Politicized feminists—such as high achievers Sheryl Sandberg and Anne-Marie Slaughter—laid a lot of the groundwork for chore angst by zeroing in almost exclusively on score-keeping over domestic chores. Melinda Gates has also chimed in. But you’ll find little discussion about the value of traditionally masculine household projects. The hype seems to be for a 50-50 split only in the so-called traditionally feminine labor: housework and child care.
As they’ve come to realize that the maternal instinct dies hard, feminists are focusing more on engineering the role of the father. They don’t welcome the news that millennial women are surprisingly inclined to leave the workforce to stay home with kids. Hence, the focus on changing male attitudes, such as Sandberg trying to convince men that doing more housework would pay sexual dividends. She called it “choreplay.” Sigh.
In her recent book “Unfinished Business,” Slaughter implored us to “value caregiving as much as breadwinning.” That would be a lovely sentiment if it wasn’t so focused on social engineering, and motivated to get professional women more glued to their careers than their homes. The pitch was to change society to get men and women to be “equally competent and equally responsible” in both arenas.
But why not just promote people doing what they do best, on the home front or otherwise? If both parties are happy with the division of labor, who cares if it ends up being “gendered,” as long as one person isn’t being a total bum? Fifty-fifty score-keeping tends to stoke resentments. And it disregards human individuality. People bring different things to the table, which are sometimes “gendered,” sometimes not.
As a tribute to Father’s Day, I’d like to illustrate my point by describing the household labor of two fathers I’ve known: my own father and my husband, the father of my children.
Not Your ‘Typical’ 1950s Dad
My father was possibly the most cheerful person I’ve ever known. He worked long hours as a real estate agent, but I’ve no doubt he did way more than 50 percent of the housework. He shopped for groceries on his way home from work. He very often did the laundry, dishes, and cooking. He habitually brewed the morning coffee, put breakfast on the table, and got us kids off to school.
It wasn’t easy for my mother to keep up with four closely spaced children. I’d later come to truly appreciate her many sacrifices and deep love for us all. But she viewed housework as a total waste of time. Her primary concern was to write great poetry, which was often published in an Armenian literary journal.
As an adult I can appreciate the profound beauty of her poetry. As a child, though, I just remember her chain-smoking Kools and pounding at the typewriter. Her days were punctuated with passionate phone conversations in which she’d often rail against various Republicans as the source of all evil. She’d sometimes pause at the greasy stove, where she’d turn on a gas burner, bending sideways to light another cigarette.
The house could go to hell, as far as she was concerned. And it did. My father’s valiant daily efforts amounted to a bit of damage control. It got so bad that when I was about ten I asked my mom why the house was always so messy. Appalled, she said, “If you want a clean house, go ahead and clean it yourself!”
Offering Gratitude Instead of Resentment
My father adored my mother and fully supported her ambitions as a writer. Not once did I ever hear him complain about doing housework. He simply did it, often while reciting Shakespeare or singing an aria.
My father had so much appreciation for his family. He easily struck up friendships with store clerks and whomever he met along life’s way, and he loved to brag about his family and show our photos. He was also very proud of that messy, three-bedroom stucco postwar tract home in the Los Angeles suburbs.
No doubt the thankfulness my father felt came from his experiences of hardship. Born in Brooklyn to Italian immigrants, he was taken out of school at age 12 to help support the family. I think the drudgery of factory work sharpened his appreciation for learning. He envied kids who went to school, and developed an enormous love of opera and theater. He was especially happy to be cured of the tuberculosis that struck him in young adulthood. Many of those years were spent in sanitariums of the Adirondacks.
The only thing about which I recall my father complaining was his memory of cold New York winters. He was thrilled to make his way to California, where he worked in hospitals by day. At night he studied hard enough to earn his high school diploma. By the time he met my mother, she was a young nursing student and he was 46.
My parents both worked hard, according to their abilities, talents, and skills. Money was always tight. But my mother was a registered nurse, so when things got really hard, she’d supplement the income by working night shifts. I remember my father ironing her uniforms, a skill he learned working in garment factories. I also recall him sewing a hem in a hand-me-down dress for me. He was such a good and sweet man. And I miss him so much.
Don’t Bash Traditionally Male Household Labor, Either
But long live traditionally male household labor, too. Maybe part of the reason I grew up in a house without the so-called gendered division of labor is because my father was not a handyman.
