Column

Don’t Marry a Man Who Doesn’t Vacuum

Women beware: Nearly half of American men still want a housewife

Man looking at family while cleaning carpet with vacuum cleaner in living room
Man looking at family while cleaning carpet with vacuum cleaner in living room
Photo: Maskot/Getty Images

OfOf all the things young women are taught in order to prepare for their future, there’s one crucial piece of advice that’s so often lacking: If you are straight, don’t even think about getting married before knowing that your future husband will do his fair share of housework. I’m serious.

It may feel like a given — we’ve made so much progress on gender equality! — or an issue that you can work out and divvy up once you’re living together in wedded bliss. But the truth is that the domestic gender gap is one of the only areas where Americans haven’t moved forward significantly. In fact, we’re losing ground, and women are paying the price.

A new survey from Gallup not only shows that women continue to do the vast majority of domestic work and childcare, but that younger married couples were just as likely as their older counterparts to have an unequal division of labor at home. Which means a new generation of men — those 18–34, according to the survey — may have more feminist political values, but that they aren’t translating those beliefs to their own lives and homes.

In fact, over the last few decades, men’s attitudes toward gender roles at home have only gotten more regressive. Research by the nonprofit Council on Contemporary Families showed that while 83% of men in 1994 rejected the idea that the best family dynamic was one where the man worked and the woman stayed at home, that number had fallen to 55% by 2014. That means nearly half of American men want a housewife, despite broad support for equality in other areas of women’s lives.

At some point, you have to look at your husband and ask yourself if you really want to be cleaning up after this person for the next 30 years.

This tracks with what I’ve seen among a lot of my married friends, and heard from young women when I go speak at feminist events. While men might not necessarily say a woman’s “place is in the home,” they will say “she’s better at it,” or “she just cares about cleanliness more.” There’s an understanding that it’s no longer acceptable to make broad statements about women’s roles, but the expectation that women will handle everything in the domestic sphere remains.

And it’s not just about who cooks, cleans, or takes out the garbage — the mental load often burdens women even more than tangible physical tasks. From being the person who has to remember when to replace the toilet paper and make a kid’s doctor’s appointment to sending Christmas cards and knowing when a child needs a new pair of shoes — free headspace to think, read, or be creative has become a distinctly male privilege.

I’m willing to bet this inequality at home is a large reason that the vast majority of American divorces are initiated by women. At some point, you have to look at your husband and ask yourself if you really want to be cleaning up after this person for the next 30 years.

The truth is that multiple studies show that marriage is overwhelmingly beneficial for men — in terms of health, happiness, and career success — while it makes women unhappier. And when there is inequality in the home, women are more likely to be depressed.

That’s why I want young women to know sooner rather than later whether the person they’re considering marrying is one that will make their life fuller and happier, or a person they’re going to start to resent a few years in when he once again doesn’t load the dishwasher or throw his socks next to the laundry basket instead of inside it.

In the same way you talk about whether or not you want children, or how you’ll spend money — talk about how you want the division of labor to be split in your house. Who will be responsible for grocery shopping and list-making? Who will take off from work if a kid gets sick and needs to stay home from school? Will you both cook? What kind of standard of cleanliness can you both agree on? If one person is making more money, does that mean the other should pick up more of the domestic load or should your jobs be equally valued?

If you do get married — don’t stop talking about these issues even if you think you’ve sorted them out. One study, published in the Journal of Marriage and Family in 1999, showed that even among couples who had previously lived together, marriage created a shift into more traditional gender roles. So be proactive: Don’t have these conversations just once or twice—check in often.

Most of all, don’t let your partner convince you that you just care more about these issues or are better at them. Anyone can vacuum, and everyone should.

Feminist author & columnist. Native NYer, pasta enthusiast.

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