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Richard Abgrall vacuums as his twin three-year-old sons Mason Mehnert, left, and Declan Mehnert try to help at their home in Vancouver. (DARRYL DYCK FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL)
Richard Abgrall vacuums as his twin three-year-old sons Mason Mehnert, left, and Declan Mehnert try to help at their home in Vancouver. (DARRYL DYCK FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

Dirty work: How household chores push families to the brink Add to ...

In this first of a six-part series, The Globe and Mail takes a look into bathrooms, kitchens, basements and legislatures to see how families and nations tackle the chore challenge.

One evening in her New York home, Christine Frederick sat dutifully “mending” – one of the few chores that, it’s safe to say, will not come up again in this story. But in 1912, the modern practice of fixing socks by buying a new batch at Costco was not yet in fashion.Mrs. Frederick was eavesdropping on her husband and a business associate discussing the improvements “efficiency experts” were making to assembly lines. She paused to interrupt: “Why, I suppose you smart men will soon try to tell me and all the other women that washing dishes can be ‘standardized’?”

Dirty Work: A Six-Part Series

Yes, indeed, the men said.

A year later, Mrs. Frederick published The New Housekeeping, saying her “efficiency gospel” would free women from the general feeling that housework is a “kind of ogre” from which there is no escape.

She provided meticulous instructions on everything from the left-handed “laying-down motion” to facilitate rapid dish washing to numbering sheets with indelible ink, linked to recipe cards giving their makes, sizes and purchasing dates.

Clever wives who applied these steps would find housekeeping “fascinating and stimulating,” she promised, but “our greatest enemy” was the career woman who felt “weighted down” by these tasks. Presumably such a woman might observe that finding the most optimal placement for the dish drainer did not compensate for the injustice of being chained to the kitchen.

One hundred years later, that weighted-down working mom of Mrs. Frederick’s fears is still dreaming of escape from the housework ogre – particularly during the early-evening chaos of what Women’s Almanac in 1975 called the Arsenic Hour, when weary parents stumble home from work, cranky children plow in from school or daycare, and the bulk of time-sensitive domestic chores must be done or else no one eats, gets a bath or has their soccer uniform cleaned for the next game. In those frenzied hours before bedtime provides its sweet respite, the bulk of the labour still falls to mothers.

Whether or not they work full-time, and no matter how high their salary, women still get stuck with the crappiest jobs – the ones most likely to require rubber gloves and solvent, as opposed to strolling Loblaws in relative leisure with a latte in one’s hand.

Progress on balancing the chore chart appears to have stalled. At the current rate, Oxford University sociologist Oriel Sullivan suggests that Western society is halfway through an 80-year transformation, which means it will take until 2050 for a truly equal gender division of tasks.

In the meantime, despite all the gains in female education and employment – at this point, 42 per cent of Canadian women match or exceed their husband’s salaries – working mothers still clock almost twice as much unpaid labour as fathers.

Even Mrs. Frederick would have to admit that is hardly efficient, and the most functional IKEA kitchen will never make it otherwise.

Husband and fathers are definitely doing more. An increasing number, in fact, are doing more than an equal share. Couples with higher education tend to be more egalitarian, and twentysomethings more than their parents. But marriage still increases the labour load for brides and lightens it for grooms.

And babies make more mess for mom. Couples without kids tend to share chores more equitably, if only because there are fewer chores to share. A recent study in Norway and Sweden, those beacons of gender equity, found that having children reduced the odds a young couple would report equal sharing by 27 per cent.

Some of the imbalance clearly comes down to differing standards – one person is almost always tidier than the other and, having absorbed Mrs. Frederick’s lessons and their many cultural incarnations since, women are more likely to be the ones heard fuming over dirty bathrooms.

Conflicts about cooking and cleaning are a significant source of stress in families – and unlike, say, monthly bills, chores are everyday events.

Marital happiness is much higher when both partners believe chores are divided fairly, or that they are working as a team, even if it’s not 50-50. In a recent study, both husbands and wives chose sharing household chores as the third most important factor for marital bliss, after faithfulness and good sex.

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