An essay in the Guardian, entitled “Want to be a male ally? Start by cleaning the house” and the discussion of the essay over on Metafilter has prompted me to have some thoughts about house cleaning and relationships. These are in no particular order:
1. Essays like this feel purpose-driven to make dudes establish their bona fides as good guys, i.e., “Well, I do work at home! I will now enumerate all the things I do around the house!” So let me buck this trend by saying Krissy definitely does more work around the house than I do and pretty much always has. I can and do do work around the house, but Krissy does it more frequently, and more thoroughly.
2. With that said, with regard to our particular situation, I wonder how much of it is rooted in gender and how much of it are other factors. For example, Krissy’s housecleaning industriousness appears to come from her father, who kept his own house in tip-top shape (as well as doing more than his share of cooking — he had a menudo recipe that could knock you on your ass). My own somewhat less assiduous housecleaning style is something of a family tradition on my side — all of us have, shall we say, a fairly high level for chaos. Athena, I should note, appears to take after me in this.
This is not to say gender expectations do not play a role. They do, and I’m not interested in trying to minimize that aspect of it. I’m just curious as to how those expectations are engaged in the overall mix of who we are as people and how that affects housework.
3. This discussion also led me back to think about how I kept my home clean before Krissy came on the scene. I did not, in fact, live in squalor when I was a bachelor; my apartment was reasonably sanitary. The answer to this as far as I can recall is that I kept everything minimal so that cleaning was really simple. For example, I think I may have had two plates, two bowls and two sets of cutlery, so a) cleaning up was never a problem, b) if I delayed cleaning up, I’d run out of things to eat food on. Likewise I would always have clean clothes (the one thing I absolutely demanded in apartment was a washer/dryer combo), but I’d pick the clean clothes out of the dryer and deposit the dirty ones directly into the washer. When the washer was full, time to do laundry.
I’m not a dirty person — I don’t wallow in filth — but it’s certainly the case I am a messy person, and I have a tendency to let mess accumulate. Which, again, was why my solution when living alone was to minimize the number of things I had that could create mess with. This worked fine when I was 24 and living alone. It’s a less viable solution now.
4. Krissy and I have lived together for more than a quarter century now and we have a pretty good understanding how to do things in the house. I do less housework, and when return when Krissy asks me to do something for her, regardless of what it is and when she asks it, I pretty much drop what I’m doing and do that task immediately — in part because I know that she’s letting me get off easy overall and therefore she deserves my attention and participation when she does ask for something.
This doesn’t mean I wait to be told to do simple things, like rinse off the plates when I’m done with them or take out the trash when it’s full. I mean, I’m not an animal. It does mean I understand the “price” of being allowed not to take the lead in house cleaning is making sure I am an absolutely reliable and uncomplaining support act. That seems, in the grand scheme of things, more than fair.
5. I do also have specific house cleaning tasks. I clean up all things that issue forth from any animals we might keep; I handle pests both arthropod and vertebrate; I’m generally the person who deals with taking the trash to the curb (which is no small task when the curb is a couple hundred yards away, especially in the dead of winter). There are other things, too, but you get the point. I do these things without complaint and generally without being told because these are long-standing tasks.
6. “But you shouldn’t have to be told to do anything; you should just do it.” Well, yes, and also, no. I agree as a 50-year-old man I should have some understanding of basic housekeeping and perform those tasks without being told, and indeed I do those things and have gotten better at it as time has gone on. But it’s also the case that there are things Krissy wants done that either I don’t know about or that I don’t see as being an issue — as noted before, I’m comfortable with a higher level of chaos than she is, and also, sometimes I’m just plain lazy. Sometimes I need to be told, and I appreciate when she tells me, so I can make her happy by doing those things.
This was a thing that Krissy had to spend a little time getting comfortable with — both to get over the idea that I should inherently know what she wanted in terms of housecleaning, and to be comfortable asking me to do those things. The good news for us was that was all settled a while back and now it’s a thing that works for us both. And yes, I did ask her: We had a nice long chat about this general topic before I sat down to write this piece (and then read it to her before I posted it).
7. What would I do if Krissy decided to stop doing housework? Would I step up and take of all the work myself? No, because I know her standard of housecleaning and I know my own, and there is, to put it mildly, a gap there. I would keep the house clean by having someone else do it. We already have someone come in every couple of weeks to do a deep clean of the house; I’d have them come in more often. And yes, I’m aware we’re fortunate that we have the option. Again, I wouldn’t let the house collapse into squalor between housekeeping visits — remember, messy, not dirty — but I would definitely outsource this particular task.
8. Along this line, as long as we’ve been together I’ve always made it clear to Krissy that I don’t ever expect her to do the housework; if she were to stop doing it, I would not attempt to take her to task for shirking her “duties.” To repeat, I am well aware how much of a break she’s cut me by doing the majority of the housework over the years, and also, it’s not her “duty,” outside of the general sense of “hey, if you make a mess, clean it up,” which applies to everyone. It would be disingenuous for me to say I’m not happy she decides to do it. I make sure to let her know, on a regular basis and in various ways, how much I appreciate what she does for me and our house. But it’s not her job, and I’m not her boss.
9. Which I think is to the point. Any dude who has the expectation that a woman should be taking care of the housekeeping, leaving him free to play video games or whatever, is doing it wrong. I think it’s fine if one partner is more inclined to do housework, but I think if and when that happens the other partner should consider themselves to be getting a gift, and be ready to compensate their partner for their time and effort, to be an aide for their partner when needed or wanted, and to make sure they are doing other things in the relationship that are comparable to the time and effort and care their partner is putting into house cleaning. Let’s not pretend this is always the case.