Outsiders: The Gender Balance of Housework, Inside and Out

I belong to an odd fraternal organization. You’ve never heard of us, but you may have seen us. We meet predawn, in the winter, in our own driveways, usually when the snow falls. We have no dues, no leadership structure, no fancy logo, or even a name. We don’t even know each other’s names, some of us. Call us Snowblowers Anonymous.

Our only membership requirement is owning a snowblower, which here in Minnesota means we have a lot of potential members. Yet, somehow, year after year, virtually all of our members have been men.

We have affiliate chapters, too. These meet in the summer, though the meetings are less structured: people come and go as their lawns need mowing, or their trees need trimming, or their eaves need cleaning. Oddly, despite the similarly lax membership requirements, summertime meetings are also attended mostly, if not exclusively, by men.

Also oddly, we haven’t gotten a lot of complaints about discrimination.

My wife—my professional, beautiful, hard-working wife—belongs to a sister organization, but their meetings occur inside the house, remotely, connected by smartphone, and rarely early in the morning. Her meetings include electronically-zipping pictures of newly hung mirrors and new furniture and new decorations, and a lot of pies. This club—again, without formal membership requirements—is overwhelmingly female.

Again, no complaints.

Both of our clubs claim to do “housework,” but in starkly different ways. A good example is painting. My wife has painted over a dozen rooms over the years, all in the name of “keeping things updated.” One spring I painted our shed and our deck, in the name of “keeping things from rotting.”

Let’s be clear: my wife does important stuff around the house, too. Still, if I were to die tomorrow (perhaps because I had killed myself cutting down a tree or repairing the spring on our garage door—two examples that are only barely fictitious), all of “my” work around the house would still need to happen. All of it. And here I mean “need to happen” in a literal sense: not how a room “needs” updating, but how you “need” to get out of your driveway to go to work or “need” to get your sump pump replaced. Etcetera.

On the other grease-stained hand, though, I know that if my wife died in a tragic pie-baking or mirror-hanging accident, I could manage without a lot of other “housework.” After all, I somehow managed without it for nearly a decade, before my wife moved into my house. During that time I did all the work outside the home, as well as cooking and cleaning and laundry. I was pretty self-reliant, actually.

Not so with my wife, and with a lot of people reveling in the 21st century, frankly. Before she moved in with me, my wife lived in an apartment, and the housework that I do now just… happened, thanks to other people. Over the years, she has relied on countless appointments with a brigade of service people to keep her homelife humming. We all call experts sometimes, but I’ve come to learn that many “self-reliant people,” both men and women, are actually “self-reliant” with a silent asterisk: they merely make the money necessary to hire people to do the hard or dirty or dangerous work.

While we as a society strive for gender balance in the workplace, we often ignore gender balance in the home. Many women might agree, albeit for other reasons: they’d cleverly respond that, these days, women work full-time both at work and inside the home. And sure, some of them do. But many well-publicized studies that ask men and women to measure their housework rarely take the extra step of separating “work” from, say, “things I do around the house that feel like work but might actually be unnecessary.” Which, frankly, seems to describe a lot of what my wife exhausts herself doing. She and I would even agree on that point.

But why, then, does she continue to exhaust herself with extra cleaning inside the house instead of, say, mowing the lawn? I’m convinced that she perceives a pressure to maintain and stylize and clean—especially clean—our home in ways that I’ll never understand. This pressure, whether perceived or real, probably stems from what she learned as a girl, and probably persists today in a somewhat mutated form. It’s a little heartbreaking, actually, watching a woman you love overexert herself doing so many things that you view as largely optional, especially when you know she sees them as optional, too. It’s also backbreaking: as a result, all the literal heavy-lifting is left for me.

Somehow, distinguishing “work” from “work-like stuff around the house” seems easier—for both of us—when I’m the one doing it. My wife lovingly brings me water, for example, when I’m packing yards of fill and landscaping rock around our foundation to keep water out of our basement. That’s work, of course. Note that she doesn’t bring me water, lovingly or otherwise, when I help my neighbor build his “man-shed,” or when I spend hours amateurishly cursing my bike in the garage, no matter how sweaty I get. But I wouldn’t expect her to, either—those things don’t count as real, necessary “work,” nor should they. In these cases, we’ve both somehow managed to separate the wheat from the chaff.

The chaff used to be harder to separate, especially in the home. Back on the farm, my grandmothers undoubtedly spent hours fussing about how their homes looked, but the differences from today are stark. First, they made a lot of their own decorations—hence the boxes of Hardanger-lace and crocheted doilies when they died—and even if they did buy something, they were usually (painstakingly) cheap about it. More important, though, no one questioned their spending so much time on the appearance of their homes, because that’s where they actually spent their lives. They slept there, ate there, cooked there, and worked there. Everyone was so appreciative of the hours that Grandma spent working in the kitchen, for example, that if she wanted to change something about the kitchen, what did Grandpa care? He spent his days in the yard or the field—out the home, regardless.

