Why I don’t want my husband to do the chores
A friend of mine told me recently that moving to the Middle East saved her marriage. “There is no doubt,” she said, “that if we’d stayed in England we would have been divorced by now.”
My friend is a working mother. Her husband is useless around the house. It’s a familiar tale, and one that leads to tension and arguments between millions of couples around the world.
A new book that has taken America by storm and is due out here this month suggests that rather than moving to the Middle East, we should divide household chores between us. Sharon Meers and Joanna Strober, the authors of Getting to 50/50: How working couples can have it all by sharing it all, argue that not only does sharing the burden lessen the load for women, but that it is actually good for the men to do so. It makes them feel more “engaged”.
I’m not sure I agree. Watching my husband wash up, on the rare occasions he does so, I wouldn’t say “engaged” is the first word that springs to mind. He is not what one would call a domestic god. He is a typical British man, bought up by a doting mother who still runs around after him and his brothers. I did not marry him for his ability with a duster.
Of course he is not as bad as the previous generation. My godmother tells me that she would make breakfast for the family then commute to London for a full day’s work and come back to find her husband reading the paper by the fire and the breakfast things still on the table.
This would be enough to make me take his newspaper and beat him repeatedly around the head with it, but at the same time I really don’t think I could bear a man around the house who wanted to get involved in all the domestic chores.
In the introduction to the book, Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer of Facebook, says: “We have two children and we aim for a 50/50 split in childcare and household duties. Even though my husband Dave and I are lucky and can afford exceptional childcare, there are still difficult decisions about how much time our jobs require us to be away from our family and who will pick up the slack when the other can’t be there. We are rarely at 50/50 at any given moment — perfect equality is hard to define, or sustain — but that remains the goal as the pendulum swings between us.”
It all sounds like terribly hard work before you’ve even begun. Do they have some kind of app that monitors who is doing what when? How do they know when they’ve got to 50 per cent? Does Sheryl, mid-ironing hubby’s shirt, down tools and say, “You do the sleeves, honey”?
I would argue that what is good for a relationship is not some kind of formula that you aim for, but a modus operandi that works for you. I have been married for more than 15 years now and we have three children. I do admit that to begin with I found my husband’s domestic unawareness bloody irritating. I work full-time as a writer, a PR consultant and a headhunter so I don’t have huge amounts of time for chores. I once complained to his mother, who told me that when he was a child she could tell what he’d been up to all day by the various clues left around the house, such as a book on a chair, or a cricket bat on the lawn. This remains more or less the same, except now it’s our son’s cricket bat. There has been progress though. As my mother said when she came to stay with us this summer “he’s got much better”.
My mother is Swedish so she is used to men doing far more than 50 per cent around the house. I grew up with them all around me, these Swedish hen-pecked husbands on enforced paternity leave, and I have to say they don’t do it for me. I’m not sure I agree with Simon Cowell’s attitude when it comes to nappy changing (he has stated he will not change one under any circumstances) but one of those Swedish Mrs Tittlemouses would drive me nuts. I don’t need another obsessive compulsive around the house fiddling about. What I need is a man who can get out there and earn some money, or entertain the kids so I can play Bree Van de Kamp in peace and quiet. Added to which there is something deeply unsexy about a man who knows how to do hospital corners or gets a kick out of wandering around the house with an aerosol of Mr Sheen. Having him make the bed may lessen your load, but does it make you want to get him into it?
While my husband has improved on the domestic front, I have mellowed (slightly). I remember once, years ago, complaining to a friend that he didn’t hang the washing out as nicely as I did. “The thing about delegating,” she told me, “is that you have to lower your standards. You can’t ask someone to do something and then complain that they haven’t done it as well as you would.” I’m not sure how many women would honestly want to relinquish their role of CEO of the house and hand over control to their husbands, even if they are working. I at least would be fretting about whether he had remembered to take the rubbish out or wash the right sports kit in time for the right day. There are also certain household chores I wouldn’t want to give up, such as polishing the island in the kitchen. I have always wanted an island and since we redid our kitchen this year I finally have one — an enormous granite one. There are few things more satisfying than totally emptying it of clutter and cleaning until it is spotless. A psychiatrist friend of mine calls my habit “interesting” and has suggested my next book should feature a manic island cleaner. Perhaps it should be a man.
