Tammy Wynette had it right: Sometimes it’s hard to be a woman. Especially when it comes to domestic labor. Tons has been written about how women, after coming home from paid work outside the home, commence “the second shift” in which they cook, clean, do childcare, and manage household needs. And despite the fact that the women’s movement is easily more than 40 years old, this situation is still pervasive. In the New Republic, Jessica Grose tells her own rather typical story:
“When it comes to housecleaning, my basically modern, egalitarian marriage starts looking more like the backdrop to an Updike short story. My husband and I both work. We split midnight baby feedings. My husband would tell you that he does his fair share of the housework, but if pressed, he will admit that he’s never cleaned the bathroom, that I do the dishes nine times out of ten, and that he barely knows how the washer and dryer work in the apartment we’ve lived in for over eight months. Sure, he changes the light bulbs and assembles the Ikea furniture, but he’s never scrubbed a toilet in the six years we’ve lived together.”
This story illustrates how gendered domestic labor often is. The above-mentioned husband assembles Ikea furniture, which is a one-off enterprise. But doing dishes and laundry, both ongoing enterprises, fall to his wife. And the data show that this is a common phenomenon:
Fathers do slightly more lawn care than moms—11 percent of working dads are out mowing the lawn on an average day compared to 6.4 percent of working moms. So that means dads are out clipping the hedges on sunny Saturdays, while moms are the ones doing the drudgery of vacuuming day in and day out. And this isn’t solely an American phenomenon. Even in the famously gender-neutral Sweden, women do 45 minutes more housework a day than their male partners.
So what’s a pressed-for-time 21st century woman to do if she wants to:
- work at a job for money;
- cook nice food for meals;
- wear clean clothing;
- live in a clean house;
- hang out with her clean and fed children;
- get some exercise?
Well, I can’t speak for all of 1–6 but there are some ingenious websites out there dedicated to helping women combine house cleaning and exercise. One of them urges women to “turn spring cleaning into spring training”, and offers 7 ways to “put the lean in clean”. Among the techniques promoted are:
- Eschew vacuuming in favor of taking rugs outside to beat them; it will burn more calories.
- Take multiple trips running up and down stairs to retrieve and put away laundry.
- If you insist on using the vacuum cleaner, combine vacuuming with lunges.
Another site combines weight-loss and house cleaning advice:
Forget the gym! If women are really spending almost 2½ hours cleaning and tidying up every day, there’s plenty of opportunity to get a sufficient workout without even leaving home!
Housework is a great way to burn calories. But as is the case with any workout, the more effort you put in, the greater the benefit. In particular, polishing, dusting, mopping and sweeping are great for keeping arms shapely. Bending and stretching, for example, when you make the bed, wash windows or do the laundry are good for toning thighs and improving flexibility. And constantly running up and down the stairs as you tidy is a good aerobic workout.
It’s obvious that these websites are trading on gender and class stereotypes in domestic labor as well as pushing a weight-loss-is-always-good-always-necessary message that we all know is wrong-headed, bad for our health, and bad for our self-esteem. Not to mention ridiculously time-consuming, taking time away from pursuing real projects and goals for ourselves. So, launching into a long criticism of them would be like shooting fish in a barrel.
But, I’d like to suggest that there’s a more subtle form of this cleaning-as-women’s-primary-activity at work in hipper and more modern women’s media. Apartment therapy, a home decorating/improvement/DIY website, features the January Cure, a month of cleaning, organizing and home improvement tasks. They are motivational and upbeat:
Do you want 2015 to be your best year yet? We believe that when your home is under control, fresh, clean and organized, good things happen throughout your life. If you are ready to get your place back in shape, the very best way is one manageable step at a time, during our once-a-year-only January Cure. By the end of the month, you’ll be sitting pretty in a clean, fresh, organized home. We can do this – together!
Every few days they publish another home-organization task. One of them—a better kitchen by Sunday evening—involves this as a weekend project:
- clean fridge
- clean cabinets, inside and out
- inspect all contents of cabinets and get rid of stained, chipped, extra, unused items
- clean all surfaces (using earth-friendly cleaners, of course)
This is really impressive, but just reading this list makes me want to retire to the couch for the day.
All of the mainstream women’s magazines (like Better Homes and Gardens, Redbook, Good Housekeeping, Real Simple) emphasize the importance of very detailed attention to every part of one’s house. Maybe I’ve arranged my furniture incorrectly. Or perhaps I need to build my own laundry hamper, which is supposed to make laundry so much easier (hmmmm…)
Now, of course it’s nice to have a lovely clean house, complete with sparkling fridge, uncluttered cabinets, and maybe even a groovy new wire laundry hamper on wheels. But it’s worth noting that women are the ones targeted for these sorts of tasks. And what’s worse, we are at risk of reducing or eliminating physical activity from our daily routines because of the pressures to be responsible for creating an ideal domestic environment.
One recent study, analyzing factors influencing amount of regular exercise in middle-aged women, cited “disruptions in daily structure, competing demands, and self-sacrifice” as barriers to regular exercise. Two factors that were NOT listed as barriers were lack of time and menopausal symptoms. This is good news; despite changes in our bodies and time-crunched lives, women still want to exercise to feel good and be active with others. But we still have to deal with competing demands and self-sacrifice, and these pressures arrive at our doorstep in many forms.
So I say: step away from the vacuum cleaner, march past the cluttered desk, and avert your eyes while passing the laundry room—at least for long enough to get out there for a walk, run, swim, ride, yoga class, unicycle lesson, game of catch with your dog. The mess will keep until you get back home.