When Kate Mangino started studying men whom she calls “equal partners” – those who do an equal share of domestic labour – she was hoping to unearth some kind of common truth. She was looking for something that would explain why they were relatively unusual, maybe even something to help a future partner spot one in the wild. “It was a disappointment, to be honest,” she says, with a laugh.
Then she realised it was good news – these were men who hadn’t grown up with equal-partner fathers (only two of the 40 men she interviewed had). If they had willingly taken on half the domestic load, without seeing that as normal while growing up, then so could other men. “No matter where you came from, you can say: ‘I’d like to make this change,’” says Mangino, a gender expert who has written a book, Equal Partners: Improving Gender Equality at Home. “It might take some work and it might take some practice, but it’s not impossible.”
In different-sex relationships, women do around 65% of the physical household work. Chores that are routine – cooking and cleaning, for instance – tend to fall to women, while intermittent chores, such as sorting out finances or mowing the lawn, are more likely to be done by men. “This means that the unpaid female role’s to-do list is relentless,” writes Mangino. After all, it doesn’t really matter if the lawn doesn’t get mowed, but try ignoring laundry for a month. Add the burden of cognitive labour – remembering birthdays, organising play dates – which disproportionately falls to women in heterosexual relationships, and it is exhausting.
In same-sex relationships, domestic labour is more equal, “but can still fall back into those roles”, says Mangino (she talks about male and female roles, drawn from traditional gendered divides, rather than men and women).
For her book, Mangino interviewed 40 equal partners to find out what their domestic lives looked like and how they had been created. She says setting out expectations at the beginning of a relationship is “hugely important … it’s much easier to establish patterns from the beginning than to change a relationship 10 or 20 years into it. I think being really clear about expectations, and holding each other accountable from the start, is critical.”
But if you didn’t have those conversations early on, your domestic load is unbalanced and you want to change it, what do you do? Mangino says change is possible, but “you need both partners to be interested. What’s difficult is when one partner wants change and the other is happy with the status quo – a lot of people in the female role are in that situation. It’s disheartening, and resentment builds up.”
She suggests talking broadly about cultural norms and why you have fallen into gendered patterns, rather than criticising a partner, which could make them defensive. “Talk about: ‘We’ve both been raised in this gendered culture and if we’re going to make a change, we have to think about why we do things a certain way,’” she says. Another good trigger is to take advantage of a change – a new baby or pet, moving house, having to care for another family member – to rethink roles at home. It can help, says Mangino, to assign roles or domains based on personal preferences, but to question whether you are dividing them along traditionally gendered lines.
It will probably involve realistic expectations and compromise, particularly if you have different standards. “One of my husband’s triggers is when the kitchen is a mess, [whereas] I’m quite happy to close the door and tackle it tomorrow,” says Mangino, who will make an effort to tidy the kitchen if she can. “It’s just those little thoughtful actions that say: ‘I know you well and I care enough about you to do this for you.’ I don’t mind the dirty kitchen, but I hate it when my bed is unmade. So we all have our own different standards, and it’s understanding and respecting your partner’s standards that I think is really important.”
Naturally, communication is at the heart of this – and it is a continuing conversation, particularly as life changes. If a couple has children, that can entrench domestic labour for the person – usually the mother – on parental leave. “She gets used to doing everything in the home and everything child-related, then she goes back to work and adds the job.” An equal partnership, says Mangino, doesn’t mean “every day following each other around with a clipboard. You’re looking over the course of months or years. Does it average out to be 50/50? Because we all know that, on a daily and weekly basis, it’s going to ebb and flow.”
Because men now do more at home than in previous generations – “We see men wearing the baby carrier and going to the grocery store,” says Mangino – it is tempting to “assume we’ve achieved equality, we’re all done. I think that those are fantastic changes, but we still haven’t really broken into the cognitive labour in the household. There’s a lot of invisible labour that the female role is doing that the rest of the household enjoys.”
Mangino recommends having an audit: “Just listing all of the things that you do or feel responsible for. Have your partner do the same. I also suggest people talk about time: do you both have enough time for your professional pursuits? If you have kids, enough nurturing time with them? Enough time for leisure? When you look at your invisible load, and you look at how much time you’re spending doing each thing, it can become more clear if you have equity, or if you need to reappropriate some tasks.”
There are numerous benefits, she says, especially for the partner who will end up doing less boring housework. For this person, usually a woman, a lower domestic load can mean a boost in earning power, says Mangino, because of the “extra capacity, energy, interest to put your hat in the ring for the promotion, or to take on a management role. There are also emotional-health benefits.” Less resentment, for a start. For those stuck in the male role, not being encouraged to provide care for your spouse or children means “you don’t have opportunities for those nurturing moments that really build close bonds”.
Mangino asked her 40 equal-partner men what they had gained from an equitable home life. “They would say: ‘I have a wonderful relationship with my spouse; we have a pretty decent sex life. I have a great relationship with my kids. I feel like I can be myself at home. I don’t have to perform masculinity – I don’t have to be the strong guy all the time.’”
They are probably more tired, she says. “If both partners are truly doing half the work in the home, especially in homes with kids, you’re both going to fall into bed at night exhausted, you’re both going to feel like you’re doing 55% of the load. I think that’s normal. The benefit is that, yes, you’re still tired, and you’re still stressed, but you’re not bitter towards your partner. You’re a team and you’re doing it together.”
Equal Partners: Improving Gender Equality at Home (St Martin’s Press) is out now