Put Down the Mop (and The Case for Filth)

mopIf you’ve been paying attention, you know women average approximately 30 percent more housework and childcare than men do, regardless of work arrangements. And you know that in Mogul, Mom & Maid I make the case for:

  1. companies to create more family-friendly cultures because the pressures of managing a career and a family are crazy
  2. men to do their fair share at home, and
  3. women to put down the “proverbial” mop. By lowering your standards, even just a little, you can free up some valuable time and make space for other things in your life.

Well Sunday in The New York Times, writer Stephen Marche advocated for no. 3 because he says no. 2 is never going to happen.

In his op-ed, “The Case for Filth,” he writes, “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.”

He offers several different theories from the ancient Romans to Marx and Engels as to why the housework gap hasn’t closed but the bottom line is he predicts, “The future probably does not involve men doing more housework,” and therefore, “The only possible solution to the housework discrepancy is for everyone to do a lot less of it.”

When I’m out speaking to professional women’s groups about my book, I urge them to “put down the mop.” Let go of one household chore for just a week. Don’t make the bed. Maintain a messy linen closet. Forgo the vacuum. Just let your standards slip a little, see how it feels, and what kind of time and space it frees up for you to pursue something else. I promise no one will get hurt. And I know from personal experience that letting go gets easier with time. It’s why I live in fear of neighbors dropping by unannounced. But hey, I found time to write a book. (And I just learned that JK Rowling credits not doing housework for four years with her ability to write Harry Potter while raising a baby.)

But perhaps a greater challenge than the physical chores like cooking, cleaning and laundry, are the invisible tasks like scheduling doctor’s appointments, arranging carpools, and organizing play dates. It seems to be much harder to get a man to plan birthday party goody bags than it is to get him to fold hospital corners. (Of course some trailblazing women are forgoing the goody bags too, and I applaud them.) Marche refers to these invisible tasks as “emotional work” and writes, “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.”

A few of the women in Mogul, Mom & Maid say they own these invisible, emotional responsibilities because they are deeply vested in creating a certain type of childhood for their children. A few others confess to what is called maternal gatekeeping; they either don’t trust or don’t like the way their husbands do things – from feeding to dressing the kids. But many women say their partners just don’t seem to think about these tasks and so we are challenged with how to make the invisible visible and enlist our partners’ support in completing them.

For example, just recently a woman told me she forgot to have her toddler picked up from daycare. Normally one night a week  her husband picks up because she has a standing appointment. But that week her husband had a meeting and the woman forgot to make alternative plans. She was feeling really guilty about what happened until I asked her why it was her responsibility to arrange a backup plan for her husband? If he couldn’t fulfill his responsibility why didn’t he look for an alternative? Arranging backup had become an invisible task.

Marche writes, “Caring less is the hope of the future.” That depends on what we care about. We can live with dust bunnies and some dirty dishes in the sink but we can’t leave our kids at daycare all night. He continues, “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.” I agree. But the solution to the invisible tasks is a bit more complex. Women need to make these  tasks visible; men need to see what’s right in front of them.

Photo credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/kimonomania/2423688896/

6 comments for “Put Down the Mop (and The Case for Filth)

  1. Meg
    December 9, 2013 at 9:30 am

    I understand lowering one’s standards, But eventually even cleaning tasks and home maintenance have to be done. You can skip painting your house, but you risk damage to its exterior. You can skip laundry, but spend more to replace ruined/stained/unmended clothes. Ignoring necessary tasks is bad advice.

    • lizodool
      December 10, 2013 at 6:49 am

      Meg: Some level of work needs to get done. But we can still lower our standards.

  2. December 9, 2013 at 8:21 pm

    I love the last quote! In my first year as a sort of stay-at-home mom with a new baby, I was also trying to finish my dissertation. I know all the scholarship about the gendered division of labor, and still I’d find myself scrubbing floors again and again and dusting corners while my baby napped (and not writing my dissertation). I was obsessing about the number of ounces of formula that my baby ate, how many hours the baby slept, the developmental milestones that he was reaching in a way that my husband simply was not. Then I just stopped. And I finished my dissertation within three months and become less anxious, happier, and a better parent. I tried to make all of my “invisible labor” more visible to my husband. Then, of course, I blogged in my post “In Praise of Filth” about my conclusions: http://www.schoolofsmock.com/2013/03/18/letting-my-house-go-in-praise-of-filth/

    • lizodool
      December 10, 2013 at 6:49 am

      “And nothing happened.” Jessica, I love that conclusion from your post. You stopped cleaning and the world kept revolving. Imagine that.

  3. February 21, 2014 at 6:40 pm

    My favorite poem of all time is “I Took His Hand and Followed.” I kept a copy of it magnetized to my frig when my 2 sons were little tykes (they’re 27 and 29 now). The poem talks about leaving the stairs unswept, ignoring the cobwebs, taking your little son’s hand and “following where his eager footsteps lead…” and the end of the poem says, “For in 20 years from now, no one will know that my stairs were unswept…but they’ll look at the man my son has become, they’ll see and they’ll know.” In other words, the time we invest in our kids will be self-evident in 20 yrs from now. I can attest to this truth. My sons are good men, and I’m proud to state that I ignored the cobwebs in favor of excursions to the park and play dates where my sons did “the work of growing up.”

    I need things organized so that I can find the checkbook, and the bills get paid, but dust bunnies run rampant in my home. Cheers to the dust bunnies!

    • lizodool
      March 6, 2014 at 8:21 pm

      Thanks for the message Melanie. Cheers to dust bunnies!

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