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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 ...

But this argument suggests that if one partner just stopped nagging, the other would be naturally moved to pick up the toilet brush. If behaviour were that easily changed, there would be no marriage counsellors or divorce courts.

Women today care less about gleaming floors than their mothers and grandmothers before them. But standards remain a roadblock in the chores race, constructed by layers of cultural values.

It’s a lose-lose scenario: If women were to let go of their apparent predisposition to fuss more about dirt, they would risk failing to live up to the image of the good wife and mother who both climbs the career ladder and keeps house.

What was Mrs. Frederick’s book but a creed, ultimately, on maintaining high standards in faster times?

The spectre of the TV mom

Advertisers have been imposing a strict cleaning ideology since discovering the housewife’s buying power in the early 1900s: Doltish Dad and Multitasking Mom may run the home together (see Phil and Claire of the current sitcom Modern Family), but mom is cast as most “efficient” at housework – a backhanded compliment if ever there were one.

A 2008 study from the University of New Hampshire found that 51 per cent of television commercials featuring women were selling food and cleaning products, while only 2.1 per cent depicted a man performing a domestic task (and it was almost always child care).

Many of the women The Globe spoke to recalled doing female chores while their brothers worked outside. When most of them were growing up, after all, schools implicitly established the gender division of housework, as boys attended shop class to fix cars and girls went to home economics to make muffins.

Tamar Kremer-Sadlik is the director of research at the Center on Everyday Lives of Families at the University of California at Los Angeles and the co-editor of a recently published study called Fast-Forward Family. She puts it this way: “[Women] have been socialized to care more about the home – our identity is much more tied to how the home appears. That’s why we make our lives harder by insisting that certain things have to be done in a certain way. We have to relinquish control. We can’t expect everybody to do their share and still be the ones who decide who it is going to get done.”

One husband who describes being raised to take care of his own domestic load was Health Canada researcher Derek Hodgson, whose single mother dumped his dirty laundry in front of him in Grade 9 and pointed toward the washing machine. Mr. Hodgson now does many of the less-popular chores for his family in Ottawa, while his wife, Maria DeRosa, a chemistry professor at Carleton University, marks papers at night.

Like many wives whose husbands do more than an equal share, she is apologetic about it. “I feel guilty,” she says. “It’s always in the back of my mind that my job should be to take care of at least half of what’s happens in the house. And I am definitely not doing that. But I would not be able to give up my career to be a homemaker. I don’t know why I am so conflicted.”

Prescribed gender roles aren’t entirely fair to fathers, either. A study from the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management found that dads who do more active child care and performed more chores in the house experience high levels of harassment from their male colleagues.

“Men are disparaged and viewed in less-respectful terms if they take leave and if they do more work at home,” says Jennifer Berdahl, the lead author of the study, based on surveys of Toronto union workers. “It shows why men and women might still be engaging in these traditional behaviours even if they don’t want to be, and even if it causes marital tension in the home.”

How to change that culture? Government may have no place in the bedrooms of the nation, but its social policy may help out in the kitchen. Some countries have had more success in narrowing the gender gap. Among members of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, Canada falls in the middle, beside Britain and the United States. At 146 daily minutes, Canadian men do more than the OECD average but still significantly less than women’s 248 minutes. Japan – where women’s professional aspirations are supported, but their role at home is still traditional – has one of the widest gaps. But women in Sweden have it much better: The gap in chores there is less than an hour, and shrinking.

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