Spouse Kids Friends and Hired Professionals: One of the most delicious ways to avoid household cleaning is to get somebody else to do it. The work gets done, and you don’t have to lift a finger.
Now, I know I’m sauntering into tricky territory that’s rife with gender-powered land mines. That’s because, historically, women have done far more of the housecleaning than men. We all know why-back in the Ozzie-and-Harriet days women stayed home and vacuumed the living room twice a day in their pearls and high heels. Several decades later, two career couples are the norm, but women are still typecast as the primary housekeepers.
The situation is improving, though. University of Maryland research shows that women’s hours spent at housework were cut in half between 1965 and 1995, while men’s housework hours doubled. Research released in 2005, however, indicates that women on average are still doing 61 percent of the household cleaning. And they’re really, really steamed about that.
So in this article we’ll examine how to get your significant other to do more cleaning-particularly if he’s doing an insignificant amount of it. And I’m here to tell you that you can achieve this and still have your relationship intact at the end of the day. (In the unlikely event that you happen to be male and carry an unfair
workload, this advice will work for you, too. Just switch the pronouns around.) We’ll also examine how to get the kids to provide more cleaning help. And remember, hiring professionals to clean your home is actually a reasonable approach for many beleaguered couples.
ESCAPING THE GENDER TRAP
If you want help with cleaning the house, you’re going to have to ask for it. There is a whole complex of reasons why you got stuck with an unfair share of the cleaning. To turn the situation around will require a little gumption and some communication skills-applied in the right place, at the right time.
First, consider this news flash: Men and women are different! Apparently, you and your spouse are on different planets, looking at the cleaning issue through two vastly different lenses. Do not expect your spouse to share your priorities for cleaning, to use the same methods you would use, or to clean to your specifications.
“Men don’t see dirt the same way that women do,” says Sandra Beckwith, the author of Why Can’t a Man Be More Like a Woman? If children spill a little fruit juice in front of the refrigerator, a woman will leap for the paper towels. The spill will make enough of an impression on the husband so that he avoids stepping in it, but it won’t register as something that needs to be cleaned up. “I think it’s truly a genetic thing-their brains aren’t wired to see it,” Beckwith says.
Upbringing also is a factor. Many girls are brought up with housekeeping woven into their play, whereas boys emulate Dad sitting on the couch watching sports. Thus gender stereotypes get perpetuated.
Here are other ways that men and women differ when it comes to cleaning:
PRIORITIES. A clean and tidy home is not a priority for men. Women know that cleanliness in the home is better for health and that furnishings last longer when they’re clean. Women in general are more attuned to health issues and are usually the health-care brokers in the home.
RESEARCH. Women will read instructions on the label of a disinfecting cleaner. Men will just use the product-or ask a woman how to.
TECHNIQUE. Men approach a cleaning task like a military assault. Beckwith pictures a guy entering the bathroom wearing goggles and a bulletproof vest, a sponge in one hand and a spray bottle in the other. He sprays everything in sight, wipes quickly, and backs out fast. Women will take several cleaning products and tools into the bathroom for different purposes, and will do the cleaning slowly and methodically.
ATTENTION. Men come equipped with special filters that prevent certain information from reaching the brain. Hard as it is to believe, your spouse may truly not know where the mop is.
ASKING YOUR SPOUSE FOR HELP
Once you appreciate the gender differences with respect to cleaning, you’re ready to ask for more help. “You’re going to be resentful, tired, and cranky if you’re doing it all yourself,” says Susan Newman, Ph.D., a social psychologist at Rutgers University and author of The Book of No: 250 Ways to Say It-and Mean It. “If he doesn’t see that, you’re going to have to tell him-that you’re not his maid.”
If you’re newly married, it’s important that you and your mate have a full and frank discussion about dividing up the household chores evenly, says Jen Singer, a parenting writer and a stay-at-home mom. Think of it this way-you’re establishing patterns that will last for decades. It’s a lot easier to agree on an equitable division of labor in the glow of an early relationship than it will be to change entrenched habits years from now. Furthermore, if you take on too much of the cleaning, you’re going to be overwhelmed when you have children. So make a detailed list of all of the cleaning duties that need to be done in the home and divide them up-each of you getting some chores you enjoy, as well as some that are nasty. Chart out who’s going to do each duty and how often it will be done.
If you’ve been married for years, and it’s time to redistribute the workload, plot out in advance the discussion points you want to make, approach your spouse in an rational state of mind, and spell out the housework situation-what needs doing and who’s currently doing what. Tell your spouse that the workload looks uneven, and tell him how that makes you feel, says Beckwith. (Pop quiz: Which phrase is less emotionally charged: “burdened” or “pissed off’?) Remark that it looks as if he had more leisure time than you do-you want extra time to spend with your husband and less time vacuuming. Ask which duties he would like to take on-and let him decide. Again, it will help if the two of you work together to make a list of the cleaning chores, assign your name or his name to each task, and note how frequently each will be done.
