Cleaning up - the original family business

The beds are unmade, breakfast dishes sit in the sink, and dirty laundry is piled next to the washer. It's 7:30 a.m. and, like millions of women who once would have been home during the day to do these tasks, you're racing the clock, heading out the door for work. Dust and disorder will have to wait - but for whom?

Very likely, for you. Despite a dramatic increase in the number of women working outside the home, little has changed inside the house for many couples. In a recent Redbook Magazine survey, 89 percent of women said they did most of the housework and child care, although 90 percent also said their husbands were helping out more. And a just-published Ladies' Home Journal poll reveals that the greatest cause of anger among 86,000 women respondents is having to pick up after everybody else.

''Housework is one of the major day-to-day problems in our country,'' says Don Aslett, a cleaning consultant from Pocatello, Idaho. ''When we hear the word 'cleaning,' it's synonymous with women.''

Why do some husbands who profess to be ''supportive'' of their wives' careers suddenly vanish into the dirty woodwork when it's time to clean?

Tradition is partly to blame. Until recently, generations of wives and mothers have done virtually all the housework themselves, making role-sharing males as scarce as dust-free houses.

Other subtle influences reinforce the image of cleaning as ''women's work.'' In the comics, Dagwood Bumstead lifts his feet while Blondie vacuums around his chair. And Andy Capp forever naps on the sofa while long-suffering Flo cleans and waits on him.

And in TV commercials, who worries about spots on the stemware, splatters in the oven, and whiter-than-white in the laundry? Not men, usually. The most common male role remains that of a voice-over - an unseen, authoritative male keeping his hands clean as he intones advice to a desperate housewife about which oven cleaner or detergent she should use.

Off-camera, in real homes needing real cleaning, the script can get funny, if a bit wry, when talk turns to the subject of men and housework.

''My husband thinks all rooms are round,'' says one working wife. ''He doesn't seem to know about corners.''

Another woman, the wife of a globe-trotting businessman, says, ''I don't understand how (he) can find his way around the world, but can't manage to find the laundry room in the basement.''

Still, it's hard for some working wives to find much humor in a situation that leaves them feeling constantly outwitted and outwaited.

Toni Pighetti of Oak Park, Ill., who conducts seminars on conquering disorganization, suggests a simple test: ''Consider the leisure in your home,'' she says. ''Who has the most leisure? If everyone else has time to sit down and watch TV, and you have to watch the program while you're doing the dishes, it may not be an equitable arrangement. Just because you do household tasks best is no reason you should be stuck doing everything.''

''The division of chores is a simple, simple thing,'' Mr. Aslett says, probably oversimplifying. ''Everybody should clean whatever mess they create. There's no immorality in making a mess, but leaving a mess is a real zero.''

Unfortunately, some of the most eager messmakers - children - are also the most reluctant mess cleaners. Too often, Mr. Aslett says, ''Kids don't think it's their work. They think it's their mother's privilege to clean up after them.''

It is an attitude that Mrs. Pighetti finds intolerable. ''If you are a parent , it is your responsibility to teach your children to be responsible,'' she says. ''Our kids are using computers; they can also use laundry machines.''

The key, according to Mr. Aslett, is training. ''Even slobs pick up their trays at McDonald's,'' he observes.

Families who do share cleaning responsibilities find there are almost as many ways to divide housework as there are chores. Some organize tasks by week, others by room. A few couples operate on the ''roommate'' system, dividing chores as though the partners are college roommates of the same sex who have equal responsibility for the house. Still others merely sidestep some of the problem by relaxing their standards - what some call ''letting things slide.''

No one should be a slave to a house. ''Houses exist for us, not the other way around,'' Mr. Aslett says emphatically. At the same time, standards shouldn't slip too low. A home doesn't need to be a candidate for House & Garden, but neither should it always look like the morning after a big party. Precisely because everyone in the household is busy, order and control become more important.

Getting family members to share responsibility for doing household tasks is only the first step. The equally important second stage is sharing responsibility for remembering what needs to be done. If a wife or mother is always asking, reminding, making lists, and assigning tasks, the assumption remains that these are her chores and that anyone who helps is doing her a favor. These are family chores - a collective responsibility.

''Don't let anyone in your family get away with thinking, 'Oh, I'll do a bad job so I won't be asked to do it again,' '' Mrs. Pighetti warns. ''Don't let anyone sabotage your efforts to equalize the load.''

A double problem arises when only mothers and daughters share the work. If fathers are exempt, training sons can become that much harder.

One wife whimsically suggests making parallels between housework (read ''women's work'') and outdoor work (read ''men's work''). Vacuuming, she points out, is not unlike lawn mowing. Dusting or polishing furniture can be thought of as the indoor equivalent of waxing a car. And getting cobwebs off the ceiling with a feather duster - well, think of an overhead in tennis, she says.

In her book ''The 50-50 Marriage,'' Gayle Kimball cites one benefit of sharing chores: ''When a wife is not the household drudge, she looks upon her husband as a help, not a hindrance, unlike many traditional wives who are relieved when their husbands are out of the house.''

Other women note that their families' initial resentment toward cleaning has given way to greater respect for what it takes to keep a house running smoothly.

Small signs of progress do surface here and there. Several years ago Chore Girl scrubbing pads were renamed Chore Boy. A few toy manufacturers appear less inclined to package toy brooms and sweepers in pink boxes labeled ''For Mommy's Little Helper.'' And in a Seventeen magazine survey, half of the teen-age girls responding said they expect husbands to share equally in the housework.

Yet until TV commercials show men cleaning ovens and floors and ring-around-the-collar, until Don Aslett and other authors of housework books get a few more male figures in their illustrations, and until parents start enlisting sons as well as daughters to help, old patterns and stereotypes are likely to continue.

Which means the war on dirt will continue to be the only war where the majority of men play conscientious objector.

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