Chores for Two: Why Men Don't Pitch In

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A working mother explores the role men assume in housework and childrearing.

As a reporter, I often travel on assignment. When my children were small, the prospect of my leaving town for a few days typically elicited great alarm from our family's nearest and dearest.

"Who will take care of the children!" they exclaimed, as if the little darlings had only one parent. When I replied that their father would doubtless make sure they didn’t starve to death while I was away, everyone from my women friends to my mother would simper adoringly, "Oh, you’re so lucky! Jeremy is soooo wonderful!"

Like my husband and me, our upstairs neighbors during those years, Amy and Nick, were both working journalists with complicated schedules, as well as children and a dog. When Amy saw my husband hauling groceries into our apartment one day, she asked me what on earth he was doing.

Since the bags were overflowing with the usual staples of family life, from breakfast cereal to toilet paper, the answer seemed pretty obvious. But instead of questioning Amy's observational skills, I explained that twice a month Jeremy bought large quantities of household supplies, thereby reducing the number of necessities I had to lug home every day. Duh.

Amy looked as if she were about to swoon. "Oh, you're so lucky!" she moaned, her voice trembling with an unnatural fervor so exaggerated as to suggest I had just won the MegaMillions lottery. "My husband would never do that! Jeremy is soooo wonderful!"

When the big holidays roll around, the sainted Jeremy and I always have a houseful of guests. I spend days planning, shopping, and cooking lavish meals for ridiculous numbers of friends and relatives. I do everything from the flower-arranging to the silver-polishing to the table-setting. 5 Holiday Recipes To Cook Together

After eating themselves into a stupor, one or two people usually rouse themselves long enough to make halfhearted, visibly insincere offers to help clean up. We tell them not to worry about it; Jeremy does the clean-up.

Sinking back into torpor, they sigh with relief. "Oh, you're so lucky!" they murmur. "Jeremy is soooo wonderful!"

Although both Jeremy and I work full-time, I do all the cooking, and I have always taken care of considerably more child-rearing tasks and domestic drudge-work than my husband. In this regard, we resemble most other two-career American couples.

According to the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan, women spent an average of 27 hours a week on housework in 2002, while men spent 16 hours (which at least represents an improvement over the 16 seconds or so a lot of them spent a generation ago). Even today, married men perform little more than a third of household labor, whether or not their wives are in the paid labor force. And women spend more than twice as much time as men do on child care. The Balancing Act: Can You Have It All?

Ask your typical American dad what size shoes his children wear, and you will likely draw a blank stare. He has no idea. Guess who makes sure the kids' toes aren't poking through their sneakers?

My own husband claims that any imbalance in our household contributions derives solely from the fact that he has to go to an office while I work at home, a luxury that permits me to take care of many domestic tasks during my workday. This disparity in our schedules may explain why I make dinner every night—because I'm home to stir the pot on the stove—but it does not explain why our weekends begin with him enjoying a third cup of coffee over the morning newspapers while I rush around making breakfast, cleaning up the house, and organizing the children's day. I'm the one everyone asks when they want to know when the next orthodontist appointment is, what the cross-country meet schedule is, or where the birthday party is being held (yes, I remembered to buy a present; yes, it's wrapped and ready to go).

And yet everyone acts as if Jeremy deserves some kind of medal just for making a run to the supermarket. No one has ever suggested that I'm a heroine for doing the things every mother is expected to do. I admit that my husband helps out more than many men, but here's another news flash: It isn't because he's such a fabulously enlightened being. Left to his own devices, he would doubtless park himself in front of the TV like some sitcom male-chauvinist couch potato while I did all the work. The reason Jeremy "helps" as much as he does (an offensive terminology that itself suggests who’s really being held responsible) is simple: He doesn't have a choice.

From the beginning of our relationship, I made it very clear that I wasn't going to be any husband's unpaid servant. If Jeremy wanted to be—and stay—married to me, let alone have kids, he couldn't stick me with all the boring, mundane stuff nobody wants to do. We were going to share the work, or we were going to forget the whole deal. Unlike my first husband, who announced after our wedding that he didn't like the way the French laundry did his shirts and he now expected me, the Wife, to wash and iron all of them, Jeremy recognized both the righteousness of the principle involved and the intransigence of the woman he'd married, and proceeded to pitch in.

That was 17 years ago, and while we haven't exactly achieved equity, we’ve come a lot closer to it than most of our peers, judging by all the dreary surveys proving that men are slugs and their wives are superwomen. So how have I accomplished this? By holding my husband's feet to the fire every single day of our lives, of course.

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