Men! Help out at home — for your kids’ sake

To toot my own horn, I am a very competent person.  I’m not overwhelmingly good at any one thing, but I can do most things fairly well.  My kids get to see this competence in action.  I do a lot of my legal work from home, so they see me in professional mode.  I also do all of the household stuff:  I cook, clean, do laundry, maintain the pool, help with homework, run the carpools, volunteer at their schools and extracurricular activities, and am still knowledgeable enough to have an answer to most of their questions.

Mr. Bookworm is also a very competent person, a competence he brings to bear on his professional life.  In fact, I’d go even further and say that he is extremely good at what he does, and is very respected by his colleagues for his work.  On the home front, however, he embraces incompetence, a tactic I think he purposefully employs to avoid any type of house work.  “I don’t know how to clear the table.  You do it.”   “I don’t know how to put leftovers in the fridge.  You do it.”  “I don’t know where the dishes go.  You empty the dishwasher.”  “I can’t fold this.  You do it.”  And I do it because he works extremely hard, because I work out of the home anyway, and because, if I push him into doing whatever “it” is, he does it so badly I have to do it again anyway.  When the children were young, this helplessness infuriated me, because I really could have used the help.  Now that the kids are older, and I’m less exhausted, I’m perfectly capable of doing everything without him, so his inability (whether real or feigned) to help around the house doesn’t bother me at all.

It did occur to me, though, that Mr. Bookworm is making a mistake by using incompetence to avoid helping out around the house.  As a I noted at the start of this post, not only am I a competent person, but my kids get to see me being competent.  The same can’t be said for Mr. Bookworm and the kids.  They do not see him at the office, where he is incredibly good at what he does and holds a position of power and respect.  Instead, they only see him at home, flapping his hands ineffectually and complaining bitterly when asked to recover something from the fridge or tidy something up.  In other words, the Dad they see is someone helpless.

Nor can Mr. Bookworm fall back on larger cultural paradigms to elevate his status in the children’s eyes.  It’s true that, in the pre-feminist era, men didn’t help out at home either.  Back then, though, the dominant culture conspired to present men as powerful, effective, knowledgeable beings.  Whether the kids were watching The Brady Bunch, Leave it to Beaver, Father Knows Best, or Ozzie and Harriet, they were given to understand that, in the world outside the home, father was a very important man, too important to spend his time at home engaged in frivolous domestic tasks.  That cultural cushion doesn’t exist anymore.  In pop culture Dad is, as often as not, an idiot, frequently put in his place by his hip, clever children or much put-upon wife.  We don’t let our kids watch these demeaning (to parents) shows, but their ethos is the air, and the kids hear about them from other children.

As it is, I regularly try my best to make sure that my children understand that Daddy has an important job, and that he works long and hard for them.  I remind them that, although I contribute to the family economically, it his mostly his labor and time that enable us to live the quality suburban lifestyle we enjoy.   That’s very abstract, though.  They hear it, but what they see is a Daddy who does nothing — and in this way distinguishes himself even from the other neighborhood Dads, many of whom enjoy cooking, gardening, or other more visible domestic activities.

So Dads, if you think you’re being clever avoiding household work by relying on domestic incompetence, think again.  As a short term strategy to increase your down time, it may be a good thing, but as a long term strategy, you may be harming yourselves irreparably in your children’s eyes.

(By the way, I only just had this insight, and am working on a tactful way to bring it to Mr. Bookworm’s attention.  He adores the children and I think that, not only will it distress him once he realizes the path he’s taken, he may also act to change his approach to the very small number of domestic tasks I sometimes request of him.)


18 Responses

  1. “(By the way, I only just had this insight, and am working on a tactful way to bring it to Mr. Bookworm’s attention…)”

    My God, Book, I hope DonQ doesn’t manage to stumble accidentally upon your post! You never know when he might randomly and coincidentally stumble upon this wonderful website!


    Any day now I expect to see this post:
    Can you please pick up 4 lbs of chicken (breast only) and a side of cole slaw when you pick up the kids from soccer? I’d do it myself, but I’m in the middle of laundry. It *is* ok to mix whites with colors, as long as I add less than 1/2 a cup of Clorox, right?
    – posted by Don Quixote –

  2. Hey, Book. That Don and husband thing is getting to be a running joke now. Either that or I’m conditoned to expect it.

