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.

Yes, dear readers, it's true: Maintaining some semblance of parity in your marriage requires you to deploy the same kinds of nasty tactics you swore you would never stoop to as a parent but nonetheless found yourself using the minute you actually had a kid. Bribery and punishment work; so do yelling and complaining. Threats are also effective, as long as everyone knows you mean business. With husbands, tender blandishments and nooky are particularly useful, as is the withholding of the aforementioned.

These strategies admittedly take a lot of energy, but not as much as performing all the functions necessary to maintain home and family by yourself. When my husband has lingered too long over the sports section and I'm feeling overwhelmed by the number of errands that must be run, I hand him a list.

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"This is what I need you to do today," I say in a tone of voice that brooks no equivocation. He may moan and groan, but the jobs get done. And while I still have to mastermind the operation—somehow he is never the one who remembers that our son needs new mosquito netting, baseball cleats, and basketball shoes for sleepaway camp—I'm not the only one schlepping around town checking items off the To Do list.

What I don't understand is why my insistence on some approximation of equality is unusual. I live in Manhattan, which is full of smart, educated, successful women who are juggling the responsibilities of family and career with extraordinary competence. And yet most of them will readily admit that their husbands don't do half of anything remotely domestic.

Go to any school event for parents and you will find it crowded with working women who have taken time out of their busy professional schedules to meet with teachers or sit in on classes or attend the fourth-grade play. My children's school sponsors a regular forum where parents gather to discuss such pressing issues as curfews, homework, and the social mores of hormone-addled teen-agers. At every single one, the room is full of women—doctors, lawyers, and CEOs, as well as stay-at-home moms. The only man who ever attends is a widower who admits his son never tells him anything, so he comes to the discussion groups in hopes of learning what his kid is up to from his classmates' moms. Career And Family: Can We Really Have Both?

Where are the other fathers? In their offices, no doubt. Before you start protesting that this is exactly where those big strong male breadwinners belong, let me make one thing crystal clear: In many of the families I'm talking about, the wife is actually the major breadwinner. This seems to have no effect whatsoever on the husband's willingness to be an equal partner—or on the wife's readiness to demand that he become one. Although almost half of all working women provide at least half of the family income, and women are the major breadwinners in nearly a third of all American households, they remain far more likely to take time off from work when their children are sick. Needless to say, one survey after another shows that men also have more leisure time. Ask most working mothers what they do with their leisure time and you're lucky if they don't hit you.

The fact that guys, when left to their own devices, rarely rush to offer more toilet-scrubbing and diaper-changing is not in itself surprising. As Martin Luther King Jr. once observed, "We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed."

So why aren't women demanding something closer to parity? While many are resigned to seething in silence, the stakes are far higher than they seem to realize. When wives permit their husbands to shirk a fair share of the homemaking and parenting, not only do they themselves suffer, but chances are good that they're also sentencing their children to a similar fate. When you have kids, everything you do teaches them how to live their own lives when they grow up. Unfortunately, all too many women are still teaching their children that "woman is the n****r of the world," as John Lennon and Yoko Ono put it so memorably in a song lyric years ago. And what too many fathers teach their sons and daughters is that men can get away with dumping the scut work on their wives, and that women will grit their teeth and put up with it.

So all I can say to my fellow wives and mothers is: Rise up—you have nothing to lose but your unjust share of the burden. I know what you’re thinking: "I've tried to get him to help out more, but he won't! What am I supposed to do?"

You’re supposed to insist, that's what you're supposed to do. It's not as if women don't have leverage these days; despite the stereotype of the middle-aged guy running off with the secretary half his age, two thirds of all divorces among Americans over 40 are initiated by women, not men. What does this tell us about their relative levels of satisfaction within marriage?

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And while I recognize that gender stereotypes are risky, in my experience husbands are a lot like children. They will get away with whatever they can get away with. When you put your foot down and make it clear that you won’t take no for an answer, somehow the kids' rooms get cleaned, the groceries bought, the laundry folded. It really does work, I promise.

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