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Does ‘having it all’ for women include a clean home?

Bored with those Super Bowl ads? Just check out a few housecleaning commercials from the 1960s for some truly fascinating cultural tone-setting.

"If you really want to enjoy the beauty of your floor," one primly dressed housewife states, just (get on hands and knees) and wax with Klear. Or there's the apron-clad woman who plaintively asks the camera, "How can I get his shirts as white as he wants?" (The answer back then, as she later beams at her satisfied husband, was something called Fab.)

But put your feet up on your cluttered coffee table in 2013 and consider this new study: Professional women can settle for unfinished laundry and dusty corners, thank you very much – never mind floors that shine like mirrors. In the can-women-have-it-all debate, not having spotless countertops seems an easy one to let go. The division of labour remains a contentious topic, especially, since, according to surveys, women still end up doing more of it, on average, no matter how many hours they work.

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The study by Harvard University sociologist Alexandra Killewald suggests that women who earn high wages are still reluctant to ask for help with the housework – either from their kids or husbands, or by paying for it. Instead, they just settle for a messier house. "You can purchase substitutes for your own time, you can get your husband to do more, or you can all just do less," Killewald told The Atlantic magazine. (But just to be clear, there are limits: being messy isn't the same as being dirty. "My house is quite a sty," Kathleen Brown, a professor of history and author of Foul Bodies: Cleanliness in Early America was quoted explaining in the article, "but there's a missing piece here. You don't relax the standards you think are crucial to health.")

Killewald suggests that as women have begun accepting lower standards for those sparkling clean windows, it's given permission for everyone else at home to do so as well. Besides, she points out, nobody really wants to have a fight with their family about cleaning the house after a long day at work.

Interestingly, Killewald observes in the Atlantic piece that low-wage earners spend more time on housework than their higher-income peers – even though they work just as many hours. (Perhaps, Killewald speculates, it's easier for a wealthier woman to leave the mess and socialize with friends at a restaurant.)

But just when you think you can relax a little on the grime in the tub, Killewald offers this disappointing anecdote: When her mother-in-law is visiting, she still does the cooking and makes sure her husband tells his mom who prepared dinner. "I'm showing [my mother-in-law] I'm a good wife."

Yuck. It just may be that there are a few mothers-in-law out there who would be proud of their sons for pulling off dinner. But Killewald's comment only further proves that domestic duties remain one of the most complicated gender dynamics – constrained by time and economic reality, and all wrapped up in old-fashioned wifely roles. Being less reticent about asking for help from family members may move the situation along. But let's face it, your kids are still going to be sloppy with the vacuum. So for all concerned, lowering the bar on messiness seems a positive move toward a happy home. Even if you still hide the dirty socks when relatives visit.

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About the Author

Erin Anderssen writes about mental health, social policy and family issues. More

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