My husband and I have a cat with a delicate stomach. So we have a deal. The first person who sees the barf has to clean it up.
This deal works because we hardly ever cheat. Our partnership is 50-50. But I have to confess that in the rest of our domestic life, we lapse into the usual pathetic stereotypes. I do the indoors and he does the outdoors. He drives and I cook. He does the garbage, and I’m responsible for beating back the dust. He says, “What dust?”
My husband likes to leave his cereal bowl on the kitchen counter, where it can develop a nice, hard crust. I used to believe he was trying to drive me insane. Now, I know that’s not true. He simply doesn’t see the point of rinsing it out and putting it in the dishwasher. He has better things to do.
Despite the radically changing roles of men and women, the nitty-gritty of domestic chores remains the last bastion of the gendered life. As Canadian writer Stephen Marche noted in Sunday’s New York Times, the amount of time men spend on housework stopped growing some time in the 1980s, even as women’s working hours and contributions to household income kept expanding. It’s true that men do far more of the cooking and child care than they used to, and they even seem to enjoy it. But when it comes to the fundamentals – to our deepest feelings about hygiene, cleanliness, order, dust bunnies and a nicely made bed – men just don’t get it.
“The future probably does not involve men doing more housework,” concluded Mr. Marche, who is in a thoroughly modern marriage and ought to know. The trouble seems to be that at some primal level, picking up a broom makes them feel … unmanned. One disconcerting piece of research even found that men who do more housework (of the traditionally female kind, such as dusting) have less sex.
In the very same issue of the Times was a story that inadvertently confirms Mr. Marche’s theory. In it, we learn about high-powered mothers who work on Wall Street while their husbands stay home to raise the kids. It was pretty happy-clappy until you got to a tiny paragraph that went, “A few women said that they resented the fact that their husbands did not cook or clean up, but that they had trouble telling them so, for fear that they would sound as if they were treating them like employees.”
The husbands don’t host parties for their wives’ clients either. Perhaps not all gender differences are fungible, after all.
In other news from last week, it turns out that male and female brains really are wired differently. This should come as no surprise to anyone who’s thought about the issue for more than 20 seconds. University of Pennsylvania scientists discovered that male brains have more connections within each hemisphere, while female brains are more connected between hemispheres, according to The Atlantic. This may help to explain why women are more inclined to combine logic and intuition, while men are more inclined to reason in a straight-ahead direct line.
Neurobiological explanations for human behaviour are all the rage these days. Although they are sometimes wildly simplistic, it’s no use clinging to the quaint belief that differences between the sexes are entirely cultural. Perhaps researchers will discover the wiring that makes men resist putting their cereal bowls in the dishwasher (and the wiring that makes women nag them uselessly about it).
Mr. Marche says the answer to the housework gap is simple: Since men won’t do the dishes, it’s women who must change. We must embrace filth and let the dirty dishes pile up in the sink. Which is all very well for him to say – we’ve tried it, and we can’t.