I have been waiting all my life for this Tide and Downy ad. That lovely man, down in the basement, waiting for the dryer to stop so he can pull out his daughter’s favorite princess dress. Talking about which product gets out the week-old stains and which one makes the dress “fresh and soft.” (That phrase he says with an especially straight face, knowing it might not sound so straight.) Speaking about his job with pride and ownership—“I’m the one who has to do the laundry”—like it was the keys to the new Maserati. Oh, how that man makes me swoon!
When I was a kid Carol Channing made me believe on my Free to Be You and Me album that by the time it was my turn to be a grown-up, we would all share the housework. And this is becoming true, to a certain extent, but that’s not what it looks like on the TV commercials. Lifetime breaks still serve up a steady diet of women with neat hair in pastel cardigans scrubbing the tub, mopping the floors, polishing pots till they gleam like new! Or if they update the old formula, they do it by having a woman scold her husband for what an idiot he is because he can’t understand a simple grocery list or eat a pizza in the living room without smearing sauce somewhere, thus reinforcing the concept that wife knows best.
Currently our debate about men doing housework resides in a pretty juvenile realm. The subject mostly gets attention when a new study comes out showing that men who do more housework do or don’t get more sex. Sheryl Sandberg often mentions a study showing they do. Conservatives like the second kind, because it reinforces their view that men should do manly things and women should do what God intended. Monica Hesse wrote in the Washington Post that it’s a big turn-on when a man folds the laundry. Caitlin Flanagan says it’s a big turn-off to find your man “sweeping up after snack time, the whole bit.” It feels like a debate Maxim rigged up to make fun of us. Personally, I don’t make much of a connection between housework and sex. If my husband leaves a mess in the kitchen, I may yell at him, but that doesn’t much affect my desire one way or another. Gleaming pots are not my fetish.
The truth is that men are doing more housework but not quite enough to make up for the fact that most women are working now and still doing almost as much child care and housework as they did when they were hardly working. Partly the problem here may be that women do not want to give up those realms because they feel they do them better or they like doing them. Partly the problem may be that we define “household tasks” too narrowly and exclude things like mowing, paying bills, and fixing things, which men typically do. And partly it’s because we still conceive of the men-and-housework question in narrow juvenile ways, as Alexandra Bradner points out in this excellent post in the Atlantic:
"The central point of the 'work-life' conversation is routinely lost. It's not a conversation about fairness, and it's not, exclusively, a conversation for and among women. This is a conversation about families and about babies and their care, which makes it a conversation about kindness, responsiveness, and our nation's collective future."
One of her solutions is to define the things men do as “small acts of heroism.” I can’t tell if she’s being ironic or playing into men’s weaknesses, but it’s exceedingly clever.