Woman’s Work

My son, who is five, is far more interested in housework than my daughter, who is eight, has ever been.  Although my son has a fantastic imagination, he is grounded right where he is.  He wants to know the how and the why of everything that surrounds him. If he sees me or his father doing something, he wants to know how it is done and if he can help.  On a recent evening, for example, he brought his dishes to the sink of his own accord, rinsed them off, put the plates in the dishwasher and the plastic yogurt container in the recycling.  At his age, his sister would have left her dishes on the table, surrounded by small plastic horses, disembodied mermaid tails, and scraps of glittery paper, until they grew a crust so thick they were unidentifiable.  Or her brother cleaned them up.

I love it that my boy wants to clean—partly because he is starting to make my life a little easier, but also because he is living proof that keeping track of your surroundings is not a trait that requires an XX stamped on your chromosomes.  A quick glance at any toy catalog might lead you to a different conclusion.  There, on the slick and shiny pages, you will find many a cheerful girl standing next to a miniature pink vacuum cleaner or a pink and white replica of kitchen appliances.  Only rarely does she have a cheerful boy as her companion. For the most part, boys stand next to green and yellow plastic lawnmowers or bright red wheelbarrows or, of course, cars and tractors.  Catalog boys might don a chef’s hat and stand next to their sisters in the play kitchen area, but they wouldn’t in a million years be caught holding a mop.

When I noticed that my son had some interest in household tasks, I bought him one of those play plastic cleaning sets—a green and yellow one, with a mop.  Now, it is true that he spends a great deal of time zooming the wheeled cart through the house, or taking the mop and broom apart so that he can use their handles to bash various things.  But he ALSO uses the cleaning supplies to help me clean.  It was a most auspicious day in his life when I allowed him to use a little Murphy’s oil soap on his mop, and clean his own spot on the floor.  He might not still be helping me mop when he’s fifteen—I admit, around here I clean and my husband mows, so my son might be mowing as a teenager rather than mopping—but I intend to make sure he knows how it should be done.  And how a house should be dusted, and a dinner should be made, and sheets should be cleaned and changed.  I will do these things for his own sake—just as my father taught me the basics of car maintenance when I was a young woman—and also for the sake of my future daughter-in-law, if I have one.  Imagine the joy she will feel when her husband dusts an entire room, including wooden chair legs and the nooks and crannies of tables.

Until and unless we teach our children that all of us—boys and girls, men and women—are responsible for feeding ourselves and cleaning up our own messes, women, whether they work outside the home or not, are going to do the bulk of the work inside the home.  (There always seems to be a study going on to measure this stuff.) This practice is a vestige of the days when most women didn’t work outside the home.  When women left home for the workplace in droves, they were so busy making a place for themselves in a traditionally male arena that they didn’t have time to make sure there was a place for their husbands in a traditionally female arena.  So, instead—they did it all, in half the time.  Sometimes they (we) screamed about it, or grumbled about it, or cried about it.  Sometimes they (we) were fortunate enough to find a partner who listened, who grew into his role in the home, or, more fortunate still, we found a partner who already understood what needed to be done, and did it without being asked or begged, without begrudging the work of his home.  Sometimes we didn’t realize just how much the men were doing—mowing and fixing cars and calling plumbers—and sometimes we did those things too, or we learned to do them as our husbands learned to make dinner.

We’re living in a time of transition, in which women and men are still figuring out how best to share the labor of the workplace and the home.  And many of us have found a system that works.  But I fear that most of us are still teaching our boys that playing with kitchen sets and cleaning sets is good training for a girl (I’ve known men who get upset at the very idea of their toddler sons becoming fascinated with the pink knobs of a play kitchen set), and of no real interest to a boy.  On the other hand, no one seems to mind if a little girl pushes a plastic lawn mower around.  Training for life skills starts at home, and it starts young.  My son might become a surly teenager who doesn’t want to help around the house, but for now, we’re encouraging his natural instincts to do useful things.   As for my daughter…her most recent thoughts on the matter came during a recent visit to my parents’ house.  As my mother was teaching my kids the steps involved in putting a plant into a pot, my son eagerly absorbed all the information and followed instructions, even getting ahead of the plan once or twice.  When my mother noted that Audrey (my daughter) wasn’t doing much, Audrey replied, “I never do anything!”

