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A Look on the Light Side: July 30, 2010

Women’s Work

Everyone knows that women’s work is never done. But my question is, what makes it women’s work, in the first place?

Why is it that, the first day in our new house, I automatically dusted and vacuumed every horizontal surface, while my husband, just as automatically, went to the hardware store for hammer and nails, and took the trash to the curb? Why is it we both assume the long distance driving is his job, whereas as soon as our vows were exchanged, it became my job to remember all the birthdays and anniversaries in his family – even for people I’d never met? Perhaps younger couples now work things out differently, but for the two of us, it’s not as if we ever even discussed it (“Okay, honey, I’ll do the holiday cards if you’ll trim the hedge.”) We both just fell into it – as if genetically pre-ordained.

Part of the problem, I think, is that once you’re in a relationship, unused abilities atrophy. For example, when I lived alone in my studio apartment, I did everything for myself: I did the dusting (well, sometimes); I took out the trash; whenever a light bulb needed changing, I called the super. Yet no sooner did I acquire a husband and a house than I lost the ability to open bottle tops, and my husband forgot he ever knew how to order pizza.

As near as I can determine the jurisdictions, they break down like this:

Women’s Jobs:

Cooking things

Cleaning things

Putting things away

Men’s Jobs:

Fixing things

Killing things

Attaching things to walls (with anything more permanent than masking tape).

And there do seem to be a few rules:

Rule #1: Any task that is doomed, by its nature, to need redoing before the day is out, is “women’s work.”

When a man does a job, apparently, it better stay done. That’s why trash is men’s work. Once it’s out of the house, it stays out... whereas no sooner have you washed up the plates from breakfast than you have to start all over again with lunch. No wonder it’s women who try not to eat at all, or, if we must, then yogurt from a disposable container. Some days, you’ll do anything not to wash another dish.

Rule #2: If a man IS stuck doing “women’s work,” he will invent a machine that takes care of it in nothing flat.

I realized this the day I watched my contractor’s vacuum, sucking up dust; wood; chunks of plaster bigger than a baby’s head.... It would have ripped the arm right off my body if I’d left it too close to that nozzle. Versus me with my powder blue canister, trying to persuade myself I can see the difference after half an hour in the same spot. Only a man, apparently, will want to get the job done in less than a day.

Rule #3: Any job which, when done inside is “women’s work,” becomes men’s work when performed outside.

My friend Joan says, “My husband’s idea of cooking is pouring the syrup on his own toaster waffles. But put him in front of a grill and he’s America’s Top Chef!” I witnessed this transformation myself, last July 4. No sooner had we arrived at the picnic than Joan’s husband took my husband out back for initiation into the mysteries of charring burgers. All went well, until halfway through the job, the propane ran out. Then somehow, as Joan and I hustled platters of half-cooked burgers back into the kitchen, the men disappeared. Apparently, cooking the OUTER half of the hamburger was their job; the rest was up to us.

We pitched the burgers straight into the garbage, of course (which we left for the men to dispose of). I don’t know what they ate, that night. But Joan and I survived. Fortunately for us, we had retained the ability to order pizza.

For help with your barbecue, don’t call Judy Epstein! For anything else, she’d love to hear from you at alookonthelightside.com.