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Natalie Ciura and partner James Deacon. (JENNIFER ROBERTS FOR the globe and mail)
Natalie Ciura and partner James Deacon. (JENNIFER ROBERTS FOR the globe and mail)

How picky women "gatekeepers" wind up doing most of the housework Add to ...

In this second of 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.

“If you’re going to do it 80-per-cent then you might as well do it 0-per-cent,” Natalie Ciura says, referring to her approach to chores. She’s only half-joking.

DIRTY WORK: A SIX-PART SERIES

Ciura likes domestic chores done “100-per-cent” at the spotless uptown Toronto home she shares with partner James Deacon and their two kids. Her pet peeves? When Deacon, 38, doesn’t wipe and dry the counters after washing the dishes, hose down the garbage cans or fold laundry to her specifications.

“I’m a little bit anal about the closet looking really nice inside when you open it, all organized: All the white shirts are together and all the black shirts are together,” says Ciura, 35. “He sort of bunches the clothes up and puts them in there. I let it go for a week or two and then redo it.”

Both in sales management, Ciura and Deacon often put in 40-hour work weeks, on top of which Ciura will do some 10 hours of housework, even with a cleaner coming in weekly. The result? Floors and uncluttered surfaces that would easily pass the white-glove test. And although the two have a communicative and affectionate relationship, and have a standing date night every Tuesday, they squabble over domestic tasks routinely. Ciura has even offered “friendly” lessons in jobs like pants-folding, but when she can’t get him to do it her way she simply redoes it: “It’s easier than yelling.”

Even as women have made enormous strides in the workplace, gender disparity persists in the home, where women still clock substantially more time on domestic drudgery than men. Controversially, some experts suggest this exhausting dynamic may be partly women’s own doing. After long days at the office, many women set extremely high standards in zones they were traditionally relegated to – unwittingly commandeering the household by criticizing their spouse’s efforts, or by redoing the tasks outright. Sociologists call it “gatekeeping,” and experts say it’s not doing anyone any favours.

Psychologist Kurt Lewin coined the term while researching housewives in the American Midwest during the Second World War. Lewin found that while it was assumed that men of the era made all the household decisions, wives were shopping for and cooking all the meals, minding the gates on the food front. Fast forward to 2010, and employed Canadian mothers reported toiling 28.4 hours on domestic labour weekly, compared to 11.5 hours a week for employed Canadian fathers, according to Statistics Canada.

“Women feel a tremendous sense of frustration in their position,” said Sara Dimerman, a Thornhill, Ont.-based psychologist who wrote the book How Can I be Your Lover when I’m Too busy Being Your Mother? with co-author J.M. Kearns.

So why are working women still holding the domestic reins?

“For women, it’s been a part of their ego. Most men would not say, ‘You can’t come over, my place isn’t clean enough.’ They don’t generally see it as an extension of their identity,” said University of Washington sociology professor Pepper Schwartz.

“Because it’s part of women’s identity, they think, ‘Well if my husband doesn’t do it, I’m going to do it, because it will reflect badly on me.’ Real progress would be, if people care what someone’s home looks like, they’d look at it as an issue of both spouses,” said Schwartz. “But women are still judged more heavily than their partners.”

Ciura argues that she and her partner simply have “different standards for cleanliness.” Deacon chalks it up to values: “This is a need for Natalie: the cleanliness and the level of order in the house.”

He laughs, recalling how she and her mother excised every bit of grime from the hardwood floors in their new home – using razor blades. He surmises that for Ciura, her mother and grandmother, cleanliness is “probably even an identity thing because they brag about it.”

Ciura feels her high expectations are completely valid and the two do make it a priority to talk out their domestic differences. For other couples, gatekeeping can take on more belligerent forms, breeding resentment in women who take on their husbands’ share of responsibilities through clenched teeth. That’s when a passive-aggressive dynamic emerges, since the other spouse likely notices the nitpicky behaviour, Dimerman says.

Problematically, gatekeeping can also give some men a convenient out, curbing domestic equity further. In the standard sociological view, “Gatekeeping adds the twist that women have ways of discouraging men from stepping up in ‘female’ departments, even when men want to,” says Kearns. Dimerman recently counselled a husband whose wife had repeatedly chastised him for deviating from the shopping list. Eventually, he stopped grocery shopping because it wasn’t “worth the aggravation.”

“Gatekeeping can be one important source of men’s underinvolvement in domestic labour,” write Sarah Allen and Alan Hawkins, in a report published in the Journal of Marriage and Family. Strikingly, they found that men with “collaborative” wives put in five more hours of family work a week than men with “gatekeeping” wives.

“Pick your battles” is the alternate mantra for many spouses. Victoria nurse practitioner Nancy Wright gets leery when her husband does the laundry, fearing he’ll shrink her delicates: “If it’s expensive lingerie, yes, I’m going to fight for that. I don’t want that in the dryer,” says Wright.

But on garbage day, she acts more surreptitiously. Since her husband only puts out the kitchen trash, Wright quietly stuffs the rest of the home’s garbage in the kitchen bin, where he’ll spot it. “Even though we’ve talked about it, it’s one of those things I’ve become resigned to do,” she says.

The new thinking emerging around gatekeeping is that it is natural, territorial human behaviour – not necessarily just a female foible. Many of us tend to gatekeep in realms where we see ourselves as experts.

“When you realize that it’s a somewhat ego-driven, irrational protecting of one’s domain that turns a potential helpmate into someone to be fended off, you can step back, take a breath and see the irony of it,” Kearns says.

“You’re complaining that the other person doesn’t do enough, yet you’re sabotaging their attempts to do more.”

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