Today, I read an article entitled “Why I Prefer Parents With Messy Houses” that was penned by a married, hetero dad. Spend a minute looking at the comments on the Huffington Post’s Facebook page post of the article and you’ll understand why my reaction was, “Must be nice.” Well, you’ll understand if you’re a woman.
See, many of the comments are either assuming that he’s the mother of the family because of their implicit assumption that wives are responsible for the cleaning, or they’re stating directly that his wife is failing her family. In other words, a guy is talking about preferring a messy house while his wife gets judged for it. Must be nice. And I know, I know, don’t read the comments, don’t feed the trolls, etc. But the comments section, while often an exercise in exaggeration or illiteracy, is surely some kind of societal canary in the coal mine.
I’m not saying that men don’t clean or that women aren’t messy, or even that a house has to be tidy. Hell, I agree that the expectations of orderliness are too high, especially in dual income households, and I think things have to get pretty bad before your home’s cleanliness says anything about your moral worth. I am saying that it’s not likely to be the husband who’s blamed if it’s not immaculate, it’s not likely to be the husband apologizing to guests, and it’s not likely that most females cohabitating with male partners have the luxury of “preferring” a messy house if they don’t want to invite harsh judgments from others. There are no magnets that say “Boring men have clean houses.”
In conversations with friends who are the female halves of hetero couples, this comes up over and over. We’re at an age when those of us in long-term relationships are thinking about the future and I don’t think I’m alone when I say that we’re scared. We’re scared that if we work hard professionally, we’ll be judged personally. Or we’ll be doomed to perpetual exhaustion if we try to do right in both spheres. We’re scared that our housework will literally never end once there are kids in the picture. We’re scared that our kids could be judged for our “failings.”
Don’t get me wrong: Our male partners are kind and they believe in equality, but our conditioning on this topic is just so different. They simply don’t feel the pressure to maintain a guest-ready, photo-worthy home. They say things like “It’s fine” when we’re trying to convey our social anxiety that it isn’t. They say “Don’t worry about it” when we’ve been conditioned to do just that. And they’re probably right. The house doesn’t need to look like a Martha Stewart spread for us to live happily and healthily. But that doesn’t mean that it isn’t the standard to which some seemingly large portion of society will hold us, and we’ll only be judged more harshly if/when we bring the entropy magnets known as “children” into the picture. If the state of your house belies your inability to “do it all,” there are still people who take this to mean that you are a bad woman, a bad wife, and a bad mother.
What to do about it:
Until these ridiculous standards change and either houses don’t have to look like museums, or women aren’t left holding the [trash] bag, ladies’ options aren’t great. We can ask our male partners to do housework they don’t think is necessary, we can do it ourselves in an effort not to be nags, or we can open ourselves up to judgment. Oh, and even though our childhoods were filled with older women telling us the proper way to do household tasks, we’re told that we can’t correct men lest they stop helping at all. Because they get a choice. So ladies, take your pick! Relationship problems, exhaustion, or shame? Honestly, my solution is going to be that I’ll manage meal planning and most cooking so we can use the money we would spend on eating out (on non-occasions, anyway) to hire a cleaning lady a couple of times a month instead. Because I have no idea how else to solve this.
If you’re a messy man in a hetero relationship who believes that men and women are equals, please understand that society still holds us to different standards and that there’s stuff about having been raised female that you might not know of or understand. In our minds, what needs to be done to avoid embarrassment is obvious and we don’t think we should have to ask you to help maintain our shared home to that standard or to thank you for doing your part. Maybe that’s not fair, but neither is the cultural baggage that landed us here. Unfortunately, creating and exploiting the insecurities of women is a tried and true profit model. Also unfortunate is that social norms are based on what is common, not on what is good or right or sensible or factual.
Until things get better, roll up your sleeves and join us in scrubbing the baseboards, wiping down the fan blades, and sanitizing the sponges. (I assume it goes without saying that the proper response is not to tell us to just get over it or to act like it’s all in our heads. Any brief gander at Ye Olde Internet will indicate that it’s not.) If we divulge any of the wisdom that was passed down to us (like “Don’t put that wet thing on a wooden table without a coaster!”), assume there’s logic behind it (or ask!). Understand that “preferring messy” has social consequences we aren’t all comfortable with and agree to help maintain a higher standard than you otherwise might because you care about your partner’s anxieties, even if you don’t care what other people think about your home. (I don’t mean Better Homes & Gardens centerfold standards, but meet us in the middle.) Understand that we don’t like being nags any more than you like being nagged (less, probably) and just accept that these seemingly arbitrary tasks are important to us. If your partner were self-conscious about something and you could help her fix it (and she wanted that), would you? If you could help protect your partner from embarrassment, would you? Okay, cool, here’s the multi-purpose cleaner.
As always, I want to hear your thoughts!