The drunken layabout husband’s guide to housework

The Internet has already had its fun with the confessional essay written by the drunken layabout husband I like to think of as flooded-with-awe dude. I felt moved to comment, but it took me a couple of weeks (roughly a million years Internet time) to figure out what I wanted to say about it.

To recap, FWA dude was on paternity leave, and “Since his [the baby’s] care was taken care of by his mother — whose apparent willingness and capacity to do almost everything for him flooded me with awe — I spent those nine months trying not to be bored” To alleviate boredom, he took to drinking somewhat heavily. (College student heavy, not Hemmingway heavy — and he stopped again as soon as he was going to a job outside the home regularly.)

The essay is obviously intended to be a bit humorous, but it’s difficult to discern any satirical intent in the entiitled obliviousness packed into this key phrase: “whose apparent willingness and capacity to do almost everything for him flooded me with awe.”

This thought is tossed off casually, as part of the setup for an essay that is really about his drinking problem. At no point does he examine his failure to participate equally in the care of his house or child. That failure is taken as a given, with a shrug and protestations of awe.

Sure, his awe sounds superficially like praise — his own wife, performing ordinary domestic labor and child care, dazzles him like a Cirque du Soleil aerialist! But in this context, it’s mostly a sneaky way of abdicating responsibility. Awe imbues the accomplishments of others with a magical glow that obscures the mundane truths of hard work and discipline.

Housework isn’t worthy of awe. The everyday bulk of it is made up of many small tasks that are exceptionally easy to master. They might be dull or tedious or unpleasant or gross, but they aren’t difficult.

Maybe — if you have never seriously contemplated the reality of housework before — you don’t realize how much your view of it is filtered through a hazy tapestry of of 1960s sitcom reruns and commercials for household cleaning products. This pop media upbringing has left many of us convinced that 1. Housework is mysterious and frustrating and super difficult, 2. Unless you have this one product, in which case the house practically cleans itself.

(I’m still vaguely resentful that the foaming tub cleanser with the “scrubbing bubbles” DOES NOT UNLEASH A SMALL ARMY OF TINY GRINNING ROBOTS THAT CLEAN THE SHOWER FOR YOU.)

These media narratives, absorbed deep into the background of our brains, taught us two more things that are strongly and unfortunately gendered: 1. Women clean house, 2. Because men… just don’t get it… somehow. Which results in hilarious hijinks, like washing machines that fill the house with suds and garbage disposals that explode.

If you are a dude, failing at housework isn’t seen as failing at life. It’s cute and funny. Ha-ha, men are such domestic slackers! They live like pigs! They can’t take care of themselves! Snuck in under cover of gentle mockery, the message we get is this: men are too important to be doing the housework.

It’s never phrased quite that bluntly, of course. A guy who just straight-up said “I think I’m too good for housework, therefore, YOU should do it” would be instantly recognized as a jerk. But many guys who would never articulate such a thought nevertheless act — in the passive sense of simply not taking any responsibility for housework — as if they believe it to be true.

When I first got married, I was surprised that my intent to keep my last name was the legal default. The act of keeping one’s original surname, presented to me in pop culture as a powerful act of feminist defiance, turned out to be indistinguishable from being a slacker who didn’t want to do the paperwork. Similarly, a husband lazing on the couch with a beer while his wife cleans up the place is an act of slackerdom indistinguishable from an assertion of traditional male privilege.

The thing about housework, is that nobody actually wants to do it, but everybody kind of needs it to be done. In fact, you could use that as a handy way of distinguishing housework from hobby. Making your own pasta is a hobby — nobody in your house will starve because you use dried pasta from the store. But everybody needs to eat.

I love cooking. Even if we had the self-maintaining robotic habitat of my futurist daydreams, I would still cook. (I’d make the robot be my sous-chef.) But I wouldn’t cook everything all the time. If I was tired or busy, I would want the option of making the robot do it. Also, cooking breeds dishes, and I hate dishes. In my head, I cook and my husband does all the dishes. In his head, I’m the one who dirtied the dishes by cooking, therefore, the dishes are my problem. Nobody loves dishes. Dishes are always going to be housework.

At our Bellingham house, I grew black flowers and a few herbs because I wanted to — hobby. But we had to mow our lawn as per the rental agreement, and we didn’t like doing it, so that was housework. If we were lucky, some neighbor kid would come by with a lawn mower and we could pay him to do it.

Housework is the part you don’t want to do, that has to be done, and I defy you to find some civilization that DIDN’T work out a system by which those with more power foisted off housework on those with less power. That’s how women got stuck with it in the first place.

Higher-status women also foist it off on lower-status women. Victorian London was pretty darn patriarchal, but do you think Queen Victoria did her own housework? In the folk tale Cinderella, her step family is cruel, but the REAL injustice — the injustice she’s named for — is that she gets stuck with all the housework. Victory is achieved when she marries a prince and presumably never has to do housework again. And why do we call the person who cleans up our hotel room a maid, anyway?

