Who wins the sweepstakes? Why you should split the housework 50/50
Kerry McKittrick and Ellen Reay find out just how many chores men here are prepared to do
Apparently the secret to domestic bliss has been uncoverered at long last. Want to enjoy being a parent, have a great career and a brilliant sex life? Simple – just make sure you go halves with your partner on all the household chores and childcare duties. Or at least that's the message from the latest cult self-help book, Getting To 50/50: How Working Parents Can Have It All, which has been flying off the shelves in the US and has been endorsed by celebs.
Written by Sharon Meers and Joanna Strober, the book also has a foreword from Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg.
She argues that an exact split of chores between two parents is not only beneficial for husbands but also the children in a family.
However, even she herself admitts that the perfect 50/50 division of responsibilities within the household is sometimes just not possible.
"We are rarely 50/50 at any given moment – perfect equality is hard to define or sustain," says the mother-of-two. "But that remains the goal as the pendulum swings between us."
So, just how does the workload work out in modern households across Northern Ireland?
Is there an army of new men out there only too willing to tear through a pile of ironing and make dinner while she works late at the office?
Or are women still doing more than their fair share when it comes to looking after the home and family, while he cuts the lawn... once a week... and only in summer?
We ask four well-known couples whether they even get close to a 50/50 split – and if they ever feel even just a little but resentful?
How husband keeps her political career on track
Judith Cochrane (37) is an Alliance MLA for east Belfast where she lives in Belfast with husband Jonathan, a software engineer, and their two daughters, Emma Rose (8) and Jessica (5). She says:
Jonathan takes care of all of the cooking, packed lunches and homeworks as well as the school run and picking up the kids from childminders. He's the one who goes to the supermarket on Saturday morning and all I get to add to his shopping list are any toiletries I might need. When I want to cook I'm not allowed.
The kitchen is mostly his domain and Jonathan also does the washing up afterwards. Sometimes, though, I go and give it an extra clean later as he can miss some things – crumbs in the cutlery drawer or just little bits in the corners.
To be honest, if Jonathan didn't work from home I don't think I would be able to do my job as an MLA. We might not have an exact 50/50 split when it comes to household chores but without him doing everything he does I would be lost.
Because he's home he starts to cook at 5pm because the children need to eat early; he also goes over their homework with them before that. Primary school kids can't do their homework at 8pm when I'd be able to help them – they need to be in bed by that time.
Stormont is in session on a Monday or a Tuesday so I tend to work very late on those nights. I don't bring work home with me – I'll look at emails, but that's it.
All my papers and reading are done in the office. When I'm not at home the girls keep in touch with me by Facetime and texting so at least we're still able to communicate.
Because Jonathan takes care of the cooking side I get left with the cleaning. I do the bathrooms, the Hoovering, the laundry and most of the general housework.
Lots of people think that Jonathan does more around the house than I do but it's not true – I manage our finances. He doesn't have a clue what any of our bills are and I'm the one making sure there's money put aside for a family holiday or any other big occasion.
I would call the division of our household chores about 65/35.
Though I have to do it, I don't like housework at all. I loathe cleaning the loos and I'm not fussed on ironing either though at least I can catch up with TV when I'm doing that.
It's not unusual for me to be ironing at 2am. I haven't had many housework disasters although I've probably Hoovered up a pet rock – a stone one of the girls will have painted.
Our house is full of things like that so there can be the occasional mishap with them disappearing or getting thrown out accidentally when I'm doing a whirlwind tidy up."
I travel a couple of times of year but other than that I work from home. I cook for the kids and take care of the homeworks. I tend to eat with the kids during the week too as Judith doesn't get home until very late. We'll eat together as a family at weekends, though.
Because I do the cooking I'll do the shopping too – I've always had an interest in it since I was a student and I've done a few cooking classes over the years. Judith will cook when she has the time though. It's usually a roast on a Sunday.
I really hate doing the loos and I can't stand ironing – apart from the odd shirt in an emergency I just don't do it. I don't mind taking care of the garden but I'm not passionate about it.
