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A Housewifery's Work is Never Done...



Y'know, some of these tasks are optionalSo from the Bureau of Labor Statistics we get the 2013 installment of their"American Time Use Survey".  The takeaway from this invaluable study was that women do more housework than men, and spend significantly more of their time doing it.  I have no doubt this is true, to the point where it is neither controversial, subject to debate or in any way shocking.

The larger question is to what extent it represents the manifestation of our misogynistic culture and the male domination of our society, and to what extent it is more a gender-driven disagreement of what chores are actually necessary and worth doing.

And I'll even readily concede that those societal conditions are certainly a contributing factor to this nationwide, indeed species-wide imbalance of household labor.  But even with all that said, there is another fundamental imbalance underlying the housework question. This imbalance is premised first on a (mostly) gender-driven disagreement of what constitutes an acceptable living space, at what point the returns on time and effort spent doing household chores diminish to zero, and most fundamentally of all, how those determinations are made, and by whom.

Put simply, the level of cleanliness, lack of clutter and the overall 'neatness' of my living space is not determined by some external set of objective rules, but rather as a set of subjective standards.  For the most part I'm quite comfortable in a space that is not clean to hospital operating theater standards, and I always bear in mind that additional effort can be applied at any time an external event such as an important visitor demands it.  But the question arises at that point: In the case of a couple living together, if they have substantially different subjective standards for household maintenance, how are those differences fairly adjudicated, and how can the applicable labor be divided fairly?  If I do all the cleaning it takes to get to my 'cleanliness threshold' and it takes my spouse an additional .6 hours of labor per day to then bring the condition of the living space up to HER standards, is that unfair?

In a reasonable world those differences could be negotiated and compromises reached.  However, in my experience there is an additional relationship dynamic that prevents a fair agreement on the 'chores' question.  That dynamic comes down, fundamentally, to who in the relationship has the power to determine the expected standards for household maintenance, and further to enforce those standards.  And THAT'S where the gender dynamics truly come into play.  It is almost always the woman who spells out the expectations for household cleanliness, classically berating the 'slovenly' male into picking up after himself, vacuuming, dusting and other labor- and time- intensive tasks that would otherwise be seen as effort without measurable return.   Of course, the twin powers of persuasion and coercion only have so much effect, and once again, it is the female who is left to put in the extra effort to close the gap between doing what is necessary and doing what she perceives as necessary.

I would propose that in many,  if not most cases, a thoughtful, reasoned negotiation where he accepts a higher threshold for household clutter while she comes to recognize that, as one moves up the cleanliness scale, the returns on investment grow smaller and perhaps it is, as a general matter, ok to forgo some of the more fanatical demands to household sterility in order to free up that extra hour per day.

Do I believe that this kind of domestic negotiated peace is a real possibility?  Of course not.  But it is very much worth thinking about - how much time is spent, what is gained, and how much frustration is engnedered.  It's clearly a matter that affects nearly every couple, and thinking a little more deeply about it might be something worth doing.
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