Chores for two: Men pitch in

At home, guys are tackling more and more domestic duties.

Andy Nelson – Staff
Mark Amtower and his wife, Mary Ellen, of Highland, Md., both help with household chores.
Andy Nelson – Staff
Pitching In: Mark Amtower washes the family dishes.

When domestic chores beckon – when there are dinners to cook, dishes to wash, diapers to change, and dust bunnies to chase – who's doing the work?

Increasingly the answer is: men. After decades of collective sighs from women that husbands and fathers aren't doing their part on the home front, old stereotypes are crumbling. More men are sharing housework and childcare, and doing it not grudgingly but willingly, according to a largely optimistic study released by the Council on Contemporary Families at the University of Illinois, Chicago.

"Men and women may not be fully equal yet, but the rules of the game have been profoundly and irreversibly changed," says Scott Coltrane, a sociologist at the University of California, Riverside, and coauthor of the study. This is true not only for younger couples who begin their relationship with more flexible ideas about gender, but also for older couples where the wife has worked long enough to change her husband's values and behavior. The longer a wife is employed, the more housework her husband does.

Since the 1960s, men's contribution to housework has doubled, increasing from about 15 percent to more than 30 percent of the total, the study reports. "Women are still doing twice as much as men, but it's very much more a partnership these days," Professor Coltrane says. Between 1965 and 2003, men also tripled the amount of time they spent caring for children.

"As far as housework and chores go, my husband and I have a simple philosophy: If we see that something needs to be done, do it," says Silvana Clark, an author and professional speaker in Bellingham, Wash. "He's changed diapers, put bows in our daughter's hair for dance recitals, and scrubbed toilets. Plus he's a great cook."

The couple's equal-opportunity approach to domesticity extends outside the house as well. "I mow the lawn when I have time or take the cars in for an oil change," Mrs. Clark says. In their 31 years of marriage, she can't remember fighting over chores. "It seems common courtesy; it shouldn't be a problem."

Housework used to be a topic of dissension for Donna Maria Coles Johnson and her husband, Darryl, of Charlotte, N.C. After she explained that the house would run more smoothly if they both committed to certain chores, "We were able to sit down and come up with some processes," she says. Now they take turns cleaning up the kitchen after dinner and putting their two children to bed.

Mrs. Johnson also believes in training the next generation to help. "Our 6-year-old daughter sweeps, and our 4-year-old son takes out the recyclables," she says. "Both of the kids clean up the family room."

Another study of more than 17,000 people in 28 countries finds that married men do less housework than live-in boyfriends. "Marriage as an institution seems to have a traditionalizing effect on couples, even couples who see men and women as equal," says Shannon Davis, a sociologist at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., and coauthor of the study.

Allison Peltz of Cleveland, who shares an apartment with her boyfriend, says he does most of the cleaning: "He's very into vacuuming, dusting, and keeping all things neat and tidy. A lot of my friends who are married or living together have husbands or boyfriends who also do a lot of the cleaning."

David Gonnerman of Northfield, Minn., divides the chores fairly equally with his wife, Kasia. Both like to cook, although she does most of it. He does the dishes and most of the laundry. He pays the bills and shuttles their two sons to activities.

But some couples still struggle. Belinda Rachman, a divorce attorney in Carlsbad, Calif., calls housework one of the few unresolved areas in her own marriage of more than 20 years.

"Neither of us wants to clean," she says. "We end up doing a big clean when we know we are going to have visitors but pretty much letting things go to pot the rest of the time."

Despite progress, nobody pretends the domestic revolution is over yet. Even when men do their fair share, women often still find themselves playing the role of household CEO. "I am the one who monitors what needs to be done and sees that it happens," says Mary Ellen Amtower of Highland, Md.

Different standards also present challenges. Paul Davis of Orlando, Fla., shares the housework but acknowledges that his wife does "a substantial bit more" than he does, in part because of his demanding workload. He adds, "My wife is quite the perfectionist, which means that even when I do household chores she may complain about how I did it and thereafter do it herself."

Then there is the tricky little matter of couples' perceptions of who does what. In a survey on changing gender roles by the Harrison Group, a large number of men say they share responsibility for certain day-to-day tasks. Their wives counter that the responsibility falls solely on them.

Whatever the reality, one thing is certain: Dust cloths, vacuums, washers, and cleaning supplies show no sign of becoming obsolete, giving couples plenty of opportunity to decide who will use them. As Clark says, "We feel we both live in this house, so we both need to work together on chores."

Who helps more around the house – men or women?

You may think the answer to that question is obvious. But not so fast. The balance of labor is changing.

Read more about it on page 19 and below:•

• The average married American man who works full time and has children now devotes six hours a week to child care and 10 hours weekly to other work around the home. (In the 1970s, the figures were two hours for child care and eight hours of housework.)

• The average married woman in the US, employed full or part time, cares for her children 11 hours weekly and spends 19 hours on family work. (That contrasts with four hours of child care and 22 hours of housework in the '70s.)

But the overall picture changes when researchers look at the balance of labor between men and women:

• Since the 1960s, women have spent more time at paid jobs, while men have spent less. But men still tend to devote more hours to paid work than women. So when the overall workload of middle-class households where both parents are employed is considered, the total hours men and women spend on family and paid work were roughly equal (about 67 hours per week.)

• These trends are also evident in other industrialized countries.

• Thirty to 35 years ago, American men were likely to use free hours when they weren't working for leisure activities. Now they generally "multitask" by combining leisure with child care.

• Contrary to stereotypes, Latino fathers in the US are more likely than men of European background to spend time with their children and to perform housework.

Source: A discussion paper on changing family roles, by Oriel Sullivan, Ben Gurion University, and Scott Coltrane, University of California Riverside. Prepared for the conference of the Council on Contemporary Families, April 25-26, 2008.

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