Division of labor at home remains a divisive issue

August 05, 1993|By Murray Dubin | Murray Dubin,Knight-Ridder News Service

Denise Uhlman Kirkland and her husband, Ron, have been happily married for five years. The Philadelphia couple clearly enjoy each other's company.

"I truly feel he is my soul mate," she says. "If you take away the household chores, I've never regretted a day."

Oh, is there a problem with the household chores?

"Something like dirty dishes or laundry should not be a priority," she says firmly.

She pauses, then adds: "Unless you need clean underwear."

And therein lies the problem.

The laundry. The dishes. The cooking.

The bathrooms. The putting away. The cleaning up. The household tasks.

So many couples still argue about clearing the table or putting dirty laundry away or cleaning the toilet. Who does what? Is it divided equitably? Is it divided at all?

Call it, as one magazine already has, Chore Wars.

The carping about cleaning up has become more prevalent as more women work outside the home. Clearly, spouses have always complained about spouses -- OK, it's mostly women complaining about men -- not doing enough in the home.

But it's getting worse now.

"There is no more time in the day than there was when wives stayed home, but there is twice as much to get done," wrote University of California at Berkeley sociologist Arlie Hochschild in her 1989 book, "The Second Shift." The title refers to the first shift women work at their jobs and the second shift at home.

Women work longer

Add work in and out of the home, and women work 15 hours more a week than men do, Ms. Hochschild concludes, leading to increased frustration on the part of many women.

"The national data says that the proportion of women in the work force is going up, and women working and having kids is going up. Two-income families are not going away," says Louise Lamphere, an anthropology professor at the University of New Mexico and the co-author of "Sunbelt Working Mothers -- Reconciling Family and Factory" (1993, Cornell University Press).

Jane and Tom Huesser of Washington Township, Pa., are one of those two-income families. Both worked before they married nine years ago, both still work. He's a salesman, she's an office manager for a physicians group. Each is 34, and they have a 6-month-old son, Tommy.

Her father died when she was 10. She grew up with one brother and four sisters.

"When we were kids, my mom did everything," she says. "As we got older, the girls helped. My stepfather put up paneling, cemented the patio. My baby brother? He got off the hook. We still call him the 'king.'

"None of it fazed my mother. She doesn't believe men should do anything in the house. She didn't expect my stepfather to do anything."

If the woman wants the responsibility, and does the chores, no difficulty arises, Ms. Lamphere writes. But if the woman has the responsibility only in her husband's eyes, then anything the man does is just helping out -- but it is still her job.

In her book, Ms. Lamphere says it is important to distinguish who has responsibility for a chore.

When Jane Huesser married, she did not want to run the house the way her mother had. She assumed that her husband would "have the same housecleaning habits as me. He was a bachelor, he must know how to do things. He would want to do them."

Not exactly.

His refrigerator usually held beer, milk, ketchup, mustard, ice cream and leftover food, frequently gray or green.

"After 12 months of marriage, I started nagging him to pick up his clothes. I did all the housework the first and second year, and I was pretty aggravated on Saturday mornings when I had to clean the whole house. He worked every Saturday."

She says he "responded by not responding. He pacified me. He'd pitch in for a couple of days."

She began to notice how other couples lived. There were men who helped around the house. She made a list of the chores and said: "Pick out what you want."

She says the list changed everything. He doesn't remember the list at all. Then the baby came along and prompted a revised list -- one he remembers.

Mr. Huesser's parents were divorced when he was little, and he grew up in apartments. He lived in apartments as an adult. He FTC lived simply. "Take 15 minutes to clean," he says.

When he married, he saw no reason to cook. "She could do it a lot better than I could."

He took care of the dogs, the car, house repairs. He worked 70 to 80 hours a week. "Our upstairs in the first house was one bedroom. I vacuumed, cleaned the stairs."

It's only fair

He says if they are both working outside the house, it's only fair that they both work in the house. Sure, he's more a basement kind of a guy than a kitchen guy, but he's trying.

He hates laundry, hates doing the dishes, but he does them. He does try to avoid them whenever he can. Their rule is that the cook doesn't do the dishes. If he puts peas in the microwave, he calls it cooking.

She looks at him and smiles.

He doesn't get away with it.

Psychiatrist Richard W. Moscotti says there is always some sort of imbalance in who does what in a relationship.

"People don't discuss these things beforehand. So when the issues come up, you have to be healthy enough to discuss these things quickly. Say 'I love you dearly, but I don't like to cook the meal, clean up afterward and be the maid of the house.' "

If not discussed, Dr. Moscotti says, the issues may lead to "psychological abscesses . . . and a lot of resentment."

And what should the woman respond when the man in her life says he doesn't have time to do the laundry:

"Charlie, time is a relative term. You must find the time," says Dr. Moscotti.

And when he says he doesn't know how?

"Charlie, that's BS of the highest order. I'd rather have you do it imperfectly."

Dr. Moscotti says that these are not unimportant issues, that the problems of the kitchen and laundry room can lead to the bedroom.

"It's hard to make love to the enemy. It can hurt a marriage."

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