The Bintel Brief

Bintel Brief: The Mamele Helps With the Housework

By Marjorie Ingall

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Dear Mamele,

This is a complicated question, so I will ask it at length.

What is an equitable division of housework?

Does it entail doing exactly one-half of the housework, even if a large part of that housework seems to one to be fetishistic make-work, of no use or interest to anyone but the person who does it? Is one obliged, as a husband, to accept unquestioningly one’s wife’s definition of a decent house? If not, how does one arrive at a reasonable agreement about what a clean and orderly house should look like?

My wife and I have worked this out, mostly, by rubbing up against one another until we wore each other into shape, but it was rough there for a while. It seems to be rough for everyone.

Also, what is a Bintel?


The Mamele replies:

Easy answers first: A bintel is a bundle. A bintel brief is a bundle of letters.

Now, the harder part: This is an excellent question, one that Mr. Mamele and I struggle with constantly. Like you, I am the non-fetishistic partner in the household. The problem, as I see it (and I note that he may see it differently, but I am the one with the printing press, or, in this case, some pixels and a fan base of crabby Jewesses) is that Mr. Perfectionistic Crazy Person would rather NOT do something than do it to less than shimmering perfection. This means that he does not crappily sweep and haphazardly mop; he would rather devote himself with talmudic obsessiveness to utterly thorough cleaning. This means he almost never cleans. He never has time. Whereas I will happily do a cruddy job and think, “Yay! I can no longer see desiccated peas, abandoned raisins and slow tumbleweeds of cat hair as in some apartment-dweller version of High Noon! Good enough!” But then he seethes about the imperfect cleanliness and says he has to do the job himself. And if I waited for that, our home would look and smell like the Augean stables.

So I do the daily small cleaning jobs, the laundry and all the kid-management stuff. He is no slouch: He does the financial management and bill paying, the Costco hunting-and-gathering, the computer maintenance, the gardening, fully half the cooking. In all honesty, we each feel that our work is insufficiently seen and appreciated. Perhaps that’s true of most couples. Perhaps we simply need to own the jobs that matter most to us, make a sincere effort to do the ones that matter most to our spouses and learn to cut each other a little slack and accept a little schmutz. I admit I do a lousy job remembering to input every expenditure in Quicken, which is important to Mr. Mamele. (His record keeping is so precise, he may be the only man to be audited by the IRS and come out with the government actually writing him a check.)

You clearly suck at doing with suitable precision the jobs that your wife expects you to do. Couples counseling can help, though when Mr. Mamele and I saw a couples counselor before we got married — a middle-aged man with a balding ponytail, wide lapels and a discomfiting “don’t give me that jive, man!” way of slinging therapeutic advice — I felt my relationship concerns weren’t truly being heard. The therapist was so impressed by the fact that Jonathan did any cooking at all, he clearly thought I was churlish to complain about anything. I had a man who cooked! What kind of princess was I to kvetch about such a prince? When we saw a youngish female counselor, years later, she could not understand why Jonathan was so rigid about forcing the Quicken on me. I do think couples counseling, with a good counselor, can help with feelings of seething and persecution around housework. Unless one partner is utterly anal and inflexible and the other is utterly hostile in his or her slovenliness. In which case, uh, good luck with the couples counseling.

Your wife and I do have it better, division-of-labor-wise, than past generations did. (But most women of our generation are also wage earning, and our predecessors were not. Shout out, Arlie Hochschild! Second shift in the house, yo!) You say things are better now, so I must assume that your wife has taken over the tasks that are most important to her, or that she’s learned to view your streaky windows, grease-encrusted stovetop and non-whiter-than-white whites through a soft flattering filter, like the one through which Sharon Stone was filmed in Basic Instinct 2. Over time, perhaps, your wife has learned to appreciate your efforts, even if they’re not completed to sufficiently granular fetishism. (Unless you are being passive-aggressive about doing a half-assed job, in the hope that she will simply take over all housework. You aren’t doing that, right?) You can always tell her you’re doing more than she thinks: A 2005 study by the University of Chicago’s Sloan Center on Working Families looked at the division of housework in dual-income households and found that men do less than they say they do, but more than their wives say they do. (Husbands estimate that they do 42% of the chores, wives estimate that their husbands only do 33%, and, in actuality, husbands do 39%.) So, uh, not perfect! But not a scene from Mad Men, either, with you drinking a highball while she dusts around you!

Oh: Also, you needn’t be in a heterosexual marriage to have such problems. In my brother’s big gay relationship, he is Oscar and he has married Felix. Felix has made an effort to chill, and Oscar has ramped his housekeeping way up. Win, win.

Relationships are constant negotiations.

Marjorie Ingall writes The East Village Mamele column for the Forward and is a contributing writer at Self magazine. She has written for many other magazines and newspapers, including The New York Times, Ms., Glamour, Parents, Budget Travel, Food & Wine, Wired and the late, lamented Sassy, where she was the senior writer and health editor. She is the author of a humor book, “The Field Guild to North American Males” (Owl Books, 1997), the co-author of a sex-ed book for teenagers, “Smart Sex” (Simon & Schuster, 1998) and a former writer/producer at the Oxygen TV network.

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Amy K. Thu. Oct 18, 2007

Hm. We are both slobs, and the kids have begun to complain.

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