Less Is More

50sfamilycrop

Men today are much more committed to equality at home, sharing dinner-cooking and diaper-changing duties, than in previous generations. But even in families in which both parents work outside the home, the division of labor at home remains unequal.The New York Times, November 12, 2015

Unequal? But what does equal really mean? Sure, I don’t cook that often — but what if it’s amazing when I do? Why shouldn’t one gourmet meal be considered “equal” to two, ten, three hundred and sixty four average plates of food? Why is it only effort that counts, and not results? I may have done only one load of laundry last year, but it was a masterpiece. The underwear was clean, the shirt was folded, the socks — don’t even get me started on the socks. Why did I do a whole load of laundry for just one pair of underwear, one shirt, and one pair of socks? Because I didn’t know you could put more than that in the washing machine. And it’s not as if I know where my wife hides all the other dirty clothes. I leave them on the floor and they just . . . disappear. So it’s not my fault.

Or how about driving? On the one hand, you could say that my wife deserves more credit because she’s always in the car, whether it’s taking our kid to music class or the playground or going to a whole bunch of different stores, to buy food and, uh, batteries, and baby cleaner, or whatever it is we need to buy, but those are all pretty low-value trips. I drove her to the hospital when she was about to give birth. That trip is worth at least 40 or 50 regular trips to buy toilet paper, or maybe even more. So I think we’re pretty even when it comes to driving.

Or arranging for babysitters. It may be true that my wife does the calling and the scheduling and the asking around to find someone who won’t let our child crawl into the oven, or whatever it is we have to be worried a bad babysitter is going to do. But at the end of the night, who takes out his wallet and gives the babysitter her money? That’s right — me. And I think if you asked the babysitter, whatever her name is, she would say that’s definitely the most important piece of the transaction, more than equal to everything my wife contributes to the process.

See, to my mind, it’s not that men are doing less. It’s that we’re simply behind the times when it comes to how we measure people’s contributions. Just like at the office, where we’d rather be judged on what we accomplish rather than how much time we spend at our desks, why shouldn’t it be the same at home? Yes, my wife cleans the bathrooms, and the kitchen, and it may take her hours . . . but I clean myself. And I’m much less clean to begin with.

It’s never going to seem like I do as much as she does if we just consider time. But that’s not the only way to look at equality. Some things are easier for her — coordinating schedules, remembering holidays, noticing that the bed is unmade — so of course it makes sense for her to take on those responsibilities. And some things are easier for me — managing my fantasy football teams, sleeping, and figuring out what we should watch on Netflix — so I stoically take those tasks on. Yes, some people might say I have the “better” chores, but some people enjoy cleaning hair out of sink drains, and why should I be penalized just because I don’t? If you asked my wife to trade, she might even say yes — but the grass is always greener on the other side, so I don’t think that’s a good way to judge anything.

Maybe it all comes back to that one fancy meal I was in charge of last year — you could say that my wife making lunch and cooking dinner almost every day and night is worth more than lobster thermidor, with an oven-browned crust of cheese, with individual chocolate soufflé cakes for dessert — but what if the joy we got from it was 364 times greater than the average plate of food my wife made? Isn’t that worth something? And it’s not like it wasn’t any effort to make — well, order — that meal. I had to Google the phone number, and read our credit card number — twice — so it’s not as if I didn’t do any work at all. And I had to make small talk with the delivery guy and find a pen to sign the credit card receipt and turn the lights on for the delivery guy to back out of our driveway and remember to turn them off again when he was gone and lock the door — well, my wife locked the door, but only because I remembered I didn’t lock it after we were already in bed and she volunteered to get up and do it because I was basically already asleep, so that can’t be held against me.

I think perhaps the real problem is that the division of labor is only unequal because the way that men define equality isn’t seen as equal to how women do. Gender inequality can go both ways. And that’s the real shame here. I’d have my wife weigh in, but she’s off having fun changing the baby’s diaper — while I’m doing the hard work of making my case for equality over here. Just another task that falls entirely on me. So much for fairness.

Jeremy Blachman is the author of Anonymous Lawyer and the co-author (with Cameron Stracher) of the upcoming novel The Curve (Ankerwycke, June 2016).