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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 ...

A 2008 U.S. study found that every $1,000 a women earns results in an extra $17 to pay for cleaning, laundry and restaurant meals. By comparison, the same increase in a husband’s salary meant only an additional $9 for those labour-savers. In other words, women’s salaries often pay for “women’s work.”

Households with higher female incomes also spend more on yard work and home maintenance, so mom’s paycheque apparently lightens everyone’s load.

Cracking the equity equation

So, if women are increasingly better educated and rising up the pay scale, why does housework lag behind? In an interview this week, Dr. Becker, now an economics professor at the University of Chicago, argued that the division of labour still comes down to two forces: earning power and what he calls “productivity” – that is, personal decisions around which parent wants to be home, or who is most able to handle the chores.

But where does gender fit in to those calculations? Housework is the most female-segregated job in human history, and money does not tell the full story: Even when women outearn their husbands, they may still do more housework. And the worst kinds of housework.

According to a recent Pew study, between paid and unpaid labour, men and women in double-income families on average put in about the same number of hours. That sounds fair – until researchers break the unpaid labour into tasks: Basically, men coach soccer; women change diapers. Men buy groceries and mow lawns; women scrub toilets.

This pattern holds across the world: In a study of 32 countries, men were always less likely to do laundry, which is still among the most labour-intensive jobs. The gender gap in both housework and childcare narrowed when it came to pleasant, discretionary tasks that took the least time.

As one father volunteered in an interview, “Men are taking advantage of pre-existing culture to the best of their ability.”

Ms. LaLiberte’s husband, Bill Cozzens, a computer networking consultant, cheerfully calls himself “head cheerleader,” which means he drives the kids to their extracurricular activities. Ms. LaLiberte bitterly carries the title, “chief bottle washer.”

“It’s not that husbands are saying, ‘Stay barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen.’ I think there’s complacency there,” she says. “When it comes to domestic labour – which is, let’s face it, drudgery – when the vacuuming gets covered, everyone is happy.”

Dirty little secrets

When The Globe and Mail sought out couples to talk about housework tensions, it was not expected to be difficult. For other stories, people have willingly shared struggles with mental illness and other family tragedies. And after all, almost everyone has experience with chores (6 per cent of Canadian men and women claim to be chore-free).

But it turns out that when you ask couples about housework they hesitate to air their dirty laundry, literally. “It's the single most rage-inducing aspect of my daily life,” one mom volunteered, then decided she’d better keep that to herself.

Raising the topic turned out to be like scraping away the surface dirt, only to find the toughest stains underneath.

Lawyer Andrew Ain and family doctor Stacie Weber, married and living in Barrie, Ont., are among the few to admit what many couples know: “If we are going to fight about anything,” Dr. Weber says, “it’s doing to be the fact that it’s midnight, and I am doing the laundry and he’s on the computer.”

The couple, who have been together for 18 years, dubbed their first dishwasher the Peacemaker 2000. And as Mr. Ain admits, “I am not the one ever giving the lecture.” He sighs: “I can oversee a $10-million deal, but I cannot clean the rice cooker properly.”

Mr. Ain also sounds a common refrain among husbands: Who decides the definition of clean?

As Mr. Cozzens puts it, “There are things we don’t see eye-to-eye over. I have been known to leave the bathroom another day only to find it cleaned and her mad. But I just think there are more important things.”

Could the balm be as easy as learning to tolerate a less-than-spotless bathroom for an extra day? Studies consistently show that couples who have responsibility over specific jobs – without input from an appraising partner – share the work more equally, and with less bickering.

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