Housework: It’s often a topic of debate among couples, and truth be told, we’ve had our own dramas in this area over the years.
We have very different values and expressions when it comes to housework. Byron is particular about floors and will often be found with a broom, mop or vacuum cleaner in hand. Francine is more motivated around food preparation – she’s more likely to be at the supermarket or in the kitchen than cleaning bathrooms or dusting.
While Francine is more fastidious about how clothes are washed, carefully separating whites, colours and delicates, Byron is highly motivated around ironing; when Francine would likely solve the issue of crushed shirt by hiding it under a sweater, Byron will very sensibly iron it.
Gender equality is a hot topic at the moment and so here are a few thoughts about how we can navigate this in our marriages.
Men and women are different – thank God!
It’s plainly obvious: men and women are different – anatomically, neurologically, immunologically, hormonally, psychologically. We differ in body shape and brain structure; in biological function and in thinking patterns.
Every single cell in our bodies is genetically male or female and it’s not just on the sex chromosomes (XX or XY) – researchers have identified 6,500 differences in genetic expression between men and women in almost every organ of the body on almost every one of our 46 chromosomes.
This research lays bare the erroneous assertions that gender roles are purely the result of socialisation. Not only are we different, there are all sorts of ways that our biological sex differences manifest in psychological behaviours and interests.
These differences, and the ways we express them, are wonderful. They are part of what attracted us to each other and with what we fell in love. Embracing them provides a more enriched social fabric – just as diverse ethnic backgrounds brings variety to our cultural heritage, differences between the sexes makes the tapestry of human interaction richer and more varied.
Seeing things differently leads to differences in priorities
A 2019 study by University College of London (UCL) found that only 7% of couples share housework equally. In the study, researchers divided 8,500 couples into eight categories according to how they configured their time between paid work, childcare, adult care and domestic labour. In six of these eight groups representing 93% of the sample, women did more housework than their male partners.
Several commentators on the study suggested a reason for the lack of male investment in housework was due to different standards. As one author noted: unlike his wife, he is content to let the dishes pile up or to stuff unfolded clothes into the drawer.
While there are always exceptions, another commentator claimed that “Women clean and tidy more because they care more. … Men’s brains just aren’t wired to notice the demands of housework.”
This goes the other way in other areas, for example men often complain that their wives are negligent when it comes to car maintenance with many women confessing that they simply didn’t notice the tyres were looking flat or that there was a strange sound coming from the engine.
Being different doesn’t mean unequal
Long ago, in his letter to the Galatians, St Paul wrote: there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. He was articulating a profound truth that would have been shocking to his contemporaries: men and women, though different, were equal heirs to the Kingdom of God.
Our culture seems to have become confused by the simple truth that being different does not equate to inequality. We can be equal in dignity and value, even though we are different in ability, gifts and capacity. God doesn’t measure our value by the size of our salary or the tidiness of our home, and we shouldn’t either.
Wisdom is timeless.
The Power of Specialisation
Our differences, whether they are based in sex, education or interests, equips each of us in unique ways for our shared life. In our marriage, with 30 years of professional experience, Byron has vastly more insight and experience into financial matters than Francine. Francine, however, is more knowledgeable and skilled in child development and behaviour.
This disparity in skills and interests made it easy for us to each develop specialised areas of responsibility with Byron taking primary responsibility for our financial interests and Francine for the education and formation of our children.
Both areas are vital to our family functioning. Both areas require the involvement of each of us to some degree. But there is an undeniable advantage in having us specialise in our own area so that we can bring additional skill and insight to the task beyond the base level.
By specialising in this and other areas, we’ve harnessed an efficiency that has allowed us to get more impact for our combined investment in time and energy. The distribution of skills/interests allows us to contribute equally to our marriage and family, but in different ways.
The division of labour like this is not a radical idea. After all, every business operates on this principle.
The Danger of Polarisation
Specialisation, as practical and as sensible as it is, comes with some dangers; if the specialisation becomes extreme, the couple becomes polarised.
This typically happens when one of us neglects our responsibilities to the other due to an over-investment in our area of responsibility. For example, a wife may over-invest in her parenting such that her husband feels irrelevant in this area.
Or a husband may invest so much in securing the family financially, that he becomes physically or emotionally absent from the home and a ‘stranger’ to his loved ones.
When this happens, a husband or wife is progressively excluded from their spouse’s area of responsibility. Soon they realise that they have little or no influence in that area and are locked out of the decision-making, feeling powerless and irrelevant to their spouse.
Likewise, the overly responsible spouse can feel isolated and abandoned in their area of responsibility. They can feel burdened and alone in the decision-making, unappreciated and taken for granted.
This results in resentment and distrust between husband and wife and is the dynamic that often underpins the debate about housework.
Marriage is not a partnership
While all the above points are important, the key point is that worrying about who does more is the wrong focus.
Modern attitudes assume that a healthy marriage is one based on a partnership, with each spouse contributing equally. But here’s the thing: Catholic marriage is not a partnership. It’s not 50-50 and it’s not intended to be a quid-pro-quo arrangement.
Catholic marriage calls us to model our love on God’s love. God’s love for us is not a partnership; it’s a gratuitous gift so vast, there is simply no way we could ever match it. God gives with complete abandon and calls us to imitate that love in our marriage as best we can.
When we allow ourselves to get distracted with questions of equality, we’re buying into a score-keeping mentality that undermines our marriage. We need to be focusing on what we give in marriage rather than whether it is matched in equal share by our spouse.
Our vows were orientated towards generosity, not keeping score of our contribution area by area. Whether the debate is about housework, childcare, car maintenance or finances, instead of arguing about what is fair, focus instead on outdoing the other in generosity.