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.
"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."