higher education. Dr. Roberts also holds the title of Elder in the United Methodist Church.
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