I had just moved in with a boyfriend chosen in my younger, more careless years when the first sign emerged that our relationship might be a mistake. As I crossed the living room to sit with him on the couch, he groused, “You just walked right past that dust bunny on that floor and didn’t pick it up!”
Turning to the tuff of floating cat hair in question, I said: “Ah, I didn’t see it. If you saw it, why didn’t you pick it up?” The exact wording of his response has grown hazy with time, but I remember he was irritated; he didn’t like confronting feminist logic in his own home.
This story pops into my head whenever new research comes out demonstrating that women still handle more of the domestic grind than men. The Council on Contemporary Families released a report last week, pegged to Mother’s Day, showing that although men pick up more housework than they used to, they can still count on women to do more, freeing up men’s time to advance their careers or watch some sports on TV.
The council collected a number of studies that, taken together, squelch the idea that modern marriage is a wonderland of equality. Among the findings: Married mothers do more than three times as much cooking, cleaning and laundry than married fathers. Men have more than an hour more leisure time a day than women. Men and women both — no doubt trying to feel good about their relationships — overestimate how much housework men actually do.
The council did find one exception to the rule: Childless couples who said they were committed to equality did split chores evenly. But when baby came, the women in these once-balanced relationships got a raw deal; not only did New Mom do more domestic work than New Dad, but New Dad did five fewer hours of housework per week than before he became a father.
The implications are clear: When faced with the pressures of raising a family, couples backslide into traditional gender roles.
Of course, not everyone agrees that sexist forces are to blame for women’s disproportionate responsibilities at home. Jonathan Chait of New York magazine, for instance, argued last week that women clean more simply because they have higher standards. Men don’t mind living in filth. Women, meanwhile, insist unreasonably on cleanliness.
To reach this conclusion, Chait zeroed in on a study showing that single men do less housework than single women — and ignored all the research confirming that gender expectations within relationships affect the domestic division of labor. Anyway, who’s to say that the single men in that one study were satisfied with their surroundings? Maybe they were miserable.
Chait’s not the only man taken with the idea that men slack off because they’re happy-go-lucky slobs. Stephen Marche advanced a similar argument in the New York Times in 2013, and just about every Judd Apatow movie perpetuates that notion. It’s easy to see why it appeals: It means that when women ask for help, men can trot out the supposed male preference to wallow in dirt.
But the stereotype that men are born slobs while women are born neatniks is a relatively new one. Before the Apatowian man-child, single male characters in the movies lived in perfectly nice apartments; think C.C. Baxter in “The Apartment” or Paul Varjak in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.” Apatowian bachelors would have read not as sweet, normal guys back then but as dissolute.
In the 19th century, fastidiousness was not only considered normal for men, it was expected. “Victorian fiction is abundant with examples of fastidious bachelors,” the Victorian expert Maeve Adams told me, citing Roger Hamley of “Wives and Daughters,” Edward Rochester of “Jane Eyre” and Sherlock Holmes. “By counter-example, those who fail at being (or remaining) fastidious, in appearance or morals, are justly punished in very satisfying ways with death, dereliction or the greatest tragedy of all, permanent bachelorhood.”
As Adams noted, these fussy men had servants to take care of the actual work for them. But that just proves the larger point: It’s not that men are happy to live in filth; they’ve just, for much of history, been able to make housework someone else’s job.
A single man, sitting on the couch surrounded by dust bunnies, can afford to let things slide for now because he knows that the situation is impermanent. Once he finds a partner, she’ll put a stop to drunken recklessness and all-night video game marathons, and she’ll recycle the pizza boxes stacked up in the kitchen sink.
The idea that men can’t see dirt seems to have arisen right around the time that women started asking men to do their fair share around the house. It could be a coincidence, but it is a rather suspicious one.
Amanda Marcotte is Brooklyn-based journalist who has written for Slate, USA Today and Rolling Stone.