Things have changed, at least for a lot of us. Women are no longer the uncontested masters of the kitchen, or the home in general, as my grandmothers were. For one thing, a lot of women today work outside the home, which balances the gender scales considerably. Beyond that, though, a lot of what our grandmothers did around the house has been made almost unrecognizably easier by machines and pre-bought conveniences. As obvious examples, neither my wife nor I bake bread or sew clothes, to say nothing of the frozen pizza we made in the pizza oven last night. Today, fewer people can lay claim to the inside of the house because fewer people slave away inside of the house—home life is just easier, full stop.

I know this because I’ve been a stay-at-home dad for most of the last decade. I gave up my own career to stay at home with our son, and I know virtually everything that goes on in the home, inside and out, necessary and otherwise. A lot of today’s men are in the same boat: we’re not as ignorant of “inside-the-housework” as men of previous generations were.

And yet, our culture hasn’t kept up. Despite the fact that the scales are more balanced within the home, women still feel pressured to “keep a home” like their mothers and grandmothers did. Maybe some men still apply that pressure. Regardless, many women seem to feel both obligated and emboldened to assert some long-obsolete authority in keeping the home. And sure, maybe that made sense two generations ago, or with stay-at-home women today—maybe authority within the home naturally comes with spending your whole working life there.

These days, though, we often have a mismatch. Despite the fact that I’m the one living in our home 24 hours per day, my wife continues to attempt to keep a home like her mother and grandmother did. But because she works a full-time job outside the home, too, she struggles to keep a home looking like a magazine cover and to clean the kitchen as if it were a surgery ward. And sure, I eat the pie, but I could probably use a little less of that, too. She and I agree that it is borderline pathological for her to undertake all that responsibility, or to assert some sort of lady-of-the-manor authority in doing so. But if you were to ask either of us, we’d probably count all of that struggle as “housework,” foolish as it may be.

Like in many battles in the culture wars, the enemy here is inertia. Two generations ago, the division of labor between the sexes was clear. Importantly, acknowledging that fact is not the same as yearning for it—our history’s stark division of labor can serve as a starting point for recognizing our current struggles in the home. We’re still excavating remnants of the old system where each sex was ignorant and silent about the other’s domain.

But that ignorance hasn’t lasted, and nor should the silence. Men these days are much more likely to know the goings on of housework, inside and out. They simply have to be: many have lived alone for extended periods, whether in college or in today’s often-extended bachelorhood, and therefore have needed to learn to do the housework that men of previous generations had done for them. Thankfully, technology has lessened the learning curve for a lot of that work: even a fool can push a button on a Whirlpool and throw something into the microwave and deploy a Roomba.

Routine outdoor work has changed less. The company that makes the Roomba vacuum cleaner also makes a lawnmower, but I’m not about to send it across my hilly yard that abuts a stream. Also, much less of outside “housework” is optional, or it requires testosterone-laden muscles to do it right. Or both. These pesky details are often ignored when we talk of “housework,” whether in the media or in our own families. These days, we seem to talk only about the hours spent “working” on our homes, inside or outside, regardless how hard or on what. To make matters worse, attempts to compare the two kinds of work are often labeled sexist, and the conversation grinds to a (screeching) halt.

As a homeschooling, stay-at-home dad who is married to a successful professional, let me tell you that those days are over. They should be, anyway. In general, our trend away from full-time homemakers demands that we reprioritize housework. Inside the home, washing machines and microwaves, to say nothing of Amazon, have made life easier, to the extent that many men are now capable of “keeping a house” in addition to their traditional duties outside. I belong to a generation of men who can teach their sons in the kitchen as well as in the garage. And that’s a good thing, yes?

But progress is asymmetric. Many jobs in the garage or in the yard remain just as physically demanding as they are necessary. Unfortunately—and believe me, it is unfortunate—my petite wife literally couldn’t do a lot of the jobs that traditionally fall onto men’s shoulders. This is not just for lack of knowledge, which may owe to cultural reasons, but also for lack of flat-out strength. Some household roles just will never be reassigned, it seems. Sadly, my wife will probably never have the rugged pleasure of using our larger-than average snowblower and getting early-morning snow in her beard—albeit for a couple of reasons.

So, we Snowblowers will continue to freeze ourselves during predawn blizzards, all so everyone—both sexes—can get to work. Our club is in no danger of dissolving, though—our membership has remained strong, winter after winter. And male, winter after winter.

And I’d bet that, in discussions of “housework,” we’ll also remain Anonymous.