Chore Wars: how the division of housework can make or break a marriage
No matter how modern a relationship or reconstructed the male, the division of chores in a marriage is contentious. When my husband declares, “This house is a pigsty”, it feels like a slur on my character and morals. Even though it is equally a slur on his character and morals. The subtext, whether implied or inferred, is that the bulk of housewifery is — like reproduction — down to the ladies.
If a child arrives at school with crisps for lunch, it’s the mother who’s judged. This truth irritated Mumsnet founder Justine Roberts so much she made an Excel spreadsheet of responsibilities and found that her husband, Newsnight editor Ian Katz, had 5 — one of which was changing lightbulbs — and she had 65. Phil and I work from home and no longer employ a cleaner (dust-rage, plus cost); we undertake 65 chores before breakfast. At least I do.
I’m not surprised to hear that Woman’s Hour is devoting an entire week of programmes to the topic to try to answer the difficult questions about who is really doing what in 21st-century British households. Chore Wars will even have an online chore calculator to help couples work out who genuinely does what in the house and the true extent of each partner’s free time.
Which might uncover some of our dirty little secrets. Naturally, I exaggerate my martyrdom to Phil, but there are a few pockets of drudgery I almost enjoy. Enid Blyton would be shocked at the pride I take in providing my husband with clean, tumble-dried pants. The only time I felt resentful was when he complained I’d shrunk a top. I bristled with cold fury, partly induced by a sense of having been tricked into failing in my self-imposed duty.
What evens the closely scrutinised odds is that Phil is officially in charge of the bathroom. This is mainly because he has crime-scene cleaner standards and regards my hygiene principles as poor. He performs his signature chore with an air of resentful flamboyance and demands recognition: “Have you seen the bathroom?” It’s like having Liberace clean your toilet.
There was no indication that Phil was like this when we met, 18 years ago. He lived in his parents’ immaculate house yet, misleadingly, bragged about the disgusting squalor of his college days. That I never made my bed didn’t bother him; I can only assume he was blinded by love. This is no longer the case.
For sexist reasons his responsibilities entail anything to do with the car — even though he once called the AA because it had run out of petrol. (Him: “It won’t start.” Me: “It’s run out of petrol.” Him: “No it hasn’t; I’m calling the AA.”) Since that shameful day, he’s watched enough Wheeler Dealers to correctly diagnose a fault and impress the mechanic. When I drive he shouts about my nearly killing us. So now, brilliantly, he drives. Plainly marriage is about enabling each other’s bad habits.
Talking of which, I’m uninterested in technology, so Phil has been compelled to embrace it (transferring 4,000 photos from my old phone, fixing computer issues). I’m too lazy — I mean, it’s too confusing for my girlie brain. However, I do our VAT, which I hate. This is my trump card, shaken in his face when he berates me for my attitude to tech. Meanwhile, he’s like a Fifties housewife: never sees a bank statement or a bill. That is unless there’s a problem with a bill. Phil argues better.
Regarding household maintenance, we both do our bit. Phil changes fuses, repaints walls, drills holes, puts up shelves. (He also darns; his grandma taught him.) I’m the litter pixie: collecting apple cores and crisp packets, sweeping up crumbs, picking up socks, shutting cupboard doors, hanging up wet towels. I’m also Phil’s seeing-eye dog: “Where’s my wallet/phone/keys?”
I ploddingly do the keep-you-alive cooking, but he’s a actually a good chef. For dinner parties I do no food preparation beyond shopping. Suits me: I find wandering the supermarket a respite. Also if Phil food shops he doesn’t return with any treats. I prefer to retain control in this area. We both take out the rubbish. If he cooks I tidy up. If I cook I tidy up.
I do growl about “feeling like a servant”, but what’s pleasing is: he feels the same. And we are, after all, doing this for us. We disagree over who suffers more, but ultimately our joint servitude is unifying. I don’t believe in outsourcing your own life: you can become distanced from it. That said, Phil always asks me to buy him pants, socks, T-shirts, but I never bother. I think I must find the concept hateful. Eventually, his mother does it.
If I try to estimate who does more, I can’t (so maybe Phil). As to who does what, I’m sensing overall a “me Tarzan, you Jane” bias. Awful, but I refer you to the study Egalitarianism, Housework and Sexual Frequency in Marriage, published in The American Sociological Review. Apparently, if men do what researchers defined as “feminine chores” — washing, cooking, vacuuming — then couples have sex 1.5 fewer times a month than those whose husbands prefer chest-beating tasks such as changing a tyre. Hmm.
Never would I suggest that parenting is a chore. However. I do the grunt work of getting everyone off to school. (Once Phil made a packed lunch: it contained peanut butter. And yes, the teacher reprimanded me.) I also collect, supervise play dates and bedtimes.
And yet. When our youngest son Caspar, 7, broke his arm, Phil slept at the foot of his hospital bed. When Caspar’s pins were removed without pain relief, Phil invoked the brave soldiers of the Second World War. I don’t equate caring for your injured child to picking grot out of the sink, but that day, Phil bore the brunt of our trauma. I do think that is the key. Not an Excel spreadsheet, sternly totting up what’s owed, but the instinctive knowledge that sometimes you give and sometimes you take.
On Sunday morning Anna takes the kids swimming. I’m left alone to clean the bathroom, which has been festering for seven days. I enjoy cleaning the bathroom. Most of the time we waft around the planet blissfully unaware of our grubbiness, more god than animal. But then I clean the bathroom and remember what I really am: a lump of oily protein and fat, dropping hairs, smear, grime and stink. And in short order I overcome that by returning myself to godliness.
My favourite moment comes at the end of deep clean when I stand in the bathroom, in a cloud of hot bleachy steam and soap. I feel like a samurai meditating on a fleeting victory beneath the boughs of a cherry tree pregnant with blossom.
Within hours, there will be floss on the radiator, Lego on the floor, mysterious strips of unused toilet paper and hair blown into corners, paw prints around the sink, into which the cat has knocked a plant, and greasy streaks on the mirror like a snail triggered an IED. Some kid standing in a bath full of garden dirt, saying: “How do you wash a brick, Dad?”
No one really helps and as such the house exists in a state just short of what might break my spirit entirely. Anna tidies, but doesn’t clean. If she could she’d get a house made from the same material as picnic plates and chuck it away once a week. The truth is that we both have an inbuilt cut-off point that stops us striving for domestic perfection. That cut-off is boredom. And so we’ve settled on a middle ground of Crimean War-era hygiene: enough to stem disease fatal to bears, but probably not enough to make Mary Berry comfortable accepting a cup of tea.
When Anna does lend a hand on a midweek cleaning session she throws herself into it with the skill and enthusiasm of a 1970s British Leyland employee working on New Year’s day with no tea breaks. I see “clean” as the end result of the application of hot water and soap via some form of scourer. Anna sees “clean” as two squirts of Flash Lazy and a quick rub with a jumper sleeve.
Naturally she will argue that she does more than me. Women always think they do more than men, but this is an illusion. We are all born with an innate sense of justice and balance and would be unable to remain together as a couple if the division of labour felt too unfair. This is not about some simplistic quid pro quo, because the scales on which we weigh one another’s contributions are hidden.
The weight of our partner’s contribution is equal to the relief we feel at not doing those particular chores — working in an office or washing the dog. The definition of compatibility is finding a partner who is happy to assume the tasks you loathe and vice versa. No marriage can survive on romance and moonlight alone.