In the third 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.
Chris Vander Heyden is pragmatic about chores. “I like to have the house clean, so to do that, I need to clean the house,” says the 31-year-old biologist, who lives in Ottawa with his wife, Tracey, and their two children, aged 1 and 2.
Mr. Vander Heyden usually does more of the laundry and dishwashing and takes out the recycling and garbage, while his wife usually bathes the kids and does the shopping.
“Basically, Chris and I are interchangeable with the kids; we can both do everything the other person can do,” says Ms. Vander Heyden, a policy analyst at Health Canada. “Whoever has the time will just go and do something without us really having to talk about it too much.”
The way the Vander Heydens split their chores demonstrates how far men and women have come. How often did your father vacuum or do the shopping? Men in Canada are doing more housework than a generation ago. In 2005, men aged 25 to 54 averaged 2.5 hours a day of housework, up from 2.1 hours in 1986.
The gap is closing, but the Vander Heydens show that in some families men are doing more housework than women, often a result of shifting demographics that have seen women working just as many, if not more, hours than men and being the primary breadwinner in the family.
On a recent weekday evening, how the Vander Heydens divide the housework is on full display. Tracey is in the kitchen, still wearing her work clothes, consulting an online recipe for honey-garlic pork chops; Chris is playing with the kids in the living room. He feeds the children and scarfs down his dinner, then tackles the dishes, while Tracey has a chance to eat.
When it comes to chores, the couple say they have now achieved the right balance.
Chris was a stay-at-home dad for a year and a half before taking a job as a senior analyst in the microbiology department of an environmental lab last October. He did almost all the chores when he was home with the kids, and he found himself still doing the bulk of the housework even after he began working at the lab.
“It was exhausting. I was doing two jobs,” he says.
Tracey admits that she “didn’t initially pick up the slack. … It didn’t even occur to me, because I had been so used to just going to work. I kind of didn’t notice. But I could tell that he seemed unhappy.”
The couple sat down to discuss how to share the housework fairly now that both of them were working outside the home.
“The way we deal with household stuff,” Tracey says, “is the way we deal with everything. We are paying attention to see if the other person is happy.”
Communication is the key to a successful household partnership, Chris says. And that means speaking up when the workload may begin to seem unfair.
Tracey adds that it also means telling Chris how thankful she is that he does slightly more than she does around the house.
Those are words that make the work much easier, Chris says. “If I’m not hearing that she’s appreciating me, how am I going to know she’s appreciating me? It definitely makes a big difference hearing it all the time,” he says.
Chores and sex
A few months ago, a study published in the American Sociological Review suggested that husbands who did “female” tasks – which were broadly clumped as “core” housework such cooking and laundry – were less likely to get nookie than men who stuck to mowing the lawn. As you can imagine, it made for some eye-catching headlines.
Well, pay it little heed, gentlemen: The survey data in that study were 20 years old, and, even in the early 1990s, the difference was about once a month.
A pile of research since then reports that balancing the chores – and, in particular, not fighting over them – makes for happier, more satisfied marriages for both men and women.
For instance, a 2009 U.S. study of 6,800 married couples found that husbands and wives who spend more time on chores reported more frequent sex. (For one thing, you have to be home more to do more chores. Also, the researchers concluded, these couples may just have more “energy.” )
On the other hand, not sharing the load has been found, from the woman’s perspective, to increase the risk of divorce – not exactly a precursor to passion.
Ultimately, this issue is more complicated than a turn at the kitchen sink. But in her new book, Lean In, Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg states the case bluntly: “If you want to have more sex with your wife, do the laundry.”
With a report from Erin Anderssen.