Honey, Whose Turn Is It to Do the Dishes?

Recently, a new discovery has turned my world upside down. I was diagnosed with a particularly severe case of fibromyalgia, a neurological disorder that causes widespread muscle stiffness, pain and fatigue. The symptoms, albeit without the diagnosis, have been lifelong. Because of this, many things that require little thought or planning for most people have always been exhausting and difficult for me. A persistent struggle throughout my adult life has centered around trying to maintain my household in spite of the intense pain that accompanies cleaning and meal preparation. Diagnosis in hand, I’ve started making accommodations for getting through everyday life while being careful to avoid painful tasks as much as possible. Part of this has involved buying and using “living aids” such as a reach extender for picking up around the house without bending, or a laundry cart with special wheels that easily climb stairs. The other part has involved a restructuring of domestic labor between me and my husband.

Most people are familiar with the cultural idea that cooking, cleaning, and child care are feminine-coded tasks, frequently relegated to the domain of women. As a person with someone limited mobility due to a largely invisible, chronic illness, I’ve never been able to fully meet gendered expectations for my performance of domestic responsibilities. My life and romantic partnerships by necessity have always featured somewhat subversive role-assignments for cooking and cleaning, which has made me spend a lot of time thinking about how households get things done in general. I was curious to see whether or not there was much overlap in experience between me and the rest of my social circle with regard to equity and role assignment in long-term relationships. So I devised a questionnaire and made a Facebook post:

cleaning survey

Seventeen people responded, either in the comments section of the original thread, or in a private message to me to protect their anonymity. Some information about the sample: most are heterosexual couples who live in New England. One respondent is part of a queer, trans marriage. Most respondents are in their 20s or 30s, although one respondent and her partner are near typical retirement age. Only three of the respondents are men. My husband and I also answered each of the questions near the end of the conversation, after others had made their contributions.

What I found out was that even without disability in the mix, chores and cooking are hugely stressful on many relationships. While some of the chore patterns were regarded as fair and pleasant, other couples were experiencing a surprising (to me) level of sadness, resentment, desperation, and bitterness regarding housework. Some responses, like this one, were heartbreaking:

As you can see, this is a hot topic in our house. In fact, household chores are just about the ONLY thing we ever argue about. We see eye to eye on almost everything else in our entire lives!! However… this whole take-care-of-the-house shit… it’s breaking us apart. Quite literally. It’s frustrating and sad. If you, or anyone you encounter during your study, have any tips or tricks PLEASE pass them on!! It’s really crazy to me how two people who are so compatible in life and parenthood can let cleaning/chores tear them apart.”

Others were characterized by clear and infuriating instances of gender inequality:

“If it’s not 110% it’s just not good enough for him and I might as well have done nothing. Or sometimes I go on strike to try to prove a point but we just fight over that too. I also fight him about feeling like a personal servant who exists for nothing other than to service the needs of others and being expected to be a ‘perfect’ submissive house wife-y, a role I dislike, but do it. Part of me feels it’s fair because I am a stay at home mom, so my job is the house and the kids… But it was def different when my husband was the stay at home with our first kid, I still did the majority of the house work.”

Another friend characterized the dynamic in her household as “fundamentally unfair,” noting that her partner is so disengaged from child care that he does not even know where their daughter’s pajamas are kept. Still others felt pressured, as women, to contribute more to their household’s upkeep than they had time for or felt was fair. One can’t help but wonder how these partnerships would be affected by the woman’s debilitating illness or injury – or if the relationships would withstand it at all. However, one male respondent noted that his relationships have always skewed in the opposite direction: he takes care of most household tasks and his female partners have a low rate of participation in cooking and cleaning. This was an anomaly in the context of the other responses.

While most of the sample described themselves as able-bodied, many mentioned the role that mental illness plays in their domestic patterns. Conditions such as anxiety, depression, and obsessive compulsive disorder played a huge role for some of the respondents and constituted major obstacles to household maintenance. Some women with obsessive compulsive disorder noted that intrusive thoughts prevented them from cleaning in a way that felt efficient and reasonable to them (which resulted in avoiding cleaning altogether). Others mentioned that male partners with obsessive compulsive disorder (or in some cases, simply unrealistic expectations) led to increased pressure to maintain a pristine household. Men, women, and a non-binary trans respondent all noted emotional hurdles like depression and anxiety sometimes interfered with their abilities to engage with household tasks. Some partners were compassionate and understanding about the cooking/cleaning limitations of their partners while others were not.

Part of challenging the notion that we live in a “post-feminist” or “egalitarian” society is examining the way that sexist tropes and gender roles play out in our own lives. While my friends and acquaintances certainly aren’t a representative sample of the population, I did not need to look far to find that many young women of my generation are banging their heads up against the same stuffy expectations our mothers struggled with. Of course, I also found some terrific partnerships that were characterized by relationship satisfaction on both ends, even if they weren’t happy with the state of their households. My husband, for example, happily picks up a lot of my “slack” and while we are sometimes unhappy with our mess, we never blame it on each other. It’s interesting to examine all of the factors that interact with gender role performance, disability and mental illness especially.

I’ve been toying with the idea of turning this into a larger scale study with a more formal sampling method. Readers, does this topic strike a nerve with you as well? Feel free to share your answers to any of the questions in the comments section and discuss your interpretation of the results.

Dani Unterreiner

About Dani Unterreiner

Dani Unterreiner recently graduated with a B.A. in Sociology from University of Southern Maine. She now works in politics and engages in grassroots activism in her spare time. Despite being a mean, scary feminist, she's happily married and the proud mom of a little girl.