Everyone loves pet peeves, right? I’m going to share one of mine. I FREAKING HATE all those memes and magnets and signs and pillows that say “Dull women keep immaculate houses.” Thanks to Facebook and Pinterest and various gift shops, I get to see this dumb, sexist quote on a regular basis. I’ve probably seen it more often this year than I’ve seen my own mother.
You know what’s really dull? Women perpetuating the gender role stereotype that housework is for women.
My father always taught us that housework is for children, and that’s why he had us.
Personally, I believe that housework is for robots. “ROBOTS keep immaculate houses.” I have one for the dishes, two for the laundry, two for my floors, and I’ll be buying the one for washing windows as soon as it’s out of development. I continue to hold out hopes for a laundry-folding robot that costs less than $40,000 and takes less than 45 minutes to fold a dish towel. It will happen in our lifetimes. Mark my words.
I happen to be a married woman who lives in the suburbs and does not have a day job. On forms and surveys, I check the box for “homemaker.” It’s a little inside joke I have for myself. I have to call myself a “homemaker” until I start earning more from my writing and coaching than I earned as a secretary. I spend less time on housework now than I did when I was living alone and working full-time, because I’m married and because we have all these bitchin’ robots. As a single lady, I did not have a dishwasher, washer, dryer, microwave, or the Roomba or the Braava (which hadn’t been invented yet). All I had was a breadbot. It is amazing how easy life can be when you have a roommate to share the load, much less all these labor-saving appliances.
The other side of the gender role stereotype that housework is for women is the myth of male incompetence. Men hate this. My husband raised two kids, and he is infuriated by advertisements that suggest men can’t be trusted to care for their own children, cook a meal, or manage a home. (Of course, he is an emergency medical responder, Eagle Scout, and aerospace engineer, so it’s hard to imagine him being seen as incompetent at anything). This “men are too dumb to hold a baby right-side-up” attitude was summoned directly from the smoky cauldrons of evil marketing people. The same marketers are responsible for the (somewhat more accurate) version of masculinity that shows men operating heavy machinery, driving four-wheel drive vehicles, using power tools, and roaming the wilderness. Wiping down a countertop is supposed to be more challenging than waxing a car? Come on.
Three of the best housekeepers I have ever met have been men. Most of the bachelors I have met keep clean homes, and we can learn from this. Men tend not to have clutter. In my work, I have spoken frankly with many men about housekeeping. One of the biggest issues with sharing the housework is that a woman will tend to be defensive and possessive about cleaning tasks. We claim certain tasks because we want them done our way, or no way at all. We refuse to delegate. We feel guilty if we haven’t met our own internalized standards, and we aren’t willing to negotiate about alternative ways to frame tasks. The other thing we do is to fill the house with extra stuff that a single man would not bring home. I’m talking about decorations, bric-a-brac, throw pillows, craft projects, bathroom counters covered with beauty products, etc. Men take it as a given that if they are sharing a closet with a woman, they are not getting access to a fair and reasonable 50% of that space. This is the price of the ticket for having a sweet-smelling female to snuggle at night.
My Facebook feed is full of complaints various women have about their mates. (Speaking of dull). If there is one thing I can guarantee, it is that nagging does not work. The fastest way to ruin a perfectly comfortable relationship is to start criticizing the other person. The more trivial the topic, the better. Sure, people differ in where they fit on the spectrum of conscientiousness. If you are the partner on the higher end of the scale, you have a teaching opportunity, which will be squandered if you use it scornfully. Respect and understanding are the only ways to bring about positive growth and transformation in a relationship. My husband feels the same way about punctuality that I do about organization and cleanliness, so we’ve been able to meet each other in the middle. As I’ve made a clear effort to learn to be more aware of the passing of time, and to be ready to leave when I said I would be, he has made more of an effort to keep house the way I like it. Housekeeping was something we formally negotiated before we got married. Other people might find room for a demonstration of good faith and willingness to change in the areas of finances, physical fitness, sharing a bedtime, or something else the mate wants as much as we want a cleaner house.
Starting with an attitude of respect helps us to learn new things from our partners. If you don’t think you have anything to learn from your mate, you’re either with the wrong person or you’ve pulled away from the connection. I put forth the standard that I wanted to live in the cleanest possible house with the least amount of effort. My husband taught me some principles of engineering, including “low side compliance.” This means getting the job done only to the standard that was agreed in the contract, with no extra frills. I set out to clean the oven one day, a job I estimated at three hours. He came in with a scrubbing attachment on the cordless drill and had it looking factory-new in about 40 minutes. Then we bought a $20 silicon oven liner, and we haven’t really had to clean an oven for five years. Another life-changing skill my husband taught me was to quit filing papers that I didn’t need to keep in the first place. I had been saving a lifetime’s worth of utility bills, bank statements, and other papers, including the instruction manual for a lamp. I was able to shred or recycle about 80% of the papers I had been hauling around for multiple moves. Men are smart and efficient, and due to gendered education, they usually bring a totally different perspective and skill set to problems. Much of the time, we’re better off letting them decide how to keep the house, and following their lead, rather than the pernicious example of sexist advertisements or our received, internalized, antiquated associations of femininity with homemaking.
Keeping house is for everyone. Use a dish, wash a dish. Eat a meal, cook a meal. Use a towel, wash a towel. Use a toilet, scrub a toilet. Having a clean, orderly house does not have to be any more complicated than having a base level of personal hygiene. In point of fact, it takes me longer to shower, dry off, and do my hair than it does to clean my bathroom. Housekeeping is something that can be done quickly and efficiently, if a predictable system is in place. My contention is that cleaning a dirty house takes more time and effort. A disorganized house results in a lot of wasted time and money when we can’t find things, don’t cook meals at home, waste spoiled food, lose track of bills, or buy extra clothes because we delay the laundry. A clean and orderly home speaks for itself. There is absolutely no reason for anyone to think that scutwork should fall to women, and we should refuse to acknowledge anything that hints at it. What we can do is to take the lead and introduce the concept of a rational, minimal-compliance system to the other people who share our lives and homes.
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.
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