Following are other ways to make sure that cleaning chores shift from your to-do list to your spouse’s.
MAKE YOUR WORK VISIBLE Does your spouse have a Magic Underwear Drawer? He puts used undies into a hamper and clean ones materialize in the dresser! No, no, no. You need to find subtle ways to remind your spouse of all of the work you do, says Singer. So if you’re going to launder his clothes, deliver his laundry in a basket to the bedroom-but let him put everything away. Also, when the two of you are relaxing in the den in the evening, having the “How did your day go?” discussion, don’t hesitate to list all of the cleaning chores you accomplished. You did the work, so take the credit.
PICK THE RIGHT TIME Discuss your need for more help at a time when your spouse won’t be distracted or resentful-not while he’s watching his favorite sports team on television and not the moment he gets home from work and needs to unwind. Otherwise, an angry undercurrent will scuttle your discussion.
PROVIDE TRAINING Women often know exactly how to perform cleaning functions, but men often don’t, Beckwith says. Tell your spouse the key things he needs to know about loading the dishwasher, for instance. (“There are men who load the dishwasher with the glasses face up,” she says.) Make sure he knows where the detergent is, how much to put into the dispenser, and how to operate the controls. Provide any training by showing how it’s done-not telling.
LOWER YOUR STANDARDS This may sound condescending, but it’s not. Some women’s standards for cleaning are “ridiculously high,” says Beckwith. If you criticize your spouse’s cleaning efforts or redo his work, he’ll quit helping. Be happy that some amount of cleaning was accomplished, even if it’s not the way you would have done it.
STICK TO YOUR GUNS If your spouse is supposed to handle a particular cleaning task and he doesn’t get around to it, don’t do it for him, says Newman. That’s a trap: The workload will drift back to the same old inequitable arrangement.
SCHEDULE THE WORK Your grandmother probably had a rigid schedule for housekeeping duties-there was a wash day and an ironing day each week, for instance. Modern homemakers tend to approach their tasks randomly as they find the time, says Singer-and that often means that work piles up undone. Small, self-imposed deadlines will help you and your spouse keep up with the work. For instance, Singer makes sure she has all of the breakfast dishes put away in the dishwasher before the kids leave for school in the morning, and she changes the bed sheets every Tuesday.
PRAISE AND REWARD No matter how lacking your spouse’s cleaning effort might have been, find something nice to say about the job-and throw in a reward: “Wow, shiny bathroom faucets! Why don’t we drop the housework for now and go to a movie?”
GET SELECTIVE WITH YOUR CLEANING If you’re having trouble making your point about needing help, ensure that any duties that specifically affect your husband get done last or not at all-washing his clothes, sorting his socks, and picking up his shirts from the dry-cleaner, for instance. “Sorry about that, Herb-I had to vacuum the entire house today by myself.”
TRY EXTORTION If your spouse is reluctant to do his share of the cleaning, says Beckwith, hire a housekeeper to alleviate the burden-once every 2 weeks might be all the relief you need. Also, take the family’s dirty clothes to an outside laundry for cleaning and folding. Hire a cook for a day to prepare a week’s worth of meals (do an Internet search for “personal chef services.”) If your spouse objects to these expenses, remind him that you’ve been asking for help. This will motivate your spouse to do more.
SANTA, RELATIVES, AND FRIENDS
During the gift-giving holidays in many industrialized countries, consumer spending goes into absurd hyperdrive. How many more scarves, gloves, and ties can our closets handle? How many more swirling, chopping, and grilling gizmos can we cram into our pantries? Do you really need a cell phone, iPod, or digital camera that’s only one generation improved over the one you already have? Here’s a thought that will help return some sanity to gift giving: Why don’t we redirect some of that spending in a way that will lighten our cleaning workload and thereby relieve some stress-particularly around the holidays?
Imagine this scenario: A couple decides that rather than dumping money into unneeded jewelry and neck wear for Christmas, they will spend a couple hundred dollars on a cleaning service that will scour the household from top to bottom. They have it done in mid-December and can entertain guests hassle-free during the coming weeks.
Or try this variation: You and your spouse decide to have a cleaning service visit your home once a month during the coming year. Start up a cleaning kitty, tossing in some of that cash you would have spent on unnecessary merchandise. Invite your in-laws to contribute as well (in lieu of the annual fruitcake gift).