With my man I avoid disappointment and fights over the island by asking him to help in the areas he is good at. So he will go off and do chores around town, or bring in the wood for the fire, or clean the barbecue. Which may all seem a little too stereotypical for our American friends, but it works for us.
“A woman’s work is never done” the old saying goes. Women have been in charge of the home since forever. Cavemen would go out and hunt and women would dust the stone walls or whatever it was they did back then. Of course the thinking now is that because we’re working too, the home should be a joint responsibility. I agree with that, but there’s no point in creating tension by trying to impose some 50/50 rule. Yes, there is still terrible inequality when it comes to domestic chores, which comes from years of women doing it all. But some men might argue they are coping with more pressure at work than their wives, and of course they are if their wives don’t even work. I have a friend who doesn’t work and then expects her husband to look after the kids all weekend after he’s had a tough week in the City so she can have some “me time”.
Forget about a husband who doesn’t like ironing, that’s what I call real inequality.
Helena Frith Powell is the author of The Ex-Factor published by Gibson Square, £7.99
A man’s guide to the chores
Men! The game’s up. If the secret to marital happiness and mutual fulfilment is an equal distribution of household labour then you need to learn to do exactly as much of the household chores and childcare as women. The following may come in handy.
All this is completely terrifying stuff — a dial surrounded by the sorts of indecipherable symbols that would have Lara Croft and Indiana Jones salivating like dogs in heat — is purposely designed to impress and/or intimidate you. Stick washing in drum. Find where it says 40C. Turn it to that. Press the on button. It is worth separating darks and lights. And it is worth checking the labels. “Handwash only” means you can get away with 30C. “Dryclean only” means handwash only. Biological is good for bloodstains, otherwise use non-bio. And fabric softener is bulls**t, plain and simple; your wife will be unable to tell whether you have used it. Don’t tumble-dry stuff because that’s what makes it turn into elf-clothes, in addition to being environmentally suspect. Drape on clotheshorse and leave until you need to wear it.
This is a non-subject. The iron is that curvy, kind-of-triangular thing that sits in the cupboard under the kitchen sink. The ironing board is the thing that falls on you when you open the cupboard under the stairs and amputates your thumbs when you try to put it up. Both are in the same category as the juicer, the yoghurt-maker and the fondu set you got as wedding presents. In this case, 50/50 means you both do 50 per cent of none. If you iron your sheets you have too much time on your hands. If someone else irons your sheets you have too much money on your hands. Crumpled clothes can quite easily be explained with two hissed words: “Issey Miyake.”
3. Cooking for kids
Books – many books – have been written on the subject. Read them, admire their authors, and stock up on those excellent fishfingers Waitrose does. Basically, the deal is trying to get vegetables down them without too much sugar or salt. Potatoes sort of count as a vegetable, but pasta doesn’t. A good conscience means cooking protein, starch, and three sorts of vegetables that you can throw in the bin afterwards. Your best weapon against rickets is tomato sauce into which you have secretly whizzed green beans.
4. Fridge management
Learn to triage your fridge. There are three categories of food: a) Biohazard: Immediate Attention – meat or fish that moves; vegetables that appear to be leaking; hummous that has changed colour; b) Food That’s Fine — anything within a week past its sell-by date; c) Borderline – anything that’s between a week and a month past its sell-by date but smells just about OK. You throw out a and leave b where it is. With c, you have options: throw away the packaging and serve it for supper; peel off the sell-by date so your wife can’t see it and return it to the fridge, or sling it in the freezer.
I confess this isn’t my big thing. If I can avoid mopping a floor I will. It’s incredibly boring and what’s more it then renders the kitchen off-limits (wet; sticky; lemon-smelling) for 45 minutes, and a rule of physics is that you always want a cup of tea immediately after mopping the floor. A dustpan and brush for the big bits of pasta (an incentive, you’ll find, to cook al dente) will normally be enough to pass inspection.
Children need washing, God knows. Look at their bummy fingernails and their feral, nutty-smelling hair. But you’re tired, too. Giant nappy disasters aside, you can get away with a flannel to the face and hands once every other day — and if you combine a hair wash with swimming, so much less to worry about.
