“Who does the cooking?” they asked, waggling their eyebrows, as I microwaved my leftovers. I was in the office kitchen preparing to eat lunch along with several older female colleagues when the topic of domestic labor came up. I am newly married, and I think they were trying to make a point. Each time they ask, I explain that my husband and I share housework fifty-fifty. The response is usually the same: a dubious, wide-eyed “how does that work?”
These conversations with older women in my sphere happen often—probably once every few weeks. The frequency and the consistent shock they express at the idea of shared home labor indicates a gaping crevasse between the feminist ideals championed by my mother’s generation and their experience of domestic life. And, since most of these women have children my age and still regard egalitarian households as a novelty, I think this is perhaps not the norm for their children either.
By contrast, couples in my peer network tend to share parenting responsibilities and domestic chores to a greater extent than I have observed in any previous generation. In fact, in most of the Gen Y couples I know, “she” can’t cook and hardly attempts to, but “he” loves cooking and therefore does most of it. Those who have kids do their best to share parenting responsibilities, as much as restrictive labor market dynamics and the social norms of our society allow. Memes mocking the idea that dads “babysit” their own children when mom are busy are a regular feature on my newsfeed. “It’s called parenting!” dads comment incredulously.
I went to empowering girls-only schools and was mostly raised by a highly competent single dad. After leaving home, I lived with friends for seven years. So when I got married, I was already very capable of running a household and anticipated an equitable distribution of housework in my marriage. I made this expectation clear to my now-husband, who grew up with a stay-at-home mom and a maid, and who hadn’t lived long out of his parents’ home. Splitting our domestic labor has been a learning curve for him, but he’s been willing.
Beyond just being the right thing to do, this household ethic fits the Bible’s outline for marriage. Ecclesiastes 4:9 reads: “two are better than one, because they have a good return for their labor: If either of them falls down, one can help the other up. But pity anyone who falls and has no one to help them up.” Two are better than one, and marriage is about being there to help each other up, to share the load so the other doesn’t collapse under too much weight.
It’s easy to intellectually believe this, but it’s hard to hold it firmly in my heart. In spite of my egalitarian values and upbringing, I still frequently feel ashamed for not being more of a domestic goddess. It’s like there’s a finger-pointing, 1950s housewife in an apron and heels in the back of my mind, chastising me for not doing enough for my husband. If he walks out of the house with a slightly crumpled work shirt or unconventional lunch, I feel an irrational stab of panic that his colleagues will judge me for neglecting him. I am anxious even though he is a grown man and perfectly capable of ironing (or not) his own shirts and making lunch for himself!
I have yet to work out where this voice comes from, but it indicates that, even as a full-time working, feminist, Gen Y woman, I am still subject to highly gendered social norms regarding housework. And apparently, I’m far from the only modern woman to experience this strangely incongruent sense of guilt. Across the English-speaking world, three themes consistently emerge in current research on this topic.
First, no matter how much women in cohabiting relationships do paid work, they still end up doing more housework—and worrying more about housework—than their male partners. Second, women simply care more about an ordered home than men. They internalize responsibility for the state of their homes as a key part of their identity and value—even when they disagree with this idea in principle. Third, this deeply ingrained sense of responsibility for running the household means that when domestic labor is evenly distributed between them and their partners, women feel more stressed and guilty.1
Few Bible passages have been so twisted to shame and pressure Christian women as Proverbs 31. The passage describes a married woman who successfully manages a household and runs a business. She is independent, innovative, and hard-working. And yet, she has become the poster-woman of evangelical femininity—a symbol of perfectly manicured homes, delicious home-cooked meals, and endless, saint-like service to others.
The Proverbs 31 woman, with her noble character and fear of the Lord, can be a great role model for joyful industriousness. Yet for many Christian women, she’s the face of the apron-wearing, fifties housewife in their heads, telling them they should always be doing more. God doesn’t want women to feel inadequate or carry heavy burdens. But even when we know that, it can still be hard to shut out the voice that whispers: we’re not enough.
So how do we address the gap between women’s egalitarian beliefs and their lived experience? How do we deal with the guilt and shame and stress? First, we examine our own thought-life and emotions and expose unhelpful (and unbiblical) patterns of thinking in this area. If we identify beliefs that are incongruent with our egalitarian values, we need to expose them and work through them as we would with any other schema or self-destructive script—with personal reflection, biblical study, prayer, wise counsel, and potentially even therapy if their hold on our lives is dire and unrelenting.
Once we get a handle on the conflicting messages and expectations that cause us to feel deficient, we need to sit down with our spouses and together review our “rulebook” for household management. What absolutely has to be done? What can we let slide? And who does what, when? The most important question is: are our expectations regarding housework, lifestyle, and domestic routine in line with our professed values? If not, let’s rewrite them and commit to keeping each other accountable.
Finally, as in everything, we women need to be kinder to ourselves, reduce our unrelenting standards, listen to those who love us more than those who judge us, and treat ourselves with the same patience and grace as our Heavenly Father.
1. Oliver Burkeman, “Dirty secret: why is there still a housework gender gap?”, The Guardian, Feb. 2018. Naomi Larsson, “Guilt over household chores is ‘harming working women’s health’”, The Guardian, Feb. 2018. Leah Ruppanner, “Census 2016: Women still disadvantaged by the amount of unpaid housework they do, census data shows”, The Conversation, April 2017.