Monday, June 3, 2013

Can You Be "Good" At Housecleaning?

I read this Slate article about the division of work in the household with interest. It bounces off of this Atlantic article about gay marriages (which are reportedly "happier" than heterosexual marriages (though I've talked before about my own misgivings on happiness as a measure of success, feelings that were brought up again recently in this excellent Offbeat Families post, but I digress). If gay marriages are happier, the Atlantic article queried, what can heterosexual couples learn from them? 
Same-sex spouses, who cannot divide their labor based on preexisting gender norms, must approach marriage differently than their heterosexual peers. From sex to fighting, from child-rearing to chores, they must hammer out every last detail of domestic life without falling back on assumptions about who will do what. In this regard, they provide an example that can be enlightening to all couples.
Later in the article (which is really worth a read in its entirety), research showing an interesting divide in same-sex relationships comes up:
Even as they are more egalitarian in their parenting styles, same-sex parents resemble their heterosexual counterparts in one somewhat old-fashioned way: a surprising number establish a division of labor whereby one spouse becomes the primary earner and the other stays home.
This is where the Slate article comes in. Examining what model is most "efficient" (in economic terms), author Emily Oster discusses how we can view a household like a firm, and--like a firm--we can divide up tasks to whoever is best suited to them, including by outsourcing:
The broader insight of Becker’s theory is the idea that you should treat your household like a firm. That suggests (among other things) that people in the household should specialize and you should choose who does what based on a person’s ability at various tasks. What it doesn’t say anything about is how large that firm should be.

My household firm is pretty large. It contains me and my husband, our nanny, a cleaning lady, the service that delivers the groceries, as well as my daughter (who, to be fair, does not contribute much to household production) and typically a few other rotating characters. And we do pretty well on specialization. Only my husband and I split our time between work and child care. Everyone else is doing just one task that, frankly, they are much better at than he or I would be.
This is where the discussion gets particularly interesting to me. As my somewhat excessive amount of hand wringing should attest, housekeeping is sort of a sore subject in my own happily ever after. My husband and I both work full-time, and cleaning the house is easily the one thing that we both neglect more than we should.

As my daughter is getting older, I can see how many other tasks are falling into this catch-all category of general household management. Who is going to pick up the juice we agreed to bring to the Easter party? Who is going to send out invitations to the birthday get-together? Who is going to figure out how to style her hair? Who is going to go shop for new shoes for what seems like the 5th time this month?

Some of these things can, of course, be "outsourced" as Oster claims in her article. Indeed, my daughter goes to a daycare, so we are outsourcing a large part of her care every weekday. We have tossed around the idea of hiring a cleaning service, but haven't ever taken the plunge. As for other outsourceable tasks, we do (or don't do, as may be more accurate) our own yard work, and neither one of us is handy enough to do anything but outsource most of the repair work. (When we try to fix it ourselves, we just end up paying for it twice, often with a little extra to fix whatever we broke).

Cleaning Supplies

We're not rich, but these choices that we are able to make are a matter of privilege. There are plenty of people for whom daycare simply isn't an option; the cost is prohibitive, which often limits options to work outside the home. This is especially true for people with multiple young children. Being able to even entertain the idea of hiring a monthly cleaning service is a privilege that a lot of people don't have. I don't think that we can talk about these "solutions" to the problem of egalitarian household labor without acknowledging that the paths to egalitarianism are very, very wrapped up in socioeconomic differences and privilege.

But let's imagine for a moment that we're talking about someone who can afford to "outsource" at least some of the household chores--someone like me or Emily Oster. What's wrapped up in saying that these outsourced employees are "much better" at the tasks than we would be?

Not Being "Good At" Housework Is an Excuse

On one hand, saying that you're not "good at" housework is an excuse to avoid having to do a task that many people find unenjoyable. Since also tied into these outsourced tasks are things like changing diapers and swaddling babies, I think we can admit that there is a steep learning curve for the newcomer to these tasks, but they are tasks that get easier with experience. 

As was a key component of Swiffer's "Man Up" campaign, most household tasks aren't exactly difficult: 

Claiming to be "not good at" tasks that are considered key parts of, well, living, can be a way to downplay the importance of these tasks or simply a way to get out of work that we don't want to do. 

But At The Same Time . . . 

But saying that claiming to not be good at housekeeping is just an excuse to avoid the work presents its own challenges. 

The work that we're talking about (cleaning, cooking, caregiving) has traditionally been done by women, and it has often been done without pay. It is already at an economically disadvantaged position in our society (and, if people like Elizabeth Wurtzle have their way, economic power is the only kind of power that counts in this patriarchal, capitalistic culture). 