The 1950s invented a housewife character who could be seen as — almost — an attempt to raise the status of the person doing housework. You know, the divinely coiffed domestic goddess who swans around her immaculate suburban rambler in a belted Dior housedress, poofing just the teeniest bit of cobweb fluff off the top of the mantlepiece with an attractive feather duster before setting out to assemble a molded pimento loaf for her bowling league. She’s a trap and a bit ridiculous, but at least we were supposed to admire her — to want to be her if we were girls, to marry her if we were boys. (Did she… perhaps… flood us with awe?)

Like some elusive cryptozoological creature, the idealized 1950s housewife is now extinct, and probably never really existed in the first place. Nobody expects such perfection and dedication in housework anymore. If part of the definition of housework is “that which needs to be done,” well, there are different levels of need.

Nobody needs hospital corners or ironed sheets (in my opinion). But we really do need to eat pretty much daily. From a health standpoint, we need to be eating more from-scratch foods and fresh produce. But those things are labor-intensive, and even if it’s labor you mostly enjoy, it might require time you don’t really have, and — did I mention that cooking breeds dishes, and I hate dishes? Everything is a tradeoff of some kind. So, like most modern people, we have outsourced a lot of our food-related housework to professionals and we eat restaurant and prepared food way too often. (Even the 1950s housewife made liberal use of food that came from a box.)

But there remains an obvious tension between “needs to be done” and “don’t wanna do it.” I have no idea how frequently my mother scrubbed the toilets when I was growing up, because they never appeared to need scrubbing. For all I know, she cleaned them three times a day. Or once a week. Or never, because she conjured invisible gremlins who did it.

My mother would probably be appalled by the standard in our household: clean the toilet when it looks like it needs cleaning. (Or when I know my parents are coming over.) But I know, deep in my heart, that if she is appalled — if she dropped by unexpectedly and I didn’t have time to clean the toilet first — she would hold me responsible. Not me and my husband equally. Me. The wife. And I would also hold me responsible. I would feel shame and guilt. And then I would be outraged, as a feminist, by the fact that I hold me responsible.

Maybe I would have a talk about it with my husband, and we might have a brief flurry of increased mutual toilet-cleaning vigilance — him doing it without being asked, me doing it at a much lower level of “looks dirty.” But it won’t last, ultimately, because I don’t wanna do it either. I’m busy. I’ve got other stuff going on. I don’t have any more free time in my day than my husband does — less, actually. If we were the couple in FWA dude’s original essay, I would be the one with the novel to write.

Yet on some level we both continue to see housework as being my job. Not because I’m the girl, oh no. It’s because I’m better at it — me, personally, as an individual. I’m more organized, more efficient, more perceptive, more daring, more impatient, more industrious, more creative. So I get the dumb gross jobs nobody wants. It JUST SO HAPPENS to resemble exactly the traditional gendered housework arrangement.

Funny how that works.

Still — no matter where our individual strengths and weaknesses and quirks originally come from — there’s no denying that some of them are reinforced through social gender roles. Layabout husbands are excused, perhaps even coddled, by a society that doesn’t see housework as their job. They don’t feel shame or guilt when the place looks like a case study on Hoarders, or when they spend their days hanging out with a beer while their wives make an effort at fighting back the filth and chaos. And wives who express any frustration with this are shamed as “nagging.”

I hate nagging. It always makes me feel like I’m talking to Bartleby the Scrivener. I hate nagging so much that most of the time I’d rather do housework, which I suspect is what all you slacker husbands are secretly counting on. You know, deep down, that your wives hate doing housework as much as you do, but you also know they have a lower tolerance for gross and inconvenient living spaces, and you also know they hate nagging you to do something about it, so the housework continues to be done, and not by you.

Patriarchal society is your enabler.

FWA dude — that power your wife has, that fills you with such awe, that is the power of sucking it up/putting on your big kid pants/buckling down/acting like an adult and doing an unpleasant chore that needs to be done. That’s it. Nothing more complicated than that.

And you could do it too. Everything your wife does (except possibly breast feeding) is a thing you COULD do. You just don’t. And you need to think about why that is.

Maybe some part of you feels like it lowers your status to engage in housework. But by NOT doing it, you’re setting up a vicious circle, reinforcing within yourself the notion that, outside of your capacity to earn a living outside of the home, you are both helpless and useless. For you, this was a downward spiral into substance abuse.

Sure, you don’t WANT to scrub the toilet. But you’ll feel better about yourself later if you do. Especially if you’re unemployed. Especially if you feel vaguely like housework is beneath you. Because think about it — unless you are a full-on patriarchal weirdo who really does think all women are your natural social inferiors, there is no part of you that should be okay with expecting your own wife to do all these tedious and unpleasant things you think you’re too good to do.

And if you DON’T think you’re too good for housework, then why aren’t you doing it?

It’s time to grow up. Be a man. Pick up a broom.