My husband, by contrast, has been unbelievably handy. That’s despite his high-powered career as a national security expert on Capitol Hill, at the Pentagon, and in industry. When we married I was a career intelligence analyst. But once we had kids, I stayed home full-time and never returned to that career. I also did all of the housework. But I wouldn’t have had it any other way because my priority was to have him spend kids-awake time interacting with them (reading, playing, bathing, and diapering) rather than squandering any of that time on chores I was able to do myself.
In any case, why would I have wanted my husband to do housework instead of big-ticket projects I wasn’t as able to do? For example, here’s a partial list of what my husband contributed to our sweat equity over the years:
- Built ceiling to floor bookshelf system across 80 square feet of wall
- Gutted the old kitchen in our first house
- Remodeled that kitchen, installing all cabinets, flooring, and appliances
- Did demolition work to prep for kitchen remodel in second house
- Installed seven ceiling fans
- Installed landscape timbers, terraced, planted shrubs
- Built and installed backyard fence and gate
- Jackhammered broken up patio and took concrete to landfill
- Jackhammered old driveway, and took concrete to landfill
- Tore out old walkway, poured cement, installed flagstone walkway
- Sanded and refinished about 1,000 square feet of oak flooring in the first house
- Sanded and refinished about 2,000 square feet of oak flooring in the second house
- Built a pergola and arbors in the backyard
- Planted several trees, grapevines, and other cultivars
- Installed ceiling insulation in attic
- Installed insulation in crawl space (nasty job)
- Over the course of 20 years painted about 20 rooms, at least two coats
- Installed five toilets
- Installed dozens of outlets and light fixtures
- Shopped with me for furniture, appliances, draperies
- Built custom sandbox for the kids, with built-in benches on the sides
- Installed a ceramic tile floor in the laundry room
- Installed two sinks and a granite countertop in the bathroom
- Installed four large medicine cabinets
- Replaced and hung 21 interior doors (which I sanded, stained, and finished)
- Built a work station across the back wall of a two-car garage
- Installed 12 replacement windows
- Installed three exterior doors
That’s just what comes to mind at the moment. There was more. And this doesn’t include all of the roofing, building, painting, and maintenance work he did for our church. Nor does it include a steady stream of other household maintenance, like the following:
- Lawn and yard upkeep, mowing
- Rototilling soil for vegetable gardens
- Household repairs and troubleshooting
- After-storm clean-up of fallen branches with chainsaw
- Shoveling thousands of feet of snow over the years
- Raking about 2,000-plus bags of leaves over the years
Politicized feminists don’t seem to understand that in my book any one of these projects is worth several months of housework. If you’re going to put a price tag on the work mothers do, you need to also put a price tag on these “traditionally masculine” contractor tasks as well. Being frugal and having the incentive to build equity involves teamwork and a willingness to shun scorekeeping, especially if you’re just starting out.
One problem with the 50-50 division of household labor is that it overlooks the varying talents a father might bring to the marriage. My father’s gifts were different from my husband’s gifts. But they are all gifts.
This fixation also lacks appreciation for human individuality. I suppose if I were ambitious about installing appliances and toilets, that’s what I’d do. If my husband preferred to focus on laundry and dusting, then we would not have built any sweat equity. But enough of the social engineering. It doesn’t help anyone.
You Can Always Grow as a Person and Couple
One needn’t be frozen in habits. I haven’t done housework for a long time, but that’s not because I hire it out now. (I tried that for a short time, and it didn’t work out.) Although my husband still works full-time in industry, he does the housework. All of it: laundry, dishes, floors, vacuuming, toilets, groceries. I still do a lot of the cooking, but not the clean-up. It was all his idea, and that’s fine by me.
Politicized gender consciousness—like Karl Marx’s class consciousness or the race consciousness that comes from the hoax of white privilege theory—does little more than stoke resentments. It too often tells people to stop being who they naturally feel they are. Worse, it socially pressures people into being people they are not.
Both my bohemian mother and my housekeeping father defied the stereotypical “gender roles” of their time. But my mother considered herself a fully female human being, while my father considered himself a fully male human being.
My father often used the expression “my better half” when he referred to my mother. It’s an old timey term, and no doubt politically incorrect today since it refers to the “one flesh” that comes of the joining of two halves of humanity—one male and one female—in marriage. But it also implies mutual sacrifice and has nothing to do with scorekeeping. This has me wondering if the search for 50-50 equality in labor and the envy that fuels it is just a distortion of our inner quest for fulfillment, for finding our “better” half.
In any case, why not be grateful for any work a father does in the home, and dispense with the gender labels? Embrace his work as a labor of love. And wish him a Happy Father’s Day, too.