  3. Book,

    You said, “It’s true that, in the pre-feminist era, men didn’t help out at home either.”

    I take umbrage with that statement – (in a nice way). I was raised by my mother to be a Southern gentleman but I think I never met her expectations. However, even though I was an unregenerate atheist, I helped around the house while a child and after I was married. — Still do.

    I guess its just a Southern thing. 😉

    Yes, men — help out!!


  4. If only you knew what a wonderful woman DQ has as a wife — and, no, it’s not me. A more adoring couple I’ve never seen than DQ and Mrs. DQ. They are quite blessed and, even better, they know it.

    Jack, that is a nice testament to both your mother and you.

  5. Not just Southern, preacher!

    My Dad was a lot like Mr. BW….but Mom was determined
    that all of us kids were going to be both competent AND
    well-practiced at domestic stuff. We did everything (*with*
    her, always), and when I tried on the “But, Daddy doesn’t
    help clear the table!” (insert whiney voice), she came right
    back with “Yes, but I’m not *his* mother!”

    I’m truly thankful that she taught us all of this — I’ve lived
    alone on several occasions, and am happy to be able to
    care for myself without any problem. It’s also good for my
    wife’s morale……

    Our kids got the same treatment I did, by the way – although
    Gail is more overtly organized, so she had a list of all the
    competencies she expected the kids to master before they
    left home. They loved checking off something new! And
    they’re both highly competent around the house – VERY
    good for their self-esteem…and well-earned.

  6. Book,

    My Mother was a jewel.. in spite of me.


    No discrimination intended — just my facts.


  7. “…he does it so badly I have to do it again anyway.”

    Here might be the problem. Do you critique his work? I don’t mind doing dishes, laundry, etc. but I hate having my wife tell me how to do it. Of course i was a competent bachelor for about 15 years before we met so I know how to care of myself. I just don’t fold clothes exactly the way she does. Men have their own way of doing things and if a woman sits back and criticizes him then he loses any interest in doing the job.

    Try giving him tasks and then letting him do them.

  8. Trimegistus,

    Don’t use sex as a negotiating tool. It will kill your marriage. Sex is a reaffirmation of your love. Keep it sacred.

  9. You’re right, Bill, that would be a problem if I did that. I’m smart enough not to let him know I do the re-dos, since that would indeed justify his reluctance to help out. On the rare occasions when he lapses into domesticity, I sneak around afterwards, correcting things such as incorrectly loaded dishwashers. (And that’s no small matter. The dishwasher cycles he loads, if left uncorrected, invariably have to be run twice, because he’s packed things in so tightly, nothing gets cleaned. He’s smart enough to know this, so I can only believe that his dishwasher loading skills are part of the whole feigned incompetence scam.)

  10. Bill, me again, regarding your second comment. I think the point of the article Trimegistus cited is that, when women feel supported, they do feel more loving. Women who feel overburdened will often respond with a lessening of affection. So it’s not bribery for a husband to help out. Instead, it’s the type of support that maximizes affection, which, for many women, is a necessary predicate for joyfully engaging in loving acts.

  11. I am guilty of only reading the title. I thought it was a quid pro quo.


    Have you ever heard of the book the Surrendered Wife. There is some good stuff on give up control in order to gain respect and trust. If you can get past the title. 😉

  12. I thought DQ was Mr. Bookworm. Seems that is not the case! I’m embarrassed.

  13. Bill:

    _I_ don’t use sex that way. In my family we split the housework according to physical requirements and personal preference. But we have very flexible self-employed work schedules so it would be crazy for us to do it any other way.

    Note that the article is describing what happens, not what should happen. Men who help out more tend to have more sex. That’s the datum. What you do with that information is your business.

    Heck, there’s a pretty simple causal link: if your mate isn’t exhausted from doing chores, she might have more energy for nocturnal recreation.

  14. I thought DQ was Mr. Bookworm. Seems that is not the case! I’m embarrassed.

    Take consolance in the fact that you aren’t the first to do so.







  16. Silly Tobin. At least half the women I know work, so the equation is

    MEN & WOMEN = WORK, etc.



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