I just cut the grass and do the weeding."
'Dot system' ensures an even split over chores around the home
Jason and Brenda Shankey (both 42), live in Belfast and own and run Jason Shankey Male Grooming with salons in Belfast and London. They have two children, Lauren (12) and Will (10). Brenda says:
Jason and I spilt childcare 50/50. When it comes to household tasks we have a system of pink dots and blue dots. I take care of the pink dots, the things around the house – the cleaning, cooking, ironing – while Jason does the blues ones – the gardening, DIY and car maintenance.
Because we both work full-time we have to have a schedule to make sure everything gets done. And now that the kids are 10 and 12 years old they pitch in – they have daily tasks such as loading and emptying the dishwasher, walking the dog and making their beds. At the weekend they do larger tasks like Hoovering and I've been teaching them how to iron – simple things so far. Still, it's good they're starting to iron as it's my least favourite task.
Our "dot system" works well because I know what I'm doing when it comes to the housework. My favourite chore is probably polishing, I like seeing something shiny and clean. On Sundays we have a family day, no chores, no schedule, we just make decisions as a family on what we want to do. We used to have a cleaner but as the kids have got older this isn't necessary and I want them to be able to do these things for themselves. I grew up working around the house and I think it's a useful skill to learn."
I love DIY and being outside so taking charge of all the tasks outside suits me and I enjoy doing them. I think it's a fair system. If Brenda's away I pick up her household tasks willingly... though I'm not sure the same can be said of mine whenever I'm away! My favourite job of all is probably looking after the garden, I find cutting the grass and trimming hedges very therapeutic.
I used to cook more – I'm a qualified chef – but as the business has grown I no longer have the time or energy to make a meal at the end of the day.
As we have an organised schedule there aren't many arguments over the chores.
If I've any gripe it's probably that I think the kids should do more. When I was younger we had to do the housework to earn our pocket money.
I think this new book is right – aiming for a 50/50 split does lead to a happier familial life. You don't want to have to carry your partner and it all runs a lot more smoothly if each of you shares the responsibilities of childcare and housework, especially when you both have demanding work timetables like we do.
Our worst household disaster was when our daughter thought it would be fun to cover the shower drain with her foot – it ended up flooding the bathroom and water started to come through the ceiling! It took a long time to dry up but thankfully nothing collapsed!"
The night handyman Dave blew a fuse
Tara West (42) works for an advertising agency and has also just published her second novel, Poets Are Eaten As A Delicacy In Japan. She lives in Newtownabbey with husband David (45), an aircraft engineer at Shorts, and their daughter Farah (8). She says:
My day job as creative director at an ad agency is normally nine-to-five but if there's a major job or big tender on then there will be late nights. Luckily, as David works for Shorts he has flexitime. It means he can start and finish work really early. He's the one who picks up Farah from my sister's house where she goes after school. He's also the one that starts the cooking as he's home earlier.
I tend to be the one who manages the household, though. I do the shopping and have a list of what we need. Then I'll leave out whatever is for dinner that night and David takes it from there. He can be quite an inventive cook which works very well, most of the time.
After dinner David will clear the table and clean the kitchen while I pack lunch for Farah and put her to bed at the same time. The cleaning is almost entirely down to me – David doesn't seem to see the dirt sometimes so I know it will get done properly if I do it. I hate housework though and will leave it until I absolutely have to do it – then I'll blitz it.
It's a bit about control for me too. I do the laundry because I have to know it's done. I think because of that the split between us is 65/35 rather than 50/50. It's because I'm the one who does more of the organising of what needs done. I think it probably is possible to achieve that equal split but not in this house. It's not a priority for us. Housework is very far down on our list of priorities and there is more to us that just housework. The book puts too much emphasis on housework. Our home is happy because we make it that way, not because we spend all our time cleaning it.
