Tuesday, August 14, 2007

The Gender Politics of Cleaning and Marriage

I've seen various blog postings in various (mostly) feminist sites about how marriage is such a wonderful deal for men and so horrible for women. And central to this thesis was the division of housework, particularly cleaning. My first thought on that subject was, were the posters all smoking crack?? But then that was because in my marriage, I do most of the housework and I am constantly cleaning up after my wife. So the idea that marriage automatically means any particular distribution of cleaning or housework is clearly falsified.

I know, one data point does not a trend make, but what it does demonstrate is that the division of cleaning duties is NOT a foregone conclusion. If a woman marries a man and then is unsatisfied with the housework arrangements, no one is putting a gun to her head to force it to continue. For that matter, women are not legally obligated to marry men who don't pick up after themselves. Don't like a man's cleaning habits, don't get involved with him. The state of his bachelor pad might give you some clues there.

In any case, I had some thoughts on cleaning in general. It really bugs me that I have to clean up after my wife, mostly because she is so much messier than me. At the very least, I would expect that a person would pick up after his or her own personal messes, like the plates used to eat or your own clothes and towels. That, I think, is the primary offense I have a problem with when it comes to cleaning. That is the area where one would most feel like one is acting as a servant to someone else, cleaning up after someone else's mess.

I swear, my wife can use so many dishes just from one meal, by herself, that when I get to the sink it looks like she had six people over for a two-course meal. When I am home alone, I use a fork, maybe a knife, and maybe a plate, if that, for a meal. She can go through half the drawer of silverware and empty the cupboard of plates. Then she doesn't load the dishwasher and sometimes leaves the dishes with food still on them on the counter or table. She also uses up a dozen hand towels a day in the kitchen. I have paper towel there for drying things just to cut down on that. So then I find lots of used paper towels on the floor and counter and sitting in the sink (just used for drying clean hands, mostly, so they aren't really "dirty" but they still are cluttered everywhere). Those I have to throw away. The towels - well, it feels like I'm folding and putting away a dozen hand towels or more for the kitchen (after laundry) every single day or two. And she changes clothes often, so she has a ton of laundry each day as well, as does our daughter, since my wife changes her clothes often as well. In short, cleaning up after my wife's personal messes is a full time job, or at least feels like it sometimes. She grew up this way - her mother and grandmother told her they'd rather she did her homework than cook or clean - ever - so they always picked up after her. This made for some pretty horrible habits. She is better now than she used to be, believe it or not. I worry my daughter will learn bad habits from her. I want my daughter to learn to always pick up after herself. I think she's already better at this than my wife, and she's only 2.

Ok, enough grousing on my wife.

The second area of cleaning is the non-personal clean-up variety of cleaning - things like vacuuming, dusting, cleaning the bathroom. General cleaning stuff that does not need to be done every day. This can get a different sort of dynamic. Some people obsessively dust every few days. Others once a month. There really is not any set schedule for dusting and vacuuming. Really, some things depend on use or other factors. And yet it seems that some people have a different notion about how often these things need to be done. Unlike with dirty dishes or laundry, which require immediate attention, these things can be left for days or weeks with no action at all. And so there is no "right" answer as to how often a bathroom needs to be cleaned or a floor vacuumed. It varies. So here, if one person would rather do it once a month and the other wants to do it once a week, it is difficult for me to say that the once a month person is wrong. Yet the once-a-week person might feel compelled to vacuum once a week anyway. Here, I don't buy the notion that the person with the lower tolerance for dust is being taken advantage of or that the person with the higher tolerance or longer schedule is somehow lazy or not doing a fair share. If your spouse offers to vacuum once a month, take them up on it and let them do it if you don't want to vacuum. But then don't complain about it not being done weekly. Unless there is some special, empirical need for it to be done more often, then it becomes more a matter of personal taste, and one should not penalize someone for a difference in taste. And if in the end, the once-a-weeker cannot take it and just HAS to have vacuuming done every week, well, that's not the fault of the once-a-monther. Certainly the once-a-monther is not pressuring that, content as they are with the monthly schedule.

So what am I saying? I can understand being annoyed about someone not cleaning up after him or herself - I live with that on a daily basis. It consumes many hours of my life each week. But when it comes to general cleaning duties, I just don't see how that even enters the picture unless it is the case that one person absolutely refuses to do any of it. And then one can always hire a cleaning service to come once a month (something I actually won't do because I'd rather clean my own house than pay someone else to do it).

I may or may not post on the general notion that some have that marriage is such a wonderful deal for men but horrible for women. Obviously, I reject that notion. I think there are good marriages and bad marriages and marriages in between, but I don't think any one gender gets the best deal automatically. Even the good ones are about trade-offs and compromises. The trade-off for me is that I clean, take care of our daghter during the week, make sure all the bills are paid and the various household needs are covered, and she makes the money and does the much longer commute and handles more of the childcare on the weekend (which also is when she gets to spend quality time with our daughter (and me - and I get lots of time alone with our daughter during the week). This works out. At times, the mess can be grating, and my wife works on that, but in the end, I know I'll always be cleaning up after her. Is the tradeoff work it? Only we can decide that. Thus far, it works. I particularly hate commuting, so I like that aspect of it. My wife isn't thrilled about it either, but she can tolerate it. I probably could not. Which led to another trade-off - we bought her a very nice car for her commute. My car is more than adequate for me at 9 years old now and I'll probably be driving it for another 15 years with any luck. But then that is also a decent tradeoff, since I am not particularly in to cars. As long as it works and gets the job done, reliably, cheaply, with good gas mileage, I don't much care, and I'd drive it for 100 years if it would keep on running.

We have our disputes, we get snarky, but in the end, it seems to work.


Maya's Granny said...

My son and son-in-law both do an equal amount of housework and cooking and child care. When I was raising my kids, as a single mom, I taught both my kids how to do everything around the house that I knew how to do and traded home cooked dinners for single men to teach us all things I didn't know yet. It worked well. My kids both expected that all members of a family pitch in, and that's what they have as middle aged adults.

Anonymous said...

Hah! I knew there had to be at least one other person out there who understood. My wife often asks me "how come you never hoover?", and I always reply "Whenever I see that the house needs hoovering, I hoover. If you happen to hoover 10 times more often than is necessary, it never actually gets to the point where it needs hoovering, does it?". I should get that answer printed onto business cards so that I can just hand one out, without saying a word, whenever she asks...