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Why Your Husband Won't Do Laundry

A researcher at the University of New Hampshire just isolated the "inability to do housework or hands-on childcare" gene in men.
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A researcher at the University of New Hampshire just isolated the "inability to do housework or hands-on childcare" gene in men.

Just kidding.

Actually, Valerie Hooper, a graduating senior in sociology, found that men's level of interest in the domestic sphere -- home, family -- probably has more to do with the cultural messages they receive about what constitutes appropriate male roles than with Y chromosomes or testosterone levels.

Hooper analyzed a week's worth of primetime TV commercials on four channels, and found -- now, this will shock you! -- that most show women engaged in domestic behavior. Only 2.1 percent feature men cooking, cleaning or caring for children.

She also found that men, in particular, are influenced by what they watch. Watching commercials featuring men in traditional roles made the male study participants prioritize their careers when they were interviewed after the viewing and asked about their life goals. When they watched commercials featuring men in nontraditional roles (like washing the dishes), however, they were more likely to prioritize home and family.

"Hide the remote!" the press release from the university concludes. But it'll take a little more than that to stop men from getting the message that doing housework and nurturing children is girlie stuff. And I think women are in the driver's seat here, both as the moms of the next generation of boys, and as valued consumers.

Since we're clearly the targeted customer, we can start complaining to manufacturers and businesses about the messages that work to deprive women of helpmates and deprive kids of more hands-on dads. Like, why is the person selecting the right pain reliever for a child always "Dr. Mom?" Did Dr. Dad fail out of medical school? Do guys really prefer dirty clothes and kitchens, or are the chemical processes involved in cleaning just too complicated for them?

This is not just about chores. Why should men be barred from experiencing the many pleasures of domesticity and hands-on parenting?

Outside of TV commercials, what's up with all the "Mommy and Me" classes for infants? Does dad not count? As a new mom, I have been stunned at the level to which our culture tells dads that parenting is just not for them. Even Parenting Magazine's tagline is "what matters to moms." For some reason, the fact that I'm a single mom by choice makes me notice it all the more -- I wish my son had a dad, and if he did, I sure wouldn't want to discourage him from getting involved in child care.

Men are given a lot of crap for not washing the dishes and changing diapers, but there are more messages out there telling them that those things are women's work and if they do them, they're not real men. And as Hooper's research suggests, those messages have a profound effect.

In fact, the May 19th issue of Newsweek had a story about absent Black fathers that quoted a 2007 Boston University study's finding that a black father's ability to be a breadwinner (i.e., fulfill his expected traditional role) was one of the biggest determinants of whether or not he stays in the home. Professor Rebeka Levine Coley, who worked on the study, said that evidence suggests that if these men can't bring home the bacon, they feel emasculated and give up on being dads. Because mom equals nurturing and dad equals paycheck.

One place women can start to turn this mess around is in our parenting. Just as we tell our girls they can be president someday, we can tell our boys that washing the dishes is everyone's responsibility and that taking good care of a pet or babysitting a younger child is part of being a good guy. We can even tell them why we choose Brand X laundry detergent over Brand Y.

When I told my mom I was looking for a boy doll for my son, she said, "Why?" as if I'd said I was shopping for a pink tutu. "So he can learn to be a good dad!" I told her. I also encourage him to climb ladders, throw balls, and be brave. He does love his doll. And his basketball hoop. Is his masculinity threatened? One friend of mine won't stop commenting on what a butch little boy he is, so I think not.

There are definite, biological differences between men and women, it's true. But we have got to stop taking the extremes of those differences and laying them down as social law. We've come to realize that it's unfair to women when sex is used as an excuse for limiting our options to the domestic sphere. Now it's time to start focusing on how it's unfair to men, women and children when we limit men to the work sphere.

Of course, for good measure, you could also hide the remote.

Louise Sloan is the author of Knock Yourself Up (Avery/Penguin, 2007), a cross between memoir and reporting that features the voices of the real women behind the current trend of single motherhood by choice.