I was walking through the neighbourhood last week on a particularly windy fall day when it occurred to me that I am a stereotype.
I was watching leaves flutter down onto front yards, and while considering that someone was going to have to rake and dispose of them was feeling pleased that it wasn't going to be me.
Then I remembered that when it came to the lawn I shared with the woman I lived with for many years, I always held the same blasé attitude. And the truth is, although I did do work around the house, it was never without her "suggesting" four or five times that I help out.
Thinking back on it, I was forced to conclude this unpleasant fact: I had been a lazy husband.
I can partly blame The Maria Shriver Report for having such thoughts on my mind. The document, released a few weeks ago, culls decades of research to assess the changing role of the sexes in work and home life.
In a chapter called Sharing the Load, devoted to the breakdown of household chores between men and women, the conclusion was optimistic: "Twenty-nine per cent of wives reported in 1980 that their husbands did no housework at all. Twenty years later, this had fallen to 16 per cent," the report stated.
It's good news, I suppose, though highlighting decreasing non-involvement gives new meaning to setting the bar low.
Now, it was never true that I did nothing. But the management of housework -the nagging - fell solely on my ex's shoulders. Endeavouring to mend my lazy ways in the future, I contacted Joshua Coleman, co-chair of the Council on Contemporary Families and author of The Lazy Husband: How to Get Men to Do More Parenting and Housework .
It turns out that part of what made me shirk housework hits the lazy-husband stereotype right on the head: I thought every spare hour I could get a hold of should be devoted to my career. This isn't unusual for working women, either, but Dr. Coleman points out that the housework still has to be done by someone; and as a man, there were no "identity costs" for me if it didn't get done.
"If a woman's best friend is coming over - or even if it's the husband's best friend - and the house is a mess, on average more women than men will feel compelled to clean before the person arrives," Dr. Coleman says. "Societally, we're still much more likely to blame a woman for a dirty house."
Dr. Coleman says this reluctance-at-large to equal out division-of-labour expectations can hit men in a pretty sensitive spot: their sex lives.
"There's some research I've got that shows that in those homes where men do more housework, it's associated with women who are more interested in having sex with them," Dr. Coleman said from the glass-half-full angle.
The Shriver Report mentioned this, too, wording it slightly differently: "[W]men feel more sexual attraction to husbands who do more housework and child care."
Of course, not getting laid for not doing the dishes only begins to scratch the surface.
"In those homes where women do a disproportionate share of the housework," Dr. Coleman added, "it's also more associated with women having depression, anxiety; and they're much more likely to fantasize about divorce."
My ex once told me she felt it wasn't fair that she had to take up precious space in her brain keeping track of what was in the fridge. Since I never used my brain for this, it was allowed to be a sponge for more interesting things and thus develop more of its creative abilities, she said.
In the age of neuroplasticity - the idea that our brains physically change to reflect our experiences - I thought this was a pretty brainy conclusion on her part. My avoidant tendencies may have been single-handedly stunting her capacity to become a careerist woman - alas, it turns out the personal is political.
But she also admitted that she sometimes couldn't stop herself from visualizing the fridge while taking a fall stroll and, moreover, didn't necessarily want to let go of the quality control.
After talking to Dr. Coleman, I realized this made me not the only stereotype operating in our relationship.
"Sociologists call this gatekeeping," he told me. "Women may resist [men doing more housework]because they feel like they're the experts around how the house should be cleaned, how the meals should be cooked, how the children should be raised. Studies show that that's the biggest way to get men to walk away from the table, if women aren't willing to negotiate the standards."
And by "negotiate" he means, of course, "lower." I won't go on here to air all my past grievances, but let's just say I wasn't always deemed as completing certain tasks as well as my wife would have. Now that I'm out on my own, I'll admit it: She was right.
Of course, I know my relative ineptness at housework in comparison to my ex is a stereotype, too. I've seen women who can't or don't enjoy cooking, or are messier and dirtier than the men they live with. But part of being a member of the transition generation is admitting the ways that stereotypes still prevail.
So in the name of change, I vow in the future to take more of the load - and loads of laundry - if women, in general and on average, temporarily lower their standards to let us men learn a thing or two.
If it helps, women can remember that if they figure out how to let go of the reins a little in the home, they'll have more room in their brains for other things. Including some new lustful thoughts about their suddenly vacuuming and increasingly hunky ball-and-chains.
Micah Toub's memoir, Growing Up Jung: Coming of Age as the Son of Two Shrinks, will be published in the fall of 2010.Report Typo/Error