Domestic Labor Gender Gap: On Turning into my Boyfriend's Mom

Does it surprise you that a study has found that women are more sexually attracted to their male partners when the men did housework?

Sep 26, 2012 at 5:00pm | Leave a comment

“Do you feel like your partner has become your child?

Do you find yourself being his maid, his cook, his manager?

Have romance, respect, fun–and sex–been drained out of your relationship?” (from the cover of my new bible)

If these questions provoke uncomfortable answers, you’re in luck! There is a book for you:

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God, I hate the word "lover."

Does it surprise you that a study quoted in this book found that women are more sexually attracted to their male partners when the men did housework? It didn’t surprise me. It did, however, gross me out. I hate to think that subconsciously my partner’s aversion to housecleaning has impacted our sex life. 

I’ve been well socialized NOT to think of sex as a transaction. I like to think that sex exists outside of crude economics; it’s not exchanged for dinner or a piece of jewelry, nor is it brokered for dishwashing or vacuuming. But the simple fact remains that for me, and I guess for many women, there is an inverse relationship between housework and sex in the domestic sphere. 

And goddammit, I hate that. It seems completely retrogressive and mundane. It is emphatically not the stuff of epic romance. 

I’ve thought about this issue a lot. In my home, there are sort of daily and weekly chores. On the daily, it  breaks down pretty evenly on dog walking, cooking and dishwashing. We’d each claim more responsibility for grocery shopping (he’d be lying). Weekly laundry, vacuuming and bathroom cleaning are more often done by me. In fairness, I’m the one who can’t relax until the toilet gets clean, the cat litter changed, the endless pet hair hoovered up. I do the cleaning I do because the dirt bothers ME; on some level, it’s selfish.

At the same time, I know that while my partner wants to live in a clean house, he doesn’t actually want to do the cleaning. I cannot bear to ask him to do chores because, in my experience, a) it sounds like nagging b) it still won’t get done until he is good and ready, which inevitably is long past the time when I am good and ready to see the job completed and c) refer back to "a."  It sounds like nagging because it IS nagging. 

About this issue of nagging: I kind of made peace with the concept when I realized that if someone had to remind me to do every task and chore I do routinely and without being asked or reminded -- hell yeah, it would sound like nagging. I’m thinking along the lines of, “Sarah, can you please empty the garbage bag when it’s full/toss the empty cereal box/pick up soy milk/put laundry in the basket/wipe the toothpaste out of the sink/sweep up the tumbleweeds of dog hair/feed the hollering cat/take your dishes to the sink/get your hair out of the drain?” Who the hell wants to listen to that? It sounds parental, and, god forbid, mothering. MILFs aside, it’s not hot.

And dammit, I do have certain standards: tumbleweeds of human/dog hair, a dirty toilet, mold in the shower and a moldering sink full of dirty dishes are intolerable to me. When I met my partner 6 years ago (happy anniversary honey!), I saw how he lived with a roommate. There should have been no illusions on my part as to the sort of domestic work that might be expected of him.

I must say emphatically: I’m no clean freak. I learned how NOT to be a domestic goddess from the best. My mom was a second wave feminist who got the message loud and clear that unpaid domestic labor was no way to spend your time. It was kind of a joke in our family. As soon as we were old enough, we did our own laundry, cleaned our own rooms, did dishes, washed floors -- everything. Part of the point of having kids, right? And my mom had 4 of us. That's a lot of mess, a lot of thankless work. I still remember she had a screed against homemaking taped to a cabinet, something like, “I will not spend hours doing what a toddler with a plate of crackers can undo in 3 seconds.”  The house was never spic and span, and nobody cared.

Of all the amazing skills my boyfriend has, fastidious cleaning is not among them. I have come to understand that we have different notions of what makes a home clean. In my partner’s case, I know that dirty dishes and piles of cat hair just don’t bother him the way they do me.  We’ve had this discussion many times -- when a person must decide between pushing a broom or reading a book on the sofa, the sofa will always win. But isn’t making boring tedious choices that involve pointless work one of life’s unpleasant realities? We can’t always succumb to the sofa.  

This mother/lover (sorry) housework BS can be a source of simmering resentment, which, I’ve learned can have unintended consequences in the bedroom. Is the solution to throw money at the problem and just pay someone to take care of our mess? 

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I'm pretending this pic of Detroit's formidable Heidelberg project is my house. Really, would anyone call this dirty?

I can’t even imagine what it would be like if we were to throw kids into the mix. 

If we both desire domestic harmony including a degree of hygiene and regular sex, there are compromises to be made. And we are working on them. I know this stuff isn’t even specific to gender; in friends’ relationships there are women who slack off and men who do the bulk of the tedious stuff. I hate to think that something as mundane as housecleaning could sow the seeds of discontent in my happy relationship. Who knew that the metaphoric work of relationships could morph so stupidly into literal work of housecleaning? I would love to hear how other people (women) work this shit out.