Lazy Husbands and Martyred Wives

Joyce Wayne recommends altering the household chores equation to address a common issue of lazy husbands among retired couples.

It’s been fifty years since we’ve been talking the talk about men holding up their end of household tasks. You know what I’m referring to:  cooking, cleaning, laundry and minding the kids. Sharing the responsibilities. But in study after study, results are proving otherwise. If we leave things this way the sorry situation of lazy husbands and martyred wives won’t change and the next generations of retirees will face the same inequalities that we do.

Men aren’t doing their share although the vast majority of women are working outside the home.  In Canada and in developed countries around the globe, pretty well everyone acknowledges that it takes two incomes to prosper in the 21st century, but somehow that reality hasn’t made a difference when it comes to sharing household chores or raising children.

According to Britain’s The Economist, “in every rich country except Israel the total fertility rate is below 2.1 —the level required to keep the population stable.” Women aren’t having kids because the burden of child-rearing falls on their shoulders;  the cost of raising children in Europe is calculated at 20 to 30 per cent of household income;  and switched-on couples can’t afford the mortgage for a home in the urban metropolis of their choice.

All good reasons why women aren’t marrying or having kids or as The Economist’s headline put it: Women “in rich countries can be coaxed into having more children. But lazy husbands and lovely cities stand in the way.”

The implication for future retirees is that the tax base won’t be there to support government pensions or soaring health care costs.  It’s easy to envision a world where older singles are sequestered in sub-standard care facilities without grown children to advocate for them or enliven their passage through the final years.  There’s a creepy dystopian quality to this vision that’s not easy to dismiss.

Right now, the majority of women my age that I know are still doing the lion’s share of the housework and cooking, which can’t be setting a great example for those in the child-bearing years. In my house, there is a strict delineation of chores.  My better half cleans the house and clears the table, while I’m responsible for the grocery shopping, meal planning and cooking, right down to grilling on the backyard barbeque. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t —and it doesn’t seem to be the optimum solution.  How about sharing, half and half, where we’re responsible for a more egalitarian running of the home?

Back in the eighties when my friends were having babies, it was de riguer to stay at work until the going into labour.  That demonstrated to everyone how tough you were. Six weeks later you returned to work often with baby in a basket beside your desk, or a tiny infant in daycare, or if you were wealthy enough, with a nanny at home.

In any case, your husband was off the hook and often stayed free and clear through the child-rearing years. Every time a friend of mine, a best-selling author and journalist, traveled on business, she prepared a 20-pound turkey for her husband and young son. That way they wouldn’t starve while she was out and about.

From conversations I’m having now with women thirty years my junior, nothing much has changed.  One accomplished, professional women told me that after bringing baby home from the maternity ward, her husband insisted he sleep in the rec room so he wouldn’t be disturbed by night feedings.

In a recent article, “Millennial Men Aren’t the Dads They Thought They’d Be,” The New York Times reported that the roles of men between the ages of 18 and their early thirties are becoming increasingly traditional. Among affluent couples, the disparity is more exacerbated than among the less wealthy.

Men with good-paying jobs start out believing they’ll help out at home, but over time, their contribution diminishes, even when their wives are working. “Surveys of college-educated professionals by the Center for Talent Innovation, a research group on work and talent development, found that among millennial men without children, 24 per cent expected to shoulder most of the child care responsibilities. Of those with children, only 8 per cent did.”

With working-class women the picture is different. According to The Times, they believe that their men, whose jobs are disappearing faster than the polar ice cap, can never be counted on to bring home a steady pay cheque or do their share of domestic labour.

In retirement domestic tasks don’t diminish in importance. When couples spend significantly more time together at home, an unequal division of labour can take its toll on long-standing relationships. If your partner is accustomed to having you do most or all the household chores for the last forty years, it’s challenging to redesign a pattern that is emulated by a younger generation of men. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try.

The question becomes: how can retirees alter the chores equation?  Here are some suggestions:

1.      Don’t be a martyr.  If you’re sick and tired of doing more than your share of errands, cleaning and cooking, communicate with your partner rather than building up resentment.

2.      Try divvying up the chores in a professional manner by making a list and a schedule. Your partner will object most vociferously to this method, but selling this idea is the path to success. Routines work.

3.      Don’t correct your partner if he is trying.  Even if the steak is overdone or the kitchen floor streaked with stains, if he’s giving it his all, that’s what counts.

4.      Don’t make unreasonable demands.  If your partner is going to attempt something new like cooking dinner, offer simple suggestions for a one-pot dinner and not a four-course meal for guests.

5.      If you are freeing up time for yourself, make good use of it.  If you want to exercise or read or paint, actually do it, rather than complaining about how you don’t have the time or energy to embark on a new project.

6.      Don’t be afraid of turning mundane chores into special times.  My dream is to share the chores with my partner.  Cooking together can be fun and creative and lead to more shared interests.

I’d love to hear back from readers about your experiences and observations.  Email me at or leave a comment on this website.

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