The only possible solution to housework…

If you want a good read about the division of labor when it comes to cleaning house, sit back, grab a cup of tea and enjoy this piece from Stephen Marche written for The New York Times, December 7, 2013.

“In Claire Messud’s novel “The Emperor’s Children,” the ultraliberal Murray Thwaite comes home late, steps in cat vomit and keeps walking: “It still was not, nor could it ever be, his role to clean up cat sick,” Ms. Messud writes. The boomer hypocrite is practically a comic type by this point, but in his domestic disregard, Murray Thwaite is like most other men, liberal or conservative, old or young.

Unlike many other rubrics by which you can establish the balance of power between men and women, there isn’t much evidence of a cohort shift in housework. Younger men are doing roughly the same amount of work around the house as their fathers did. It doesn’t look like they’re going to start doing more, either.

Women today make up 40 percent of America’s sole or primary breadwinners for families with children under 18, a share that has quadrupled since 1960. And yet in America as well as in several other countries in the developed world, men’s time investment in housework has not significantly altered in nearly 30 years.

A recent, large cross-national study on the subject by an Ohio State sociologist found that “women’s housework did not decline significantly and men’s housework did not increase significantly after the mid-1980s in the United States, the United Kingdom, and the Netherlands.” In the United States, men’s participation in housework topped out at 94 minutes at day in 1998, but by 2003 was down to 81 minutes, not much different than the 76 minutes it was in 1985.

Think of all the other changes that men have undertaken in the period between 1980 and 2010. Taking care of kids used to be women’s work, too, but now the man with his kids is an icon of manliness. Foodie snobbism has taken on a macho edge in some circles, to the point where the properly brined Thanksgiving turkey can be a status symbol of masculine achievement.

So why won’t men pick up a broom? Why won’t they organize a closet? Why can’t housework be converted — as the former burdens of food preparation and child rearing seem to have been for some men — into a source of manly pride and joy? Why would housework be the particular place to stall?

At least one thing is becoming clear: The only possible solution to the housework discrepancy is for everyone to do a lot less of it.

Despite its apparent banality, housework has always been an intellectually confounding problem. The idea that the chores are a series of repetitive tasks undertaken to preserve the health and hygiene of the living space is an easy assumption to make. Nothing could be further from the truth; housework is as complex as the connection between our emotional life and our material life, as subtle as all intimacy.

Even Marx and Engels, the grandest of all labor theorists, struggled to agree on a definition. Housework, for Marx, was not alienated labor, like most other forms of production in capitalist life; it belonged to the category of craft, the humanizing and personalizing of space. Even in Marx’s utopia it appears that people would still have to do housework. Engels believed that housework would eventually be industrialized. Feminism has more or less inherited this double view, unsure whether to celebrate housework as unappreciated “women’s work” or to condemn it as a kind of societal imprisonment.

Cleanliness feels organic while being highly constructed. In Katherine Ashenburg’s “The Dirt on Clean,” a study of historical standards of cleanliness, the relativism of hygiene over time is amazing. The ancient Romans would have found Renaissance Europeans disgusting beyond belief (as their Muslim contemporaries did) and certainly my grandmother would find my house filthy. The standards have changed. There exists no agreed-upon definition of “what has to be done” in a household. Difficulties of definition necessarily haunt all sociological studies, but in the case of housework those difficulties press in from all sides. What exactly is the housework? How should the amount of housework be established? Studies generally use either a questionnaire or a diary to work out who is doing what. A 2007 study in Britain compared couples who used both a questionnaire and a diary and found significant discrepancies between them. One study compared self-reporting by husbands and wives, and concluded that the perception of effort was totally distinct from the actual effort.

You may have had this argument yourself: Should housework be measured by the time spent on the task, or by effectiveness? What is necessary work and what is puttering? Should work that is physically taxing, like yard work, count more than work that isn’t, like the dishes? Questionnaires and housework diaries generally deal only in repetitive tasks like sweeping, doing the dishes and mowing the lawn. What about planning summer vacations? What about figuring out which washer to buy? And what about that far more important but far vaguer business of caring? We all know families that are held together because a woman knows who likes what in their sandwiches, who can or cannot read on a road trip, who needs cuddles after a hard day at school.

The million tendernesses of “emotional work” all require effort, often thankless effort. In one Canadian study, “What Is Household Work? A Critique of Assumptions Underlying Empirical Studies of Housework and an Alternative Approach,” the researchers had the intriguing idea of asking women what they considered their chores to be. A surprising array of answers emerged. For one Iranian woman, it involved calling her sister every day because their mother couldn’t get a visa out of Turkey. Several nationalities mentioned prayer as a household task.

It’s not easy to tally up emotional support, in all its forms. But none of these methodological difficulties should let men off the hook. According to calculations from the Bureau of Economic Analysis, even the domestic tasks that can be replaced directly through hired labor amount to 25.7 percent of America’s gross domestic product, and the bulk of that inordinately falls on women. If anything, a more expansive idea of housework shows how much more women are doing and how much of it is simply not registered in the accounts of what goes into the day. But the “moral dimension” to housework, as some scholars have called it, complicates all merely economic readings of the situation.

