“As I look back on my childhood, it is obvious that my mother was a firm believer in the value of household chores. My sister, Dee Dee, and I cleaned up the kitchen every night after dinner. We were assigned weekly tasks—like dusting and vacuuming—to be completed on Saturdays. We were expected to make up our beds and keep our bedrooms clean. And then Mom found other seasonal chores to give us—weeding, raking leaves, sweeping the deck, and more.”
As a child do you think I shared my mother’s belief in the value of chores? Of course not! I grumbled and complained and whined. But I did them.
In fact, I still help with housework. And for that my wife, Merry, is very grateful … to my mom. I’ve heard her say many times to friends, “I’m fortunate that my husband had a mom who made him work around the house.”
Does that make me unusual? I don’t think so. One recent survey released by the Council for Contemporary Families found that men’s contributions in the home had increased almost threefold in the last four decades.
Despite this, the question of “Who does the housework?” is a big issue in many marriages today. For years surveys have shown that wives typically do much more of the housework than husbands, even when both are employed full-time. A 2007 survey by the Pew Research Center indicated that 62 percent of Americans ranked “sharing household chores” as “very important for a successful marriage”—a big jump from the 47 percent who answered the same way in 1990. Sharing housework ranked higher than factors such as adequate income, shared religious beliefs, and children.
“I do all the housework …”
I caught a glimpse of how hot this issue is in many marriages when I wrote on this issue in FamilyLife’s weekly e-newsletter, Marriage Memo. I asked readers to write and tell me what they did to divide housework in their family, and I received 85 emails just in the first day. (You can read many of these responses here.)
Some of the letters spoke of the conflict and bitterness many wives experience when their husbands don’t help. “I do all the housework or it would not get done,” one wife wrote.
Another wife said:
We have had a constant battle with housework … To this day I feel like he just doesn’t hear me or understand how much work I do. It has gotten to the point that either I divorce him for it or come to terms with the fact he won’t help out. I feel like I have lost the battle … The only thing he does is go to work. And don’t get me wrong, I appreciate that. But I go to work too and do everything else. Including all the finances, yardwork, laundry, dishes, cleaning, kid activities. I have kids and they do their share but no help from my husband. HELP.
(So far I have not received any letters from husbands complaining that their wives don’t help with household responsibilities.)
I think this is one of those “where the rubber meets the road” areas of marriage. Our choices about housework are influenced by the culture (both past and present), our childhood training, parental models, our personalities, our understanding of God’s plan for how to relate to one another in marriage, and our own selfish natures.
Put all these factors together, and you end up with a muddy mixture of thoughts, feelings, convictions, and priorities. Then add your mud to your spouse’s mud, and somehow you come up with decisions about who cleans the dishes, who vacuums the floor, and who pulls weeds in the garden.
What do the Scriptures say?
The Bible does provide some general guidance in its passages about the roles and responsibilities of husbands and wives. Husbands, for example, are called to be “head of the wife, as Christ also is head of the church” and to “love your wives just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself up for her” (Ephesians 5:23, 25). They are to manage their households well (1 Timothy 3:4) and provide for their families (1 Timothy 5:8). Responsibilities for wives include being “subject to their husbands, as to the Lord” (Ephesians 5:22), and being “workers at home” (Titus 2:3-5), and maintaining a proper focus on the needs of her household (Proverbs 31:27).
What I notice about these passages is that they speak mostly about how a husband and wife are to relate to each other. They leave a lot of room for flexibility for decisions about household work. Sometimes I wonder if those who set hard-nosed rules about what represents “men’s work” and “women’s work” are influenced by habit and by cultural tradition more than they are by honest application of scriptural principles.
One theme that came through loud and clear in many of the emails I received is that a marriage thrives when both husband and wife seek to love and serve each other. Chad Donley wrote in his e-mail, “I see helping in the housework as one of the easiest and most tangible ways to serve my wife. Anything to lessen her burden.”
Bryan Donovan added, “As the man, my primary responsibility is love. I have found that my wife receives a great deal of love when I contribute to chores. Particularly the chores that she hates to do. As the man, I bite the bullet, and do the chores I don’t like to do for my wife in love. This has been a very successful way for me to shower love on my wife. I confess that this has been a struggle for me to be consistent (when is fighting selfishness not a struggle?) but I work hard, and rely on the grace of God and my wife.”
Does the 50/50 plan work?
We often hear in our culture that marriage should be a “50/50” relationship, where each spouse strives to do his share. As FamilyLife says in its Weekend to Remember® marriage getaways, one big problem with this belief is that it’s impossible to know when your spouse has met you halfway. This is especially true with housework. As Elisha Page wrote in an e-mail. “I believe that there is no way to split anything down the middle as far as housework goes.”