For the sake of Audrey’s dorm room and first apartment, I sincerely hope that her father and I can train her to notice her surroundings and clean up the pigpen-like detritus of beads, glitter, scraps of paper, and crumbs that she leaves behind.  Failing that, we shall just hope that she marries a man who will patiently explain to her the steps involved in dusting a room.

7 thoughts on “Woman’s Work

  1. Brooke Soderholm says:

    I am so thankful to have Danny who does so much around the house! I have really noticed the last couple of days how much he does. It is really hard for me to keep it all up.

    V and C follow a very similar pattern to A and N. Christian likes order and keeps a clean room and V lives in a tornado of a room. I was like that as a kid too, but in college, I was the cleanest roommate. I think it was because I knew how much it bothered my mom (my parents cleaned with me on so many occasions, but after a while we switched over to a keep your door closed policy) and I didn’t want to do it to other people who couldn’t close the door. Unfortunately, I am not always so clean now, but I think it is because I know that Danny loves me regardless of my messy bedroom.


  2. Kim says:

    These things do matter. When my nephew was very little, his parents made sure that he had a cooking set to play with. He always wanted to play with the one at his grandmother’s house, so why not? And you know what? Now that he’s a pre-teen, my brother tells me that he makes a point of fixing breakfast for his folks on occasion…


  3. Erin says:

    Thanks for covering this. Recently, I was sitting among a group of mothers as we watched our toddlers play. One mom commented that her husband was worried about their son as he was attracted to the “girl” toys – brooms, vacuums, etc. I responded that toddlers are essentially asexual, that they know nothing of gender and gender norms. They’re attracted to whatever intrigues them. My comments fell on deaf ears, I could see she was actually very worried. I tried again – I pointed out, lightheartedly, that she often complained that her husband did nothing to help her in the home and here she had her own little trainee. It worked but the whole exchange made me sad. Why are so many women still willingly perpetuating these strict gender roles? Why don’t they want better, in this regard, for their children? Kudos to you for fostering your sons natural tendencies rather than forcing gender stereotypes on him!


    • Elizabeth Hall Magill says:

      Thanks for your thoughtful reply, Erin–Ive had a few playgroup experiences like that myself. I think women sometimes perpetuate traditional gender roles for a variety of reasons, including an inability to let go (thereby losing some control, and maybe not having things done they way they’d do them) and a belief, which has been trained into us, that we are supposed to be able to do everything, do it beautifully, and feel only joy in the process. Letting go is not my forte, when it comes to housework or much of anything else, but I’ve found that when I do…I’m always happy with the results. Today my husband cleaned the house to prepare for company while I took the kids bowling..and everyone was happy!


  4. Anne says:

    You make some salient points here. I’m a mother of two girls and intend fully on their being able to take care of themselves instead of depending on a man to complete certain household tasks for them. For a start, they have a toy tool set and workbench and toy trucks just like any boy.

    I also noticed at a recent craft booth I hosted that nearly as many boys as girls were willing to stitch up their own sachet bag to take home. That was a refreshing.


    • Elizabeth Hall Magill says:

      What a wonderful thing to do for your girls!! I do think some things are changing around gender roles in our culture–for example, Lowe’s has workshops for kids who are interested in building anything from a birdhouse to a toy wooden bus, and children of both genders are encouraged to attend and welcomed. (And girls now play alongside boys on many sports teams that used to be all male.) I think there’s more cultural resistance to boys doing “girl’s” tasks–such as cleaning–than girls doing “boy’s” tasks, such as building or fixing something. On the other hand, girls are taught to ignore tools and trucks just as much as boys are taught to ignore mops and kitchens–and you’re absolutely right that “thinking outside the box” needs to work both ways, so that every child can grow into a self-sufficient, well-informed adult.


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