Who the heck dusts? You do, unfortunately. You will, in the process of doing so, be prompted to wonder anew at the miracles of the universe: how does so much human skin end up in such unlikely places? Light fittings, blinds, the tops of window frames. True novices take note: start at the top and work down.
This is a stereotypically male domain, but two things are noticeable. One is that the stereotype always includes a wife complaining that he hasn’t actually put the bins out. The other is that though lugging the full bags into the street might be the man’s job, the wife is expected to fill them in the first place. So, 50/50: learn whether yoghurt pots go in the rubbish or the recycling; take a view on whether eggshells and/or meat can go in the food waste, and find out when the recycling/rubbish/food-waste collections actually take place. “Put everything except bananas in the recycling and let God sort them out” is not an acceptable philosophy.
You can no longer afford to do this like a man, ie dawdle methodically up and down every aisle putting anything you think you might like to eat tonight into your trolley. You will end up spending £100 on fancy ready meals and interesting cuts of meat, 70 per cent of which will rot. That is unless you go shopping hung over, in which case you will end up with six gallons of yoghurt products and a penitential packet of Ryvita. You will still not own washing-up liquid, loo roll or dishwasher tablets, and will have to run to the mini-mart after supper to get them. Make a list. And take it.
10. Tidying up
This simple phrase covers multitudes. But it is the single biggest challenge you face. The entropic mathematics is that every 5 minutes a child spends in a space is 15 minutes — at the bare minimum — that an adult has to spend tidying it up. So you have to make a pact with your conscience as to what “tidying up” means. If you decide it means reassembling each jigsaw puzzle, stowing the Hama beads in colour order, putting the books spine out, the dinosaurs back in the dinosaur bucket and the Lego in the Lego pot, you will lose your mind within days. Tidying up means picking up every bit of kiddie-crap from the floor and stuffing it into the nearest of the many kiddie-crap boxes available, then taping the box shut and making a G&T strong enough to frighten your granny.
Helena Frith Powell was born in Sweden to a Swedish mother and Italian father, but grew up mainly in England. She is the author of eleven books, translated into several languages including Chinese and Russian. She wrote the French Mistress column The Sunday Times about life in France for several years. She is a regular contributor to the Daily Mail, Mail on Sunday, The Times, Daily Telegraph, Tatler Magazine and Harper’s Bazaar.
Helena has been the editor of four magazines, including M Magazine, a supplement for the Abu Dhabi-based National Newspaper and FIVE, a high-end fashion glossy, also published in Abu Dhabi. Helena was also editor-in-chief of 360 Life, a quarterly glossy magazine published with the Sports 360 Newspaper in Dubai, part of the Chalhoub Group.
Helena contributes regularly to UK-based newspapers and magazines and holds a Masters in Creative Writing from the University of Cambridge. She is working on a thriller set in Sweden as well as a novel about the relationship between Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield called Sense of an Echo.
In 2022 her short story The Japanese Gardener came second in the Fish Publishing Short Story Prize. One of her stories was also shortlisted for the Bridport Short Story Prize. When she’s not writing, she works as a headhunter for the media and entertainment industry for the Sucherman Group.
Helena, who was educated at Durham University, lives in the Languedoc region of France with her husband Rupert and their three children.
More France Please, we’re British; Gibson Square 2004
Two Lipsticks and a Lover 2005; Gibson Square (hardback)
All You Need to be Impossibly French; (US version of above) Penguin 2006
Two Lipsticks and a Lover; Arrow Books (paperback) 2007
Ciao Bella Gibson Square; (hardback) 2006
Ciao Bella Gibson Square; (paperback) 2007
So Chic! (French version of Two Lipsticks) Leduc Editions 2008 (also translated into Chinese, Russian and Thai)
More, More France; Gibson Square 2009
To Hell in High Heels; Arrow Books 2009 (also translated into Polish)
The Viva Mayr Diet; Harper Collins 2009
Love in a Warm Climate; Gibson Square 2011
The Ex-Factor; Gibson Square 2013
Smart Women Don’t Get Wrinkles; Gibson Square 2016
The Arnolfini Marriage; Amazon Kindle December 2016
Smart Women Don’t Get Wrinkles (paperback); Gibson Square spring 2018
The Longest Night; Gibson Square spring 2019