The artful dodge of housework

More men pitch in to help around the house these days. But women still do more. Will the load ever balance out?

When the subject is housework, Anne Ballentine describes her husband, Jeff, as "awesome." He cleans the downstairs of their home in Whitefish Bay, Wis., while she takes care of the upstairs. He does more than half of the laundry and cooking, and almost all the grocery shopping.

"My friends joke that he should run a husband camp, and others are hoping for cloning," says Mrs. Ballentine, who works for a healthcare system in Milwaukee.

Those clones would probably be worth their weight in gold, given that dust bunnies under the bed, dishes in the sink, smudges on the woodwork, and laundry in the hamper are still contentious issues for many couples. Someone must do these tasks, but who?

For 21st-century couples, the answer appears simple in theory. But "we both will" often becomes "she will" in practice. Yes, many more men are willingly pitching in at home these days, especially in caring for children. But the gap between the amount of housework fathers do and the amount mothers do has actually widened slightly, according to Rudy Seward, a sociologist at the University of North Texas in Denton. Mothers in 2003 reported doing almost three times more housework than fathers, averaging 17 hours a week. Fathers reported spending six hours, on average - down from eight hours a week in 1989.

American women are not the only ones dreaming of husband camps and cloning to help the men in their lives perfect the fine art of wielding dust mops and dish cloths. In Spain, where half the men say they do no housework, a new law requires men to share domestic tasks. Beginning this summer, men must sign an agreement as part of a marriage contract in civil ceremonies. If a husband refuses to do his share, he could face penalties in a divorce settlement if the marriage fails.

While some see the law as "ridiculous" and "unenforceable," others consider it a reminder that it takes both partners to keep a household running smoothly.

That's the message Joshua Coleman is trying to spread in his provocatively titled book, "The Lazy Husband: How to Get Men to Do More Parenting and Housework." Assuming that husbands won't read it, he is targeting it to wives. "Women will have to lead the charge on this because men won't," he says.

When men marry, many assume they'll work out an arrangement that is roughly equal, says Dr. Coleman, a psychologist specializing in relationships. But once couples have children, many experience "a subtle or overt shift toward a more traditional gender division of labor."

Despite the finger-wagging adjective "lazy" in his title, Coleman emphasizes that many men aren't lazy. "They work hard in their jobs. They come home and do things around the house. But from the wife's perspective, if the kids are in bed and she's still doing dinner dishes at 11 and he's watching TV, it's understandable that she would call it lazy."

But women also contribute to the problem, he adds. Men often find themselves exasperated by their wives' exacting standards. Explaining this gender difference to bewildered husbands, Coleman says, "She sees dirt where you see nothing, she sees chaos where you see order, she feels tormented by dishes in the sink while you just see dishes in the sink." But women are also held to higher domestic standards than men. "If a house is a mess, people still don't blame the man nearly as much as the woman."

Some men complain that even though they're doing more around the house, it never seems to be enough to satisfy their wives. A little appreciation goes a long way, they say.

"Too tired" to help is one of the excuses Coleman hears frequently from men. Others include "I don't know how," "I earn more than you, so I shouldn't have to do anything when I get home," and "I contribute in other ways."

Mark Hughes, a radio talk show host in Swarthmore, Pa., is candid about his domestic shortcomings. "I admit it, I'm definitely not doing my share of the housework," he says. Because he travels part of the week, the couple employs a baby sitter four or five half days. That enables his wife to take care of household chores.

When men do pitch in equally, wives speak in superlatives. Karen Wright of Mankato, Minn., calls herself "probably the most fortunate woman in America." Her husband, Jeff Pribyl, a chemistry professor, does "more than his share" of housework and child care and never complains, she says. He takes care of the laundry. Both vacuum, dust, and pick up the house. If one is busy, the other takes over.

Seeing this behavior as a child can often make a difference. Ms. Wright, operations director at a public radio station, notes that she and her husband both grew up with fathers who were fully involved in helping with domestic chores. "I think it's a natural for us," she says.

James Williams of Austin, Texas, also learned household skills from his father when he was growing up. Now married with two young children, Mr. Williams cooks, does dishes and laundry, mows the grass, and cleans the cat box, says his wife, Lauren. Both work full time.

Linda Kavelin Popov and her husband, Don, motivational speakers in Salt Spring Island, British Columbia, share the housework. Whatever task he's doing, she avoids criticizing. Her sanguine philosophy: "If he's going to do it, let him do it his way."

As more couples follow that advice and find their own way to divvy up inescapable chores, Coleman expects a domestic revolution to take place - someday. "It's getting better, it's changing, but there's still a long way to go," he says. "Everybody has to invent it for themselves."

How to divide the work

Joshua Coleman offers these tips to wives who want to get their husbands to help more around the house:

• Be willing to negotiate and compromise about standards. Families tend to work better when women can lower their standards, and men can raise theirs. This is particularly important when they become new parents.

• Approach the subject with affection. Conversations tend to end the way they began. When men feel constantly criticized or unappreciated, they shut down on both housework and parenting.

• Be assertive. Sometimes negotiating standards and being affectionate aren't enough. Be open to compromise, but state very clearly what you want your partner to do. If you're ignored, consider saying something like, "I'm no longer going to cook dinner if you're not going to help with the dishes."

• Avoid giving mixed messages. Women will often get their husbands to agree to do something - but before he has a chance to do it, they do it for him.

• Avoid being a micromanager. A man is going to enjoy it more if he does it his way.

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