Thursday, September 9, 2010

The Good Wifey

Apologies for the radio silence. I was preparing to give a talk at a conference, giving a talk, and getting my act together for the beginning of the semester, in that order. Back to our regularly scheduled programming.

Why are household duties split up within marriages the way that they are? Is one sex actually better at some chores than the other? Do female brains find, for example, folding laundry more rewarding than male brains? Or, alternately, just less "punishing"? 

Obviously there is a strong social component that determines which chores are done by which spouse, but if we were somehow free of this influence, would we naturally end up with the same distribution of responsibilities after a few months of trial and error?

A friend of mine, a fellow (female) graduate student, recently got married. She is a fiercely intelligent, independent scientist and it would not be inaccurate to describe her as slightly more Vulcan than the general population. (And I don't think she would be insulted by such a description.) She is extremely logical and this logic largely trumps tradition, emotion, and general opinion when they conflict. In other words, she does not conjure up images of June Cleaver. That being said, she has found herself deriving a surprising satisfaction from cooking dinner for her new husband and folding his boxers while he lays down new flooring and takes out the trash.

Why does she find this satisfying? Is it because she is a better cook and he is a better floor-layer (I'm sure there's a technical term for this, but.. whatever)? Is it because they enjoy their respective duties more than the alternatives? My husband and I have also come to a pretty stereotypical delegation of household chores after a few years. I cook, clean, get the offspring ready for school, do the laundry and grocery shopping; he takes out the trash, minds the car maintenance, fixes electronic things... We do these things because we are both better at them AND we find them less infuriating (probably because we're better at them). Our inherent abilities and the satisfaction we derive are inseparable. We've tried doing each others' jobs and we end up with dirty dishes, broken machines, and bad attitudes. But is this a true sexual dimorphism that is generally applicable to humans? Or are these gender stereotypes just so deeply ingrained that no amount of education and "enlightenment" is likely to change our marital expectations? If I do enjoy getting my Swiffer on, is it because I'm naturally better at it/inherently appreciate a clean floor more, or is it because I've been taught to think that I'm a bad wife if I don't do it?

Once again, I find myself on the Fence of Feminism, probably saying things women have fought against for years. But maybe we really are better at doing dishes. Maybe he really doesn't see the dirty socks under the coffee table. We know our brains are sexually dimorphic; is it unreasonable that this could translate to a division of household labor talent?

I am in no way suggesting that we should not raise our little girls to change flat tires or our boys to scrub pots. Every adult should be prepared to take on all of the household duties and it is our job as parents to train them. However, is it so wrong for me to enjoy tying my apron on and baking an apple pie*?

*I make really good apple pie.


  1. If feminism means saying that girls have to grow up into women who always change the flat tires and boys have to grow up into men who always scrub the pots, it's no better than the alternative. I thought it was about offering people the *choice* rather than pigeonholing them. If that's the case, then it has to include the freedom to for women to choose the the stereotypically feminine things, if we actually do enjoy them.

  2. I think the idea is just to introduce them to things and let their aptitude and enjoyment lead them forward. My husband and I naturally like different things. I love cooking, which he isn't fond of, so he does the dishes. On the other hand, he's much better at handling laundry while I like yard work. My younger son loves to cook, but my older doesn't. I guess whatever floats their boat. I just feel bad for the couples who dislike doing the same things... :-)