Housework is intimate drudgery. Understanding its intimacy is at least as important as understanding its drudgery. In an essay in New York magazine on the subject of housework in his own marriage, Jonathan Chait defended male indifference to housework as a question of having different standards than women. The truth of the matter is that it’s far more complex and darker and more intimate than “standards.” Even the most basic housework proves ethereal on inspection. The mechanism of emptying the dishwasher in my house is typically elaborate. When I cook, my wife tends to be responsible for the dishes. But she hates removing the cutlery from the dishwasher. (To figure out why she hates removing the cutlery would require decades of deep analysis. I do not know.) Therefore emptying the cutlery is my responsibility. So if I unload all the dishes, it’s a gift to my wife, but the cutlery is not. It is my marital duty. Every well-managed household is full of such minor insanities.

These minor insanities can be general as well as particular. Here’s one: In some countries, women who make more money than their husbands tend to do more housework. An Australian study described a U-shaped curve: As women approach income equality in their relationships they do a smaller share of the housework, but past equality they do a larger share. It’s not just income that matters, either. A 2012 study published in the American Journal of Sociology showed that housework can be a reaction to “gender deviance” in the type of the work involved as well: “Men and women perform gender through the routine activities of male- and female-typed housework and this performance appears to be undertaken in part to neutralize the gender deviance created when men and women are employed in gender-atypical occupations.”

The natural question is how long this situation can last. Fifty years ago a “woman doctor” was a gender-bending phenomenon. Now not so much. Nonetheless compensatory performances, intimate, tucked away, continue to affect daily domestic life. Like everything in marriage, the division of domestic duties ultimately boils down to sex, the fundamental struggle to achieve regulated passion. In what seems like one of the most widely reported sociological studies in history, a team of researchers in 2012 discovered that men who do more housework have less sex than men who don’t — but that men who do more traditional male housework, like yard work, have more sex. That old chestnut of sex advice columns, that tidying up the kitchen will get your wife in the mood, is sadly inaccurate.

In a famous scene from season 5 of “Mad Men,” at a party at Pete Campbell’s suburban spread, Don Draper rips off his shirt to fix a broken sink. The women applaud. Later, driving back to the city, Don and Megan pull off to the side of the road to have sex, because, as Megan says, “I can’t believe how much I loved watching you fix that sink.” The scene captures a discomfiting, somewhat humiliating, somewhat thrilling way of looking at housework. Chores are the world’s dreariest form of foreplay. There is no solution to the economic injustice of housework any more than there is a solution to human desire.

Right at the beginning of the modern feminist movement, in “The Second Sex,” Simone de Beauvoir identified housework as the key impediment to the liberation of women: “Woman is doomed to the continuation of the species and the care of the home — that is to say, to immanence.” The prison of immanence is the original imprisonment for de Beauvoir. She could not understand why anyone would want to do housework. “The healthy young woman will hardly be attracted by so gloomy a vice,” she writes.

Simone de Beauvoir was wrong. Millions of young women are deeply attracted to the gloomy vice of domestic labor. Martha Stewart has made an empire of immanence. The bizarre phenomenon of modern young women proudly making their own candles, knitting and raising chickens, coincides neatly with the rise of working women who actually do much less housework. One of Hillary Clinton’s major sources of relaxation is HGTV. The fetishization of the domestic is a mainstay of reality television. The fantasies of domestic perfection are the feminine equivalent of “Ice Road Truckers” and “Deadliest Catch” and beer ads. Domesticity is the macho nonsense of women. And, in this light, it is not surprising that men have not started doing more of it. Men might be willing to lose the garbage of their own gender stereotypes, but why should they take on the garbage of another?

The future probably does not involve men doing more housework. A recent study of transgender men found that housework is divided inequitably even in that group. There is a slight correlation between the egalitarianism of a household and a fairer division of domestic labor, but the most substantial correlation is that the more egalitarian a household is, the less housework gets done altogether.

Here is the good news: Men’s behavior may not be changing, but women’s is. According to a 2000 study by University of Maryland sociologists, time-diary data from American adults show that the number of hours spent on domestic labor, not including child care or shopping, has declined steadily since 1965. This finding is mainly due to declines among women, both those with jobs and those without jobs. They have cut their housework hours almost in half since the 1960s.

According to the Bureau of Economic Analysis, the proportion of G.D.P. that unpaid domestic labor would add to the overall economy has declined from 39 percent in 1965 to 25.7 percent in 2010. Because women are doing less and less, the difference between the amount of housework that men and women do continues to narrow, and not because women are so busy they can’t do the housework. Those who were cutting their numbers of hours spent on domestic work most rapidly were those with the most time available for it, according to the University of Maryland researchers. The sociologists’ term for this process is “disinvestment.”

Hooray for disinvestment. Caring less is the hope of the future. Housework is perhaps the only political problem in which doing less and not caring are the solution, where apathy is the most progressive and sensible attitude. Fifty years ago, it was perfectly normal to iron sheets and to vacuum drapes. They were “necessary” tasks. The solution to the inequality of dusting wasn’t dividing the dusting; it was not doing the dusting at all.

The solution to the gender divide in housework generally is just that simple: don’t bother. Leave the stairs untidy. Don’t fix the garden gate. Fail to repaint the peeling ceiling. Never make the bed.

A clean house is the sign of a wasted life, truly. Hope is messy: Eventually we’ll all be living in perfect egalitarian squalor.”

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