Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Overcoming useless man syndrome

Mongoose recently wrote about the second shift that women often perform after work hours, taking care of home duties like childcare, cooking, and cleaning.  It's true that while women's hours in the labor force have increased, the decrease in their hours at home have not kept pace--men do spend more on home duties today, but women often do twice as much, even while working the same hours at the office.

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?


  1. I cook the most in our flat-share (there's three of us doing PhDs: my wife and me, and our flat-mate who stays in a room upstairs). I cook not quite 90% of the time. But this is also because I spend more time at home than my wife and our housemate and who are both still doing coursework, and because I like cooking. After staring at data or reading swathes of articles, walking to the market, getting ingredients and cooking is a remarkable change of head-space. Cleaning we split more evenly, though it's helped by a dishwasher that accumulates dishes during the day and goes on at night. We tend to share washing of the bigger cooking dishes. The one thing I'm not good at is bathroom cleaning: I blame my height (I'm 6'2" or so) and our bathroom is a tiny London bathroom and I physically struggle to contort myself into the shapes necessary to clean the bathroom (really I do, I barely fit into the shower standing up). I clean the stove-top, vacuum clean, etc instead. But I'd say our situation is not the norm of those with whom I interact. Though our place is clean, it's also what I'd probably call 'academic scruffy' because of all the books. Bur very definitely clean and regularly vacuumed (I'm allergic to dust mites).

    Many of my professional friends don't cook much, and therefore avoid the cleaning up problem. Cartons go in dustbins or the recycling. For remaining cleaning they regularly hire help. Still, of the hetero couples women often do more house work. Most of my friends don't have children (yet?), so I can't comment on the transformative power of child-rearing.

  2. I was thinking about this yesterday. I thought I was alone--thanks for sharing, CoLo! I definitely agree with your suggestion that we stop teaching these roles to our children. I was at home for a couple weeks last month. I have 3 sisters and 1 brother. The girls all shared a hefty load of housework, including, dishes, cooking, cleaning bathrooms, etc growing up. However, my brother's main chore was taking out the garbage because that was "man's work." And though all of us are grown now, well, he is 19, I noticed that he is completely useless! He is smart and driven and even brought home a physics book from his first year at college to study over the summer, which my parents applauded him for. Yet, when I turned on my laptop to do some work that I actually get paid for remotely, I was asked to help with chores and cooking prep. Not only have my parents set a disturbing double standard in our home, but they have also bred resentment and sibling rivalry.

    And I have no idea what my mother's motivation was to do this, other than just habit or tradition. My mother has always been extremely hard working outside the home. She worked just as much and took home just as much as my father, so I never understood why the home division of labor was so inequitable. And why she wanted to teach us that.

    I remember one Christmas where my dad showed his "progressive side" (at least for a Southern guy) and I got one of those fake tool work stations and basketball cards for Christmas (I got dolls, too). But, I was so confused because I was about 5 and I had already learned the distinction of "boys work/play" and "girls work/play"--why didn't I get a playhouse, so I could pretend to cook instead? My father, traditional as he was, may have been on to something there, even if it was inadvertent. I mean, maybe he just wished he'd had a boy at that point. Anyway, I think that was the beginning of my technical/mechanical side. Now, I am must more adept with a toolbox than my boyfriend.

  3. I don't currently have a live in partner, but the man I'm dating cooks quite a bit and does a lot of things that my ex husband and other poeople I've dated didn't care to do.

    He doesn't even live in the house with us, but he has taken it upon himself to do these things. I've had plenty of experience with useless men and I'm proud to say I'm not currently in a romantic relationship with one.

  4. Don't date men who have never lived alone or without a woman! My husband lived for years with his brothers, and he is an excellent cook and a neat freak.

    I really can't support the notion of not breast feeding, though. I understand the slippery slope- this is why for many years I refused to even entertain the notion of having children.

    Maybe a possible solution is to make sure a balance in "second shift" duties is reached before pregnancy. Then as child-rearing duties are added to the woman's pile, things she used to be in charge of shift the man's way.

    Having not had a child myself, I hate to bring this up, but I have to wonder if it is just the chores that make women disappear from the workplace. Don't you think its possible that gestating and rearing another human being would tend to naturally re-arrange your priorities somewhat? So that ambition, and even feminism, would take a backseat?

  5. @iblogelewhere I agree not going straight from mom's house to cohabiting can be a big help, but too often when men live together in their twenties it just becomes a continuation of college... cold pizza, beer cans everywhere... not exactly an introduction to home economics.

    As for breastfeeding, I just found Rosin's piece to be so powerful. It's not that I'm recommending one thing or another, it's just a matter of respecting different women's choices, and recognizing that the choice to breastfeed comes at a price, so it's unfair to act like it's some kind of moral imperative.

    And I certainly agree that women's priorities may shift, and this may in fact be completely healthy and equally fulfilling. The question is, why don't men's?

  6. @Jennifer I'm so glad you found the right guy! Sharing the second-shift makes so much of a difference in the long-term viability of the relationship. My partner and I really had to overcome this issue before we could move forward.

    @Simon How did you learn to cook? Was it from your parents, or was it after you'd left home? I'm always interested in how non-useless men get that way!

    @Pearls Women like your mother amaze me! Why is she willing to continue doing the home labor, when she has so much on her plate professionally? I can't help thinking it's because of her innate skill as a chef and a homemaker--but that's a raw deal! Because she's talented she has to work a double shift! We need to raise a generation of men with just as much talent at home. And for those who question if it can be done, I'd point to the phenomenon of most prominent chefs being male. This can be learned, folks!

