So what's going on in our homes? Is this a sign of male oppression of women continuing in more subtle ways? Is it old attitudes about who should do the household labor and what kinds of tasks are "manly"? I think in many cases, these are reasonable explanations. But for those of us who are dating progressive men who are happy to embrace women's career equality, there might be a more insidious explanation: Women's skills in the workplace now equal or exceed those of their male colleagues in many settings, and yet they still maintain a major skill advantage on the homefront. Women perform the second shift because we're better at it. (Note: This is a piece about my experience, and something I have observed in other relationships, but it is far from universal. There are plenty of non-useless men out there, and I applaud them and their parents. But for those of us facing useless man syndrome, the existence of theoretically useful males provides little comfort.)
Take this example from Hanna Rosin's powerful piece on the case against breastfeeding, on how a rational division of labor quickly becomes a deep iniquity:
Even in the best of marriages, the domestic burden shifts, in incremental, mostly unacknowledged ways, onto the woman. Breast-feeding plays a central role in the shift. In my set, no husband tells his wife that it is her womanly duty to stay home and nurse the child. Instead, both parents together weigh the evidence and then make a rational, informed decision that she should do so. Then other, logical decisions follow: she alone fed the child, so she naturally knows better how to comfort the child, so she is the better judge to pick a school for the child and the better nurse when the child is sick, and so on. Recently, my husband and I noticed that we had reached the age at which friends from high school and college now hold positions of serious power. When we went down the list, we had to work hard to find any women. Where had all our female friends strayed? Why had they disappeared during the years they’d had small children?The problem is that while women increasingly work to be successful outside of the home domain, men rarely are encouraged to be successful within that domain. Many boys are raised without the ability to cook, clean, sew, or manage a household. Instead, they're taught to be ambitious, competitive, smart, and analytical. While girls are taught to nurture others, boys are taught to advance themselves. Leaving those of us women (or men who happen to have been taught differently) who enter relationships with those grown-up boys facing useless man syndrome. In the workplace, we're every bit as proficient as them. But when it comes to the home life, they can barely boil pasta.
Listen to Renee Martin hilariously describe her partner's escapades in the kitchen:
The unhusband just loves to insert curry where it does not belong. Not every meal needs to include a touch of curry, no matter how much you like that particular seasoning. One meal that for me is particularly memorable, is the scrambled eggs, shrimp with a touch of curry and thousand island salad dressing concoction. Try and picture that for a moment; now imagine eating that.And so, to make up for their deficiency, we take more of this work on ourselves. We like eating our food better, and so we cook more. The laundry only gets really clean when we do it, so we do. He can't be bothered to clean out the tub because he doesn't know Ajax from Asterix, and we can't stand it being dirty, so we do it. We do it, we go to work, and then we come home and do it all over again. He doesn't remember to pick up groceries on the way home from work, forgets to replace things when they run out, and never washes his dishes after eating. So we do it, and to him, these things happen by magic. Many men are so used to women doing things for them, that they don't actually realize these things are real tasks that take up real time, instead of miraculous conveniences. He's useless, and we're exhausted. What to do?
Well, the first step is to recognize that it's probably not his fault. Men who grew up with mothers who took care of the home-front and didn't involve them probably never got the chance to learn these basic, vital life skills, just as many of us never got to learn how to drill a hole or change a tire. And if they want to learn today, it's difficult. Almost all of the publications or resources on homemaking are targeted toward women (or occasionally gay men), leaving men who want basic Rigatoni 101 or Torn Hem for Beginners without a place to turn. Nonetheless, just because it's not his fault doesn't mean it's not his responsibility.
The first task in overcoming useless man syndrome is to make the second shift every bit as much his responsibility as it is yours. In the beginning, he probably won't be equipped to take on an equal share of the work, but that doesn't mean he shouldn't hear about it. Sit down with him and talk about how burdensome it is to have a disproportionate share of the household labor fall to you, and that it makes you feel like a second-class citizen in your relationship. Put the problem out there, and agree to work toward dividing things more equitably (Note: If your guy won't take this step with you, he might be useless in more ways than one). Work to make him aware of everything that you do to make the house run smoothly. This was my main takeaway from this otherwise obnoxious piece on a man who does everything his wife says for a month--most men have absolutely no idea how much we do, and how big a toll it takes.
Next, start to divide up the labor, starting with things that he can easily do, like grocery shopping or dish washing. At this point, your otherwise great guy will probably be eager to help, but continue to let things slide. Unfortunately, this will result in you cleaning up after his good intentions. Be honest with each other that this is likely to be the outcome: if he puts things off, you'll do them instead, and you'll be back at square one. In these early stages of overcoming useless man syndrome, it may take more work on your part than it did before, but hang in there. Try to be a little patient when he calls three times to ask you what brand of tomatoes to buy.
For tasks that he's not skilled at but that take up a significant portion of your time, consider asking him to get professional help for his share (if it's financially feasible). I.e., if you need a drycleaner or a housekeeper because he can't do the laundry or scrub the floors, these expenses should come out of his pocket, not the joint budget. If this isn't a financially realistic option, he'll have no choice but to learn the tricky parts of home maintenance. This solution can also only work up to a certain point--I now find this is one of the traps keeping me clocking in to the "second shift". My boyfriend has no trouble breaking out the credit card to deal with household annoyances, whereas I can't stand to see him spend money on things I know I can solve. So I end up hand-washing cushions he wanted to dry clean, sewing on buttons in front of the television, and making party hors d'oeuvres from scratch. The professional help option is something to try, but your mileage may vary.
For cooking, try buying (I mean, suggest that he buy) a cookbook with simple recipes that meet your family's nutritional standards (if he ends up cooking mac 'n' cheese every night, you might end up back in the kitchen right away). I don't use a lot of recipes when I cook, or I use them for inspiration, but for new cooks this usually doesn't turn out so well (see: curry in eggs). There are lots of cookbooks that only use 5 ingredients or take only 30 minutes. There's even an "Idiot's guide" (sorry for ableist language) to cooking for guys. And if you prepare food together, have a little patience with him and carefully explain what steps are involved, what you're doing at each one, and why it matters. My boyfriend used to be driven crazy by me barking out orders in the kitchen to get him to help, without giving any explanation of why and how.
This next piece of advice is hard to give and hard to take: Let go. Learn to accept things happening below your standard or in a different way than you'd prefer. I hate to say this, because it makes it sound like the burden of equalizing second-shift labor should fall to the woman, instead of the man upping his game. But the truth is, that while he ups his game, he's going to need practice, and he's going to need discipline (internal, not external). If you're always stepping in to make things suit your standards, he'll never get either one. You'll both too easily slide into the old pattern of you taking on the second shift.
Lastly, to solve this problem for the next generation, I think those of us who are parents (or will be) have to take it upon ourselves (and our partners) to raise our boys better. Teach them that if they don't learn how to cook, clean, and organize their lives, no woman's going to do it for them. May this be the last generation of useless men!
Readers, what are your experiences with useless man syndrome? Any luck overcoming it? And to the men out there, am I being completely unfair? Is your partner the useless one?