Somewhere along the way in life, I discovered that I much prefer towels to be rolled, not folded. In part, this shift happened because I lived in a tiny apartment with a tiny linen closet, and it was more space-saving to do so, but once I got hooked on the aesthetic pleasures of the roll, there was no going back. Bewilderingly, my then partner didn’t openly weep at the beautiful economy of my masterful innovation, and kept on folding towels in those big, dumb, sloppy squares. First, I sighed in soft defeat. Next, I did what any self-respecting woman would do: I redid every towel when he wasn’t looking.
Shockingly, he didn’t like it. Predictably, I responded like any self-respecting woman, armed with a lifetime of folding instruction from mothers, grandmothers, great-grandmothers and a bajillion lifestyle magazines: I lectured him on the intrinsic superiority of my way, which, I reminded him, wasn’t only backed by an army of certifiable domestic experts, but which also demonstrated a scientifically sound use of space, with the added bonus of visually arresting elegance.
He kept on folding in big dumb squares, though — with a vengeance, too.
Research suggests we weren’t alone in our little domestic passion play. A 2012 survey of 2,000 women found that we’re the more likely suspects when it comes to redoing housework (though men are certainly guilty of stealth chore correction), and as such, we spend on average some three hours a week redoing the housework of our male partners.
Their reason is simple: Men do chores very badly, setting the bar so low you could skip right over it. So women, arbiters of cleanliness and order, must come along behind them to fix the mess. This isn’t always gendered, and it’s certainly not always fair, but it’s what happens. And if you don’t solve it, it amounts to a grudge match for life.
“Within the home, there’s often a feeling of ownership over a certain category of tasks,” explains Jacqueline Duke, a clinical psychologist in Illinois. “This sense of, ‘If I’m doing 80 percent of the cooking, then the dishwashing rules should be mine — you’re only in here a couple of times.’ It’s the same with laundry, especially if someone has ruined clothes or is pickier about expensive clothing or dry-clean only clothing.” She adds, more largely, “A lot of people come home from work and are exhausted, and the last thing they want to do is a chore. For other people, it brings a sense of closure to the day if all the tasks are done, and you can wake up to clean counters in the morning.”
In Duke’s view, rather than getting in there to “fix” someone’s perceived laundry-folding or dishwasher-loading mistakes, the aggrieved party should “reframe it as, ‘Hey, it might not be folded the way I like, but I’d rather have it folded and done.’” She continues, “‘This is one less chore I have to do, so thank you for doing such a nice favor.’ I think when our partner does step in, we should be grateful, even if it isn’t correct.”
Try telling that, though, to the women and men who responded to my request for anecdotes, which reveal that no one in this scenario is grateful at all — not the partner whose work has been redone, and not the partner redoing the work:
- “My wife rearranges the dishwasher, after I fill it,” Jeremy writes over Facebook. “Every. Single. Time.”
- “Dishwasher loading, without a doubt,” Ashley agrees. “I’m unsure how a generation of people raised on Tetris is this bad at rotating things to make them fit in tight spaces.”
- “My partner and I are in a long, cold war over the toilet paper,” Rachel adds. “Each time one of us uses the bathroom, the toilet paper is changed around so it pulls in the ‘correct’ direction (only actually correct when I do it, obviously). That’s not quite housework, but it does take a lot of mental energy.”
- “Sometimes I ask J.R. to clean the kitchen or the bathroom knowing I’m going to have to go in and do it after him,” Olivia tells me. “I think of his work as a pre-cleaning step so my work won’t be as hard. Because if I ask him to clean and expect it to meet my standards, I’m just going to end up mad. So it’s all in how I look at it.”
- “Towels for sure,” Patrick says. “I fold each one differently with the hedge/hopes that one of them will work for her elusive, esoteric storage purposes.”
- “My boyfriend redoes the bed every damn night,” Dulce explains. “I get so irritated when he does that, but I’ve accepted it.”
- “I want to do more of the housework, but my wife won’t let me do a lot of the chores,” Scott complains. “I do the remainder, and help with some of the forbidden work when she’s out or asleep.”
Such comments expose the darker, deeply frustrating underbelly of domestic labor disputes. While men and women both have stories as victim and aggressor, it’s clear women have the monopoly on redoing chores. The reason is easy enough to understand: Women have more ownership over the domestic space because they’re taught to. They’re raised as girls to clean and take pride in the presentation of the home, whereas boys are less likely to be instructed in the domestic arts. Generally, this means women are more likely to have been shown how to clean, and lectured for a lifetime on a certain standard. Women are also more likely to be judged for the way the home looks, whether it’s their fault or not, meaning it matters more to them, whether they like it or not.
None of this, however, means men can’t come along late to the game and still perfect a dishwasher loading technique to rule them all. The problem is, hashing out who is “better” at a task is often a fool’s errand if ego and pride get in the way. To that end, I only came across one couple who succeeds in this space (in addition to Wendy above, whose husband Jack ultimately convinced her he was better at dishwasher loading).
“I reload the dishwasher because we try to fit in as many dishes as possible before running it,” says Winifred Reilly. “My husband thinks I’ve got divine dishwasher loading power. He gives it his best shot and then calls me in to see if I can work my magic.”
Of course, middle ground isn’t actually that difficult to strike. Men should see how much more women care about this stuff and why that sucks for women, and women should see why men don’t care as much about this stuff, and why that sucks for women and men. Plus, Duke explains, we shouldn’t forget about the intent — as well as how we’d feel if we did something similar and were met with criticism.
“If I’m doing something where I’m devoting time to something that helps both of us, I don’t want someone criticizing it, it’s a smack in the face,” she says. “I just got up early and unloaded the dishwasher? I did it incorrectly? It takes away from any gratitude that they took time out of their day.”
A couple of possible win-win approaches: 1) Take ownership of the chores you’re more particular about, provided that doesn’t leave on person doing every single chore; and 2) make sure both partners get to be particular. “If we care that much, why not sit down and say, ‘These are my top three most important things: Can you fold the towels the way I like? Can we have a clean sink at night… etcetera.’ Then ask, ‘What are your top three things?’”
This doesn’t mean you can’t point out that certain jobs haven’t been completed or done as well as needed. (I’ve known many a boyfriend who cooks and cleans, but it usually never involves what I was taught by my mother — sweeping the floor every time, and wiping down the counters every time, including cleaning the sink.) It’s just all in the delivery. “It’s saying, ‘Thank you so much for cleaning the kitchen. Can I tell you just one thing to make it absolutely perfect? Here’s a Lysol wipe, sweep over the counters, and then it would smell nice and be absolutely perfect,” explains Duke.
That leaves only one remaining category from the 2012 survey that needs addressing: The four in 10 women who believed their partner was half-assing the work to get out of having to do it again. The idea here is that some people (ahem, men) feign a kind of helplessness around housework to avoid having to do it (in the moment and in the future).
Duke says that “if a partner is doing something incorrectly on purpose, in a way they know their partner doesn’t care for,” it’s both rude and a clear communication problem — a way of refusing to listen to how your partner feels. For that, she’s a big fan of getting creative with natural consequences, letting the chips fall where they may, if you will, so that the shoddy work reveals itself. “If you leave food on the counter, we get ants, and then you’ll have to pay for an exterminator,” she explains. Basically, by not stepping in to fix the issue, it leads to a problem that creates a learning opportunity, one you have to literally pay for. “Then they might realize they’ll save money by doing it right,” Duke adds.
That may leave us right back with the gender stereotypes we started with — women caring about cleaning, men caring only when it hits their wallet — but hey, at least we don’t have ants.