  7. Colo, yes, you know my mama and you have her pegged. She is certainly a skilled chef and as it turns out the first business she ever started when she was a very young mother was a housekeeping service. So, she's knows what a clean house looks like! I guess it might not have felt so weird, this situation with my home economics deficient brother, if my mom had not wanted help around the house from my dad. She certainly did and complained about it often. Then, of course, I have a bit of a spoiled brother, though he can fry some chicken (haha,yep we hail from AL)! But, it's a mixed message to me.

    And when I think more about it, it's even further complicated because I know my dad learned to cook and sew and clean when he was a youngster. And he occasionally would cook excellent meals when we were kids. And when I had to have my graduation dress made for me in high school, it was my dad who took me to the fabric store to pick out French lace and then gave very specific instructions to the seamstress when I had no clue about how to compose a dress.

    So, maybe my parents just had an unspoken code in their relationship. All I know is, I don't want to one day have a son who is useless on the domestic front . Or, for that matter, a daughter who can't caulk her own bathtub in her first apartment. ;)

  8. Learned to cook because of role modeling I suppose. My parents divorced when I was very young, so I had experiences of my dad cooking well when I stayed with him and my mum doing the same. My mum also encouraged me to cook when I was young. Even if I only cooked scrambled eggs initially, I also learned, for example, how to bake cakes from my mum, or to make stews, ragout, etc from dad. Add that to moving out at 20 and wanting to enjoy the food I ate and I'd say you have it. Also crucial, I think, was that though cooking was occasionally a chore for my parents they'd still cook and bake for enjoyment. I'd say this endorses your 'it can be learned' hypothesis.

  9. Hochschild's book really provides some great ways for thinking about this dilemma. What I think is really provocative, though, is her assertion (which I 100% agree with) that couples develop "myths" around the second shift to justify the division of labor. These include one person "just cares more," an illusion of equality, one person is "just better at it," etc. Hochschild identifies the incompetence Coca Colo describes here as a shirking strategy employed by male partners (consciously or not, in some cases). Most men and women don't want to believe they are in an unequal relationship, even when this is very clear to an outside observer.

    Another part of the second shift Hochschild identifies is mental responsibility, if you will. In Coca Colo's case, she is taking the vast majority of this burden. Even if her partner is doing the work, she has to ask and make sure things get done. It sounds like this has improved a lot in her case, but this managerial aspect of the second shift is often overlooked in talking about housework.

  10. Very interesting. I haven't encountered any more "useless men" than I have useless women-- and many of the men I know have higher standards for cleanliness and organization than I do. I wasn't raised to be able to cook, or clean, or really do much of anything useful-- my parents both split household chores, and my brother and I didn't have to do much. My mom cooked dinner every night, but that's because she got home from work by 4:30 and my dad got home at 6-6:30.

    In my own relationship, I tend to do the cooking. i actually enjoy it, and I'm better at it than my partner is. He'd like to go out most nights, but I'd rather stay in and have some time playing in the kitchen and making food. He does most of the cleaning though, including the clean up after cooking, and we go grocery shopping together. We both just finished law school, but neither of us is terribly ambitious-- though if one of us manages to score a dream job, we'll both be thrilled.

  11. "Another part of the second shift Hochschild identifies is mental responsibility...this managerial aspect of the second shift is often overlooked in talking about housework"

    YES! Thank you, mongoose6. Delegating chores is in itself another chore.
    I think the advice given in this post is very good to start out with, but if after awhile the man still doesn't know what chores need to be done without asking his partner then sorry, but that's just not good enough (for me, at least).

  12. I agree, Anu, and thanks for pointing that out, Mongoose. Sadly, I'm not quite there yet in my relationship, but getting there! More and more I find spontaneous cleaning happening! Only sometimes does it leave our (white) couch cushions stained red because he tried to use a red towel to remove a spot!

  13. This piece could've been called "Is treating men badly a feminist prerogative?" I guess, the answer is yes, it's more than all right to "infantilize, sexualize, demonize and dehumanize them." Nice going, Coca Colo.

  14. Hi Anonymous, I think your criticism is valid, and I have to admit, I expected it when I wrote this article. I'm actually surprised there weren't more comments in this vein. Yes, my post does caricaturize men as doofuses, when what it should be doing is promoting the idea that it is possible to have an equitable balance between two partners in a relationship, but also that there are challenges, many of them very subtle. I do think that this post opened up a good conversation about how a woman can work toward splitting up the second shift with a well-meaning but possibly unprepared partner, but I wasn't careful enough to do that without promoting a harmful stereotype of men that doesn't apply in most cases. In fact, I think the stereotype of the lovable oaf guy and the hot, competent chick who tolerates him (King of Queens, Home Improvement, Everybody loves Raymond...) is damaging to both men and women as we try to find a new paradigm for healthy relationships.

    In going over the top to try to make my point, I left out two important parts of this dynamic:

    1) Men's domestic incompetence (where it exists) is a symptom of our society's approach to gender, and there are probably many men who resent it as much as women do (as in: "why didn't anyone ever show me how to do laundry?" or "why do I have to feel like a wuss for wanting to watch the cooking channel?" or perhaps "why do these feminist websites have to talk about men like they're children just because they learned a different set of skills?")

    2) Women's patterns of behavior and thought (mine!) are often equally responsible for us continuing to take on the second shift. If we get out of the mindset of having to "manage" our partner, and maybe treat him like an adult capable of looking after his own affairs, we might also help to promote change.

    In the end, I don't know what the right answer is, but I know that it is possible to overcome traditional gender roles and have a healthy, equal relationship. But it's a challenge, often more-so in the beginning. Wishing everyone luck!

    Also, blatant misrepresentation alert: Although I do grocery shop and cook, I'm the messy one in my relationship.


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