Singer remembers fondly when she was a totally exhausted mom with a baby and a toddler in the house. Her mother took pity on her and hired a cleaning service to do a thorough, top-to-bottom cleaning of the house. That left only light maintenance cleaning for weeks to come.
The yellow pages and the Internet will put you in touch with professional house cleaners in your vicinity. However, the most reliable way to find a good house cleaner is word of mouth, says Judi Sturgeon, a professional house cleaner and home health aid based in Ambler, Pennsylvania. Ask your friends, neighbors, and coworkers for the names of people who do excellent work.
There’s one big warning in this gift-giving business, notes Beckwith, and it returns to the issue of gender differences: Under no circumstances should a man give a woman a cleaning device or a kitchen appliance-unless she specifically asks for it. Men sometimes forget this crucial detail because they like practical gifts.
LITTLE PEOPLE, BIG HELPERS
Do your kids drift dreamily through family life like wealthy guests at a sun-drenched beach resort? Do they toss dirty shirts into the corner of the room only to have them reappear fresh and clean on a closet hanger the next day? Do they have a clue how to open the dishwasher? Do they turn green and yell “Mom!” at the first glimpse of cat vomit?
As long as you’re redistributing the cleaning duties in the home, include the kids in the process. From a mercenary point of view, children are a good source of low- or no-cost labor. But they need to learn how to clean for their own good as well, says Newman. You’re training them to be competent adults.
FINDING THE RIGHT WORDS
Explain to your kids that cleaning the house is one of the things they have to do as a member of the family. Most children have no idea what life is like with in other families, so you actually have a free hand in deciding how yours will operate. “If you set patterns and standards, this is what they grow up with and this is the way they think life is. As a parent, this is your prerogative,” says Newman.
Explain to your children the problems involved in keeping the house clean, and involve them in finding solutions. They’ll take more ownership of those solutions and participate more willingly. As with your spouse, make sure your children have the tools and the training they need to do each cleaning job well.
You will probably get occasional whining, back talk, and dragging of feet. But be firm on these points, says Newman: Tell them no is not an answer, and that later is not an option. Say, “We’re your parents. We’re not your friends. You can tell a friend you’re not going to play, but you can’t tell your parents you’re not going to pitch in.”
Most children are very adaptable, and they have a strong desire to please their parents, Newman says. “If a parent just says, ‘I need help,’ that often will get a child to pitch in.” When you praise their efforts, they’ll be more willing to participate, too.
Put the kids’ duties on a chart in a prominent place-on the wall in the kitchen, for instance. Include in the chart the chore to be done, the child who will do it, and the day it’s to be done. (When possible, use classy names for the duties-“Chef’s helper,” for instance.) To prevent squabbling, rotate these responsibilities weekly or monthly.
When the kids do their jobs, keep your feedback positive. Don’t fret if a T-shirt isn’t folded just so or they missed a dust bunny in the corner of the living room. “Don’t get too hung up on quality,” says Beckwith. “You have to lower your standards once in a while or your head will explode.”
Should you reward your children for cleaning? Theories about this vary widely from family to family. One reasonable approach: Establish a specific set of basic duties for your children that they will not be rewarded for-that work is just part of being a family member. If the kids get their basic chores done and do extra cleaning as well, that deserves a reward-money, extra privileges, treats, or a movie.
APPEAL TO THEIR PLAYFUL SPIRITS
Kids are naturally fun-loving creatures. They’ll help you clean the house more readily if there are playful aspects built into the work. Try some the following approaches.
PLAY BEAT THE CLOCK Set a timer for 10 minutes and tell your kids, “If we can get this room clean before the timer goes off, we’ll go out for ice cream.” You might not even have to use a reward system, says Sturgeon-often kids just like racing against the clock.
MAKE IT A TEAM SPORT Children will enthusiastically help with the cleaning if they’re competing against others, says Beckwith. Have your spouse take one child to clean the upstairs bathroom while you have another child cleaning the downstairs bathroom. Provide each team with a checklist of tasks to accomplish and the tools to do the job-then shout, “Go!”
STRIKE UP THE BAND Lively music will inspire your kids to keep moving as they clean. Crank up the stereo or let them wear their iPods.
GET SILLY To make the chores more fun, break out the Halloween costumes and let each person dress up in an absurd outfit while you all clean. Try this while you rake leaves in the front yard-the neighbors will giggle about it for years.
TURN TOOLS INTO TOYS Let children have fun with their cleaning tools. Some kids like to play with the bubbles while they wash dishes in the sink, for instance, and others enjoy writing their names in the bathtub with foamy cleaner.
Now you are fully equipped to call in reinforcements. Sure, some of your family members may be touchy about taking on more cleaning; but you have feelings, too, and you deserve relief. An extra pair of hands around the house is too great an asset to ignore.
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