Marriage works when you adopt a “100/100” philosophy, where each of you—as a practical demonstration of your love—is willing to serve the other. “God has blessed me with a very loving husband who does not see that there is a division for the daily upkeep of ourhome,” wrote Mandy Norman. “I am a stay-at-home mom now, but my husband has always helped with domestic duties … My husband is usually the one who cleans the kitchen up after dinner while I finish feeding and cleaning our small children from dinner. If he finds a pile of laundry sitting on the bed, he will help fold and put them away. We are on the same team; there is no place for ‘your job’ or ‘my job.’ It’s ‘our job.’ I cannot end this without saying that my husband has truly mastered the art of loving and serving as the Bible says in Ephesians 5. He daily looks for ways to ease my stress and help my day be brighter.”
Applying the 100/100 philosophy
So how can we uphold what the Bible says about marital relationships and make good decisions—as a team—about housework? Here are a few practical suggestions:
1. Make a list of all the work required to keep your home and family working. Include all the household tasks, including cleaning, cooking, ironing, yard work, repairs, grocery shopping, paying bills, etc. If you have children, list all your parenting responsibilities as well. (Some wives report that, when they look at the big picture, they are surprised to learn that their husbands do more than they realized to help with household and parenting responsibilities.)
2. Discuss who does different tasks the best and who enjoys certain tasks, and match those with your schedule.You may end up still dividing many tasks according to traditional gender expectations, or you may come up with something more creative. I liked the letter from Venita Davis, who obviously had talked through these issues well with her husband:
My husband and I divided up our domestic chores based on who was better at doing them. For example, typically women do the laundry, but when we got married, we found out he was better at it than I was so laundry became his chore. But he generally doesn’t have the “sit still long enough” to fold the clothes, so I tackle that chore. I cook, but he cleans the kitchen afterwards. He loads the dishwasher, but I empty it (this is also helpful to keep dear husband from putting things in the “wrong” place). As the leader of our household, he sets the goals and vision for the family while I manage the budget to support it. We have a tandem approach at tackling chores focused on our strengths and tolerance levels.
We also divide chores based on consideration and love for each other. When I went back to work outside the home, it was increasingly difficult for me to come home after battling traffic, cook from scratch every night, and still find time to exercise and relax. So my dear husband, as a good and loving leader, decided a couple nights a week either he would cook or pick something up.
3. Train your children to help. They can help relieve a lot of pressure, and chores are an important part of character training. Many parents are lazy in this area—rather than take the time and effort to train their kids to work, they just do it all themselves. They’re missing a great opportunity.
4. Set realistic standards and priorities together for your home. Consider your season of life, your personality, your lifestyle. My wife, Merry, and I decided long ago that we generally wanted a clean and orderly home, but we would not worry when things get a bit messy. This means that sometimes housework is put aside when we’ve got other priorities—like time spent with family.
Reader Laura Pearson echoed this philosophy when she advised, “aim for balance and evaluate these chores in the light of the big picture. What’s more important: a spotless house or memories made? Doesn’t mean you should always play—a healthy balance between work and play ensures everyone has a chance to get their needs met.”
5. Be willing to step in and do all the work when it’s necessary. Life always offers interruptions that require flexibility and sacrifice. One of you may be sick, or laid up with an ongoing health problem, or required to spend extra hours completing a project at work. When Merry was pregnant with our second daughter, for several months she suffered from constant nausea. She could hardly do anything, which meant that for that period I did everything. I still remember cooking Thanksgiving dinner for her and our infant daughter, Bethany. Merry was too sick to eat, and Bethany wasn’t hungry for turkey and mashed potatoes, so I got to eat our Thanksgiving meal alone that year!
6. Never forget to express your appreciation to each other. Alexis McQuown says it best: “I don’t think that there has been a meal yet where [my husband] hasn’t thanked me for preparing it … and he verbally thanks me for all of the other chores I do, like having his work uniforms clean and folded or cleaning out his lunch pail—the little things. And a big thing he is doing is teaching our child to do the same. My heart melts when my husband gives my son a subtle reminder: ‘Josiah, did you thank Mommy for your meal?’ When my 2-year-old looks at me and says ‘Thanks, Mommy, for my food,’ is there really anything else that needs to be said or done? I am so appreciative that my husband is leaving a lasting legacy of respect for women with my boys.”
“… The love and team work I have seen in my family this past year is remarkable.”
I think my favorite email came from Genevieve Vaughn, who wrote that the Marriage Memoon housework provoked a great discussion with her family at the dinner table. She said her 10-year-old said, “It is definitely Mom who does all the chores.” But Genevieve reminded her family what they had done over the last year. While she and her husband were building a new home themselves, she was diagnosed with cancer. The entire family stepped in to fill the gap:
I have watched my husband and children take over much of my role as a homemaker. My children, all three, have done laundry successfully, dishes, mopped, dusted, helped on the house and in the yard. My husband has constructed this 3,000 square foot home while managing the kids, our current home, and working a full time job (he is a soldier and a pilot). Sometimes the house is not as neat as if I were doing it and oftentimes things are put away in different areas than I would put them … but the love and teamwork I have seen in my family this past year is remarkable. I am very blessed and proud of the family I have.
Now that I am feeling better, my children and husband still pitch in and make sure things are done and ask if I need help.
Now that’s a family that is learning about servanthood.
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