I started to write about what percentage of marital arguments are about housework, versus everything else. While researching statistics, I stumbled across a meme that I had to text to my husband, and it was so funny watching him laugh that it got me laughing all over again, until tears squirted out of my eyes, and I got completely derailed. Anyway. It looks like housework is indeed pretty high on the list, along with miscommunication, unmet expectations, and blame, all of which can certainly include cleaning, unless these are really euphemisms for “Why can’t you be more like Gomez Addams?” Or Grizzly Adams, for that matter.
Probably the reason so many people fight about housework is that, while we’ve done a fair-to-middling job of revamping traditional gender roles, we haven’t necessarily replaced them.
We live in the 21st century now, a time of flux and rapid transition. We don’t have to accept any of the old ways of doing things, not if we don’t want to. This is partly because we are rational beings, and partly because ROBOTS.
Defined roles help streamline things. One person drives the car and one person rides shotgun. One person takes the orders and the other is the barista. He’s the DJ, I’m the rapper. Fifty years ago, it was obvious to everyone that people with two X chromosomes made dinner, and people with a Y chromosome sat back and read the newspaper. We can skip all that, unless we’re into Mad Men-era cosplay, but it does help to come up with something so we don’t have to negotiate and renegotiate every time anything needs to get done.
· Appliances. Whenever there is an appliance available to take over a job, get one and use it. This should theoretically work, yet for some reason, people still quarrel about unloading the dishwasher or putting away nice, clean, fluffy laundry.
· A maid service. These are cheaper than a lot of people realize. Some people pay for fluff ‘n’ fold laundry drop-off or catered meal delivery as well. If you are a high earner or prefer working at your job to pay for someone else to work at your house, there are options available.
· Games. My ex and I used to play poker for chores. There are web-based games such as Chore Wars that allow people to accrue points for housework.
· Assigned tasks. My husband unloads the dishwasher every morning, and I make the bed. We take turns making dinner, so one cooks and the other cleans the kitchen. I do the laundry. The only real reason we chose these particular chores is that he gets up first and I insist on having my clothes folded a certain way.
· Children. My dad always used to say that the reason he had kids was so he didn’t have to do chores anymore, because he did so many when he was a kid. The first chore I remember is sorting socks, when I was still too little to fold them. My brothers and I washed dishes, polished furniture, vacuumed, took out the trash, pulled weeds, prepared simple dinners, mowed the lawn, washed windows, etc. etc. etc. Training kids to do chores, and managing them, can feel like more work than doing the job yourself. But it’s how we prepare children to become adults. Self-esteem comes from self-efficacy.
· Teamwork. Sometimes my husband and I cook a meal together, usually because it’s getting late. One of us will wash produce and the other will get out pans and utensils. We have extra bowls and knives and cutting boards and vegetable peelers. This is a situation where keeping counters clear translates to having extra work stations. We also clean house as a team when we’re preparing for guests.
· Personal responsibility. People who live together are roommates, regardless of whether they are also romantic partners or relatives. We can wash our own dishes, wash and put away our own laundry, wipe down surfaces we have used, and corral our own possessions. We can acknowledge when we are being unfair and abdicating responsibility.
· Money. If your roomies won’t clean up after themselves, raise their rent and explain why. If you’re married, offer to take over a chore for a financial inducement.
· Boundaries. My husband has a laborrrrratory, as every mad scientist should, and I stay well away from it. There are highly calibrated instruments, magnifying lenses, a soldering iron, and a bunch of tiny electronic things. There are also handwritten notes and schematics. My desire to dust things and stack them and line them up and file them is not consistent with his ability to work on projects. Everyone is entitled to a private area to be messed up or decorated at will. We just have to remember that common areas are not private areas, and refrain from cluttering up places like the kitchen counters, tables, or bathroom.
My policy is to clean house the same way I would whether I lived alone or with others. I’m not going to have cobwebs or dirty floors or a dirty bathroom, end of story. I keep a schedule. The amount of extra effort involved in cleaning a surface that is used by multiple people is not really noticeable. If I want someone to pitch in, I simply ask. Usually, the act of cleaning common areas signals to other people to get up and do the tasks they’ve been meaning to do. They start putting their things away, loading the dishwasher, or plugging in the vacuum. Most people never got any formal training in how to keep house; they’re not lazy or unwilling, they just don’t know what to do. “Our friends are coming for dinner and I want to start cooking at 5. Will you wipe down the bathroom mirror and empty the wastebaskets while I finish mopping?” Be specific, ask nicely, and say thank you.
Housework is a persistent problem, just like paying the bills, preparing meals, automotive maintenance, and yardwork. One of my goals in life is to avoid persistent problems. Life is full of unpredictable problems, so why make it worse by adding in a bunch of totally predictable hassles? We can’t eliminate the need to manage a household, even by living in a tent, but we can at least try to eliminate the associated arguments and resentments and hurt feelings. Find a workable system that everyone involved can agree to follow.
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.