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Job equity (or, what's fair is fair)

By Erika Federmann

I live in a standard-issue colonial home, not a mansion. Not even a "Mc-Mansion." Our house doesn't have huge bathrooms, cathedral ceilings or lots of fancy woodwork. But it does have four bedrooms and three bathrooms, which become shockingly filthy when used by two adults and two preschool boys. Enter Tami, our cleaning lady. She isn't a "maid" or a "housekeeper;" she's simply a mother with two teenage sons in private schools who comes over every other week to clean our house while we're not in it. For ten minutes, the entire house is clean. Then I come home with my two boys, the dog goes out and comes back in with her muddy feet—and the house starts to get messy again. Two weeks later, it's ready for another visit from Tami.

A cleaning lady? How decadent! You stay home all day. Are you lazy or something?

Well, no, I'm not lazy. I spend quite a bit of time each day simply keeping the house from becoming a total pigsty. And I did try to do everything myself for awhile. It was easy when I only had one son and he still took two-hour naps every day. I could clean the entire house with no problem -- kitchen, bathrooms, dusting, vacuuming, you name it. But then I had another baby… and at the same time, my older son quit taking naps. So, I tried to clean the house while my baby took a nap and my older son tried to "help." Of course, he was only two years old -- still capable of drowning in the bucket of floor-washing water, not to mention ingesting some of the cleaning supplies that came in handy squirt bottles. But I tried. I really did. I tried to be a fascinating companion to my children while also doing all of the grocery shopping, laundry cooking, and cleaning. And then I woke up.

Why the hell am I doing all of this... by myself?

And I wondered: where exactly is it written that women who decide to become stay-at-home mommies automatically get to do all of the housework too? I mean, before we had kids my husband and I shared a lot of our household chores. He helped with the cleaning and the laundry; sometimes he would do the grocery shopping. The reality is that we didn't eat as much or get the house as dirty because we weren't home all that much. We were at work. Most of our clothes were dry-clean only; we had two, maybe three loads of laundry a week, tops. On weekends, we could clean the house in no time flat because it never really got that dirty.

But then I left my paid job to be "home" all day -- you know, not doing anything much… just taking care of a couple of kids. And suddenly, I found myself doing all of the housework -- not just doing it, but struggling to get the entire house clean at one time, which was completely impossible with two kids and a dog underfoot all day long. How did I get from Women's Studies classes to this?!?

Somehow I got caught up in the notion that because I was home all day it made sense for me to do all of the housework. After all, my husband was busy working, busy making enough income to sustain four people. He was now supporting me financially, and in return, I would provide a household that was the picture of domesticity.


And then I really thought about it. Our growing family had increased our household chores by more than one hundred percent. Yet these chores were now handled primarily by one person. Me. And I wondered how my husband had transformed from a man who used to help with the laundry to a daddy who had suddenly forgotten how to use the washing machine.

Something was rotten, and it wasn't the moldy cheese in my dirty refrigerator.

To be fair to my husband, the housecleaning predicament happened at a time when he was traveling nonstop for work. He was gone most of the week -- and the last thing he wanted to do on the weekends was clean the house. In addition, he handled a host of other home maintenance projects, like cleaning the gutters, replacing furnace filters, adding salt to the water softener, etc. Somewhere in between, he managed to spend some time with me and the kids.

But the cleaning issue still irked me -- especially when my husband commented about the house not being as clean as it probably could be. It wasn't totally gross, mind you, but it wasn't spotless. I had long since stopped being bothered by it because I was home all day and knew what it looked like after my son came in the house wearing his muddy boots, or the dog came in from the rain and snuggled up on our couch. My husband never knew exactly how messy our house really got during the day because he wasn't around to see it. I cleaned up the major dog and kid messes before he got home -- in addition to picking up the general toy clutter -- and he never saw the big soiled picture, so to speak. I figured that since we weren't living in a total health hazard, my time would be better spent reading stories to our children instead of cleaning out my kitchen cupboards…or wiping fingerprints off a door that would be covered with them two minutes later.

But the varying degrees of cleanliness in our house did bother my husband…and his critique of my housekeeping skills irritated me. So I gave him his options. He could: A) Continue living in a house where the rooms were in various stages of cleanliness; B) Help me clean the house each week; or C) Pay for someone to help with the cleaning. He chose C. I found Tami, and we've all been happy ever since.

I am not a "home-maker." My husband lives here too, and he gets to help make our house a clean, comfortable home just as much as I do. If I still had a paying job, people wouldn't think twice about my having a cleaning lady. But you know what? There isn't some law that requires stay-at-home mommies to do all of the housework. And if daddy doesn't want to share the house cleaning responsibilities with mommy, then mommy should be free to find someone else to help. Even if it means paying that helper.

Fair is fair, after all. Mommy is already working a full-time, 24-hour-a-day job with no pay. Cooking, cleaning, grocery shopping. At some point, something's gotta give. For now, in our family, it's the cleaning. Soon, I'll reintroduce my husband to our fabulous new washing machine. He's ready. It's time.

mmo : november 2005

Erika Federmann has been a stay-at-home mother for almost seven years and has two active boys, ages four and six. Before joining the ranks of the mommy track, she spent 10 years as a communication consultant for an international human resources consulting firm. She currently lives in Hudson, Ohio, where she writes about the experience of being a modern stay-at-home mom.
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