Blue milk had some brilliant things to say on this topic recently, including this (but you should really go read the whole thing): 
Sure, there is nothing particularly radical about making jam. There’s nothing particularly radical about playing golf either, and it is something the men in my office love to do when they’re not ‘working’. I’m yet to see an article disparaging men for it though. And you could wonder why some men are choosing hobbies that give them even more time away from their families and I would agree with you, but why do I care then if women are wanting to make fucking jam?
The truth is that these tasks we're always so busy disparaging and outsourcing and generally running away from as often and fast as possible are valuable, challenging tasks. Cooking is hard, and some people do it better than others. Cleaning requires skill sets like attention to detail, focus, and organization. Navigating the changing of diapers and the buying of shoes and the delivery of birthday cupcakes takes time management, planning, and good memory. It reminds me of Mike Rose's excellent book The Mind at Work, which challenges our preconceived notions that the jobs least valued in our society (and thus often paid minimum wage) are easy. Rose argues that they are, in fact, very hard tasks that require a unique set of mental skills that those who have mastered them build over time.

All in All

Oster compares her household to a firm and notes that firms often outsource work in order to be more efficient. She uses this model to justify her own outsourcing in the form of nannies, grocery delivery, and cleaning companies. 

In the more traditional model of outsourcing for a company, the model takes on more than one form. There's the outsourcing that's done in the form of hiring experts to best do the work that is outside of your own skill set, and then there's the outsourcing that's done to increase the bottom line with little to no ethical concern for the people being hired for the job. 

You could hire an independent contractor to design high-quality advertisements for your company, or you could exploit homeless people by using them as nearly-free billboards. Both are forms of outsourcing, but I think it's pretty easy to see the difference. 

I am not against outsourcing household tasks in order to make for a more equitable arrangement in the home (indeed, it's a practice I use in my own household), but it is far too easy to outsource unethically in our culture. There are far too many people who work as caregivers and house cleaners for too little pay and too few benefits because of their own limited options. There are far too many people whose work in these situations is not valued. 

This is a problem not only because these individual people are not receiving fair pay or the recognition they deserve; it is also a problem because downplaying the work that they do downplays that type of work across the board. As long as we can simply toss some money at these less-than-pleasant tasks, we'll continue to ignore the true value (culturally and economically) that this type of work has to our society as a whole. Paid work outside the home is not the only kind of work that matters, and any truly equitable arrangements are going to have to deal with that fact. 


  1. Equitable housework assignments are a constant source of frustration in my domestic life. If we hired help, which we can't afford, they'd have to move in because the mess multiplies with such ferocity. When my daughter was six months old or so, I remember fearing that she'd know me by my domestic work. I narrate my actions to her, so a day in my house sounds like: "Mommy is cleaning the dishes. Mommy is doing the laundry. This is a broom. Mommy is sweeping the floor. Vacuums are fun!" Vacuums are not fun. The dishes are no longer clean. The laundry has been washed, dried, folded and delivered to the five respective dressers and it's not clean anymore because every time my children get clothes out of the dresser, they leave a pile on the floor. I could unburden myself about the tedium of domestic life for hours and hours. If you figure out a way to fairly (and politely) divide housework, please, let me know. In the meantime, I'll be sorting through the laundry on the floor.

  2. Amanda Roberts-AndersonJune 3, 2013 at 8:29 PM

    In America I was a fine housewife (even though I always worked or was a full-time student). My house was usually company-ready or could be rather quickly and I was an amazing cook. But here in China, I really do fail at housekeeping. I don't have the same tools I had in America and it is just more difficult. I have all tiled floors, a dog, and not enough space. The house is always cluttered, the floors are a nightmare to keep up with, and I get frustrated easily. So I have a part-time housekeeper and I am planning on getting a "full-time" (a 5 day a week) one next month. I have had to completely relearn how to cook as well. I have learned to do it, but it is very expensive. I haven't figured out how to do it economically. A local Chinese woman can feed a family on 100 RMB (15 USD) a week. I typically spend 100 RMB *a day.* By hiring a Chinese cook/cleaner, it actually will save us money in the long run, will save me time, and will make my home less hectic.

    So am I "not good" at housework or just lazy? I prefer to think that I am only not good at it because of my situation, but it is a situation most other Americans can't really relate to so they probably just think I'm lazy. Oh well. At least I live somewhere that I can afford a housekeeper. I wouldn't move back to America until I could afford one there too, :)

  3. "If we hired help, which we can't afford, they had to move in"
    If I'm being honest, this is the main reason I haven't hired someone. We'd only be able to afford someone once or twice a month, and the mess just accumulates so fast. I think that having a set date where everything had to be de-cluttered so that someone could come in to clean floors/sinks/etc. would just be one more stressful sticking point.

  4. Cleaning is actually a stress reliever for me. I am not sure if I am good at it because I don't have anything to compare it to but I do think I keep up ok. We will see as time goes on and I have children. =)

  5. If the kids can get it out, why aren't the kids putting it back? Unless, of course, they are toddlers. In which case, this too shall pass.

  6. I hate house work. It's Sisyphusian. Push the rock up the hill, watch it roll back down. Clean the toilet and someone will use it and miss and then not clean up after himself. I love this post and plan on sharing it everywhere! Thanks for the thoughtful look at this.

  7. It can sure be a lot to keep up with all the housekeeping. I usually manage the day to day picking up, but I use a housekeeping service for bigger messes. :)

  8. Thank you!

    And, yes, Sisyphusian! it takes four hours to clean up what can be destroyed in ten minutes.