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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 ...

Since 1968, Sweden’s government has taken the lead on developing gender equity, and that philosophy has had time to seep into personal behaviours. But maternal labour has also been supported by clear policies such as quality public daycare and family-friendly workplaces, including the option of reduced work weeks without penalty. Sweden has one of the world’s highest rates of maternal labour, and research has found that working moms raise boys who share chores as adults.

Sweden is not perfect – women still lean toward government jobs in which the culture overtly supports flex time, and it’s still a relatively small percentage of Swedish fathers who take the use-it-or-lose-it paternal leave.

But these policies establish the value of family time and of fatherhood as more than just an adjunct to mom. Men who spend some of the early years at home with the kids, even for a short time, are more likely to be involved in child care in the long run, which also puts them at home more to do chores.

Policy can also work against progress: In France, where men do less housework than almost anywhere in Europe, research points to the three-year parental leave that is taken almost exclusively by mothers as a contributing factor. Behaviour is habitual: French culture suggests a certain role for mothers, policy encourages them to stay home and everyone gets used to that

For its part, Canada has a widely envied parental-leave program, which is accessed by increasing numbers of fathers; a narrowing gender wage gap; universal health care; and societal support for a talented, educated pool of female workers. But Canadian families are strained by the weak support for elder care, a subpar daycare system and work hours that are only growing longer.

When asked how chores are divided in his house, Mr. Hodgson answered, “We balance life.” That’s also the lesson from Richard Abgrall and Anthony Mehnert, who have been married for eight years and have three-year-old twin boys.

In their Vancouver home, chores are split by who has the most talent and desire for the task – Mr. Mehnert in the kitchen, Mr. Abgrall as the handyman. But Mr. Abgrall also took paternity leave and handles much of the bedtime routine.

“It’s just stuff that needs to get done,” he says. Perhaps with gender stereotypes removed as a factor, it’s easier to negotiate the chore conundrum.

The strength of research on time-use data is also its weakness: It works in sweeping averages, identifying patterns over time. But it does not compare couples with each other, and it’s even fuzzy about what counts as a chore. (Mr. Ain asks hopefully, “Does refinancing the mortgage count?” His wife says no.)

But can family life really be sliced up into percentages? Is an even split even possible? “When couples live together, they are usually just trying to get through the day,” says Andrea Doucet, Canada Research Chair in Gender, Work & Care at Brock University. “It’s not like they have the chore list on the fridge and are adding everything up.”

And homes that appear unfairly balanced are not always the unhappiest. In Prof. Kremer-Sadlik’s Fast-Forward Family, California researchers analyzed the interactions of 32 middle-class, double-income families as they got through the “Arsenic Hour” from 2001 to 2004. They confirmed what other research has found: Even when women worked longer hours, earned more and still carried more of the chores, they were satisfied if they felt a sense of teamwork.

“Equity and numbers are not the best way to understand men’s and women’s relationships,” Prof. Kremer-Sadlik says.

Ultimately, it’s about choice: the freedom to negotiate what works best, right down to the laundry, with everyone getting their say. But for that to happen, it’s not enough to create the most educated generation of young people in the world, as Canada likes to claim, but to support them with social policy and workplace practices that can make those compromises work. That means reliable public daycare and a gender-neutral work culture that doesn’t penalize parents for leaving early or taking time off to deal with kids.

Families are already running at full speed, and managing chores efficiently will not come down to Mrs. Frederick’s catalogued cans in the pantry. In the family factory, it has to be about balancing the load in the most optimal way. If the last leg of the gender race will be decided at the kitchen sink, here’s hoping for a tie.

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