Teaming up to tackle housework can build couple unity.
When Jaydee Burns was growing up, his parents taught him there are no boy jobs or girl jobs but rather just jobs that get completed fastest when everyone helps each other. He and his wife, Shaunda Price Burns (’96), have carried that same approach into their own family during their 21 years of marriage and as they’ve raised six children, ages 8 to 18.
“If the dishes need washing and I’m the one who walks into the house first, I start on them. If dinner needs to be cooked, then I start it,” says Jaydee, who works at an Air Force base in Louisiana. “We have a master list of what needs to be accomplished, and whoever is able to start down through the list does whatever is needed.”
The Burnses have created an unusually equitable division of labor. BYU sociology professor Renata Tonks Forste (BS ’84, MS ’86) says their style fits well with her research that found family satisfaction is higher when both partners contribute to decision making and housework. Along with graduate student Kiira E. Fox (BS ’10, MS ’11), she conducted a study about the division of household labor among married or cohabiting couples in 31 countries. “Spouses are more satisfied when neither one is solely responsible for any given household task,” says Forste.
Throughout the countries Forste studied, women spend significantly more hours than men in combined time of working outside the home and inside it. Their unpaid household work, though, is often not seen as “real” work by society. “It’s done in the privacy of the home, not in public, and therefore can become invisible,” says Forste.
She believes couples build happier marriages and stronger families when they understand how housework got divided in the first place, value household labor as important for all family members, let go of rigid stereotypes about who should do what, and intentionally create a housework plan that works for both spouses.
A History of Home Work
Forste says the contemporary gendered division of household labor is a relatively recent development. Before the industrial revolution became widespread in the mid-19th century, all societies were agriculturally based and both husbands and wives produced goods at home.
With the advent of factory work, most men left their home-based work to labor for cash. By the 1950s a typical middle-class family had a male breadwinner with a job that could support the family on one income, leaving women at home and responsible for the lion’s share of both childcare and household work.
But beginning in the 1960s, as high-paying manufacturing jobs left the United States or became automated and men’s wages began to decline, more and more women joined the workforce. By 2015, just one quarter of all two-parent households had a father working full-time and a mother staying home. In nearly half of these households, both parents were working full-time.
From 1965 to 2010, women’s housework hours decreased from about 35 hours a week to about 18. During that same time, men’s hours doing chores increased from 5 hours to 10. Forste acknowledges that men are doing more, but women’s reduction in housework is not proportional to their increased hours in paid labor: “Now it takes two incomes for most families to survive, but as women have of necessity moved into the labor force, men have taken only a little more responsibility for household labor.”
Valuing Household Work
Forste notes there is the perception in our society that anyone can do housework, so it’s not as valued as skilled labor outside the home. Feminine characteristics are often viewed as inferior, so any labor typically performed by women is perceived as less valuable. “In fact, work in the home—not just childcare but also making meals and keeping things up—is critical to the strength of families and marriages,” she says. “If we say families are of utmost importance, we should value the physical housework it takes to build a home that nurtures everyone who lives there.”
Studies of marital satisfaction consistently show that men are happier with family life than women, perhaps partly because women take on so much more household work. But Forste found in her study that satisfaction is highest for both spouses when men are involved in both childcare and household chores.
Another couple, Luke B. (MA ’94) and Hadley Duncan Howard (BS ’96), have been married for 15 years and are raising two daughters, ages 9 and 12. Hadley, who works full-time in advertising, marketing, and public relations, says that when she was a student at BYU, a family life professor taught her that the purpose of any household task is to strengthen relationships. “Whatever the task is—cleaning the garage together, schlepping all over town to find the just-right sneakers for your teen, whatever—the purpose is not a clean garage or new sneakers, it’s to strengthen the relationship by doing it together in love and cooperation. If the task is to raise a happy and functional family, then . . . who does which practical aspect of that task on any given day is irrelevant.”
Forste agrees: “All people, especially Mormons, should value what takes place in the home. If we truly value it, we should be willing to do what’s needed. These are critical issues because of economic changes and because of our view of family life as central in the gospel.”
Letting Go of Stereotypes
In most cultures around the world, people are socialized with an identity that includes specific tasks attached to each gender’s role, says Forste. She believes Mormon culture can sometimes foster inflexibility that doesn’t serve families well. “In my mind, when the Family Proclamation says fathers are responsible for ‘the protection for their families,’ that includes ensuring a clean house and good meals. The Proclamation talks about women nurturing their children, but it doesn’t say anything specifically about housework. But we get rigid about it. That’s cultural. It’s something we need to rethink.”
“I see a lot of students, especially younger students, with this rigid idea of how things are supposed to be,” says Forste. “Then reality hits. It’s detrimental to have some sort of rigid expectation in mind. And we shouldn’t judge each other about how we work it out,”
While men in general could contribute more in the housework arena, Forste believes women could be more willing to let them. “They can’t be gatekeepers. They have to be willing to give up those responsibilities and maybe have a somewhat different standard of cleanliness,” she says.
As a culture in general, she thinks Latter-day Saints judge one another—targeting mostly women—too often about things like home cleanliness and a family’s dress and grooming.
“If our house isn’t clean,” says Forste, “people don’t look at my husband and say, ‘Oh, he isn’t doing his job.’ We assume it’s the woman’s job, and then we use a clean house as a social badge of prestige for women only.”
What Is a Fair Division?
No ideal arrangement for dividing housework exists, says Forste. Every couple needs to work out their own division and rework it over time as children arrive, family economics shift, and educational needs emerge. She encourages ongoing conversation and prayer: “The personal in personal revelation is really important. Family roles are one of those things we have to work out as a couple.”
Even after an arrangement is agreed on—or evolves naturally—couples can be flexible and help one another as needed. Hadley Howard says that when work is piling up for her husband, Luke, she asks him what she can do to alleviate his burdens. “He does most of the cooking, so I’ll say, ‘Can I pick up dinner duty today?’ Or, ‘Let’s make vacuuming optional this week.’ I just pick up a little slack for him. He does the same for me as needed,” says Hadley.
The beauty of this flexibility, says Luke, a BYU music profesor, is that each spouse knows the other is supportive and willing to chip in as needed. “It’s not about dividing up chores,” he says. “It’s about helping each other and developing a relationship based on equal opportunity and respect for the other’s needs and abilities. The chores are simply the way we show our love for each other and for the children. Nobody wants to swab toilets or sweep floors. But they need to be done, and doing it is an act of service that shows love.”
Hadley says this approach works beautifully for them: “We’re living the ideal for us. I’m not really sure exactly how we got here, but it created itself organically, just through an eagerness to be helpful to each other and to form a family where we’re all in it together. We’re happy. We’re best friends. And we feel good about what we’re modeling for our children.”
Sue Bergin is an adjunct instructor in the Marriott School.