I have two sisters who are close to being 'clean freaks' and when they come over to my house I can see the state of it getting to them. I write in the evenings when I can but I've been very fortunate – grants from the Arts Council of Northern Ireland meant that I was able to take unpaid leave from work and disappear off to libraries to work on my new novel. Thankfully, I can work anywhere and zone noise out – I think it comes from working in a busy advertising agency."
I work very early – I usually start by 6.30am and am rarely finished before 3.30pm. I go and get Farah after work and we do her homework before I start dinner. That's the time we get to spend together then Tara gets quality time when she's putting her to bed and I clear up the kitchen. It's one of those things you have to do but I don't particularly enjoy it.
I hate doing dishes and it's terrible when not everything fits in the dishwasher and you have to do it by hand. I tend to be handy rather than tidy so if anything breaks I'm in there to fix it. That and chief spider-remover for the house are my main roles. I had a bit of a disaster a couple of weeks ago though. The dishwasher broke so I decided to fix it so we didn't have to call a man out. One minute I was tinkering away, the next I was lying in the middle of the kitchen floor and all of the lights in the house had gone out.
I walked up and down in a daze and looked down to see a trail of blood on the floor – I had cut my hand pulling it out of the dishwasher and because of the shock didn't even feel it. I'm not allowed to try and fix electrical things anymore."
'Mike is busy keeping political house in order'
Lynda Bryans (50) is married to former broadcaster and UUP leader Mike Nesbitt (56). After a successful career in TV, Lynda balances running media production company Take I Take II with her husband, lecturing at the Belfast Metropolitan College and being mum to PJ (18) and Christopher (16). She says:
We share our housework – to a degree. These days Michael is incredibly busy all the time and hardly gets to sit down, never mind do any chores around the house.
When the boys were smaller and we both worked full-time we did pay people to come in and help us. They were a pair of sisters – one did the cleaning and the other did the ironing and they were so sweet. I was breastfeeding Christopher at the time and they wouldn't let me do anything. They made me sit down with a cup of tea and spend quality time with him.
Things changed, however, as the boys started to get older and I began to work shifts. I was able to be home more so we didn't feel we needed the help anymore.
As far as cleaning goes I have to be in the right mood for it – and that won't be every day! I'm giving the spare room a good spring clean at the moment because I just don't know when the mood will come across me again.
I don't particularly like cleaning the bathroom but I would say I'm the one who does it most of the time. Our boys have been shown how to do it and how to use the washing machine, but they tend to get struck down with amnesia whenever something needs done though. The women they end up with aren't going to know what has hit them!
Mike takes care of the study downstairs and every couple of weeks he gives it a major clean – he needs to have a clean desk to work from. He also really likes to cook and will do most of that. He'll come home from work, put 5 Live on the radio and rustle up something for us to eat. And, yes, he also quite happily cleans up the kitchen after him.
I'm the same when it comes to the ironing. I do that while I listen to The Archers or a play on the radio. If it's a nice day, though, I'd rather be out in the garden – hence there wasn't very much done in the house this summer! And I hate vacuuming – it makes me sweat.
I wouldn't say the housework is split evenly between us but Mike has such a punishing schedule that just wouldn't be possible. Sometimes it can be hard to get him to sit down and relax for an hour nevermind clean the bathroom. But he doesn't come home and demand to know why a chore hasn't been done. Mind you, I think I would deck him if he did!"
Our ratio for cleaning is probably slightly lower than 50:50 because of my schedule. We don't have any kind of rota or plan, instead most of it is done on impulse.
There will be a weekend or a free hour when I just take the notion to clean a room or tidy something up. I like doing the shopping so when I'm coming home from work at about 8.30-9pm I call ahead and see what everyone in the house needs.
Then when I get in, I like to cook. I'm not very good at it, though, so I really have to concentrate on everything I'm doing. Nor do I get to do it as often as I'd like – coming home at 9pm doesn't lend itself to a family dinner. I'm not that keen on ironing although I find it's not too bad once I get going – and like my wife I usually get the radio on to help pass the time."
How to divide the housework
Make a list of all the tasks that need done – that makes it easier to divide.
Talk about it – you may prefer some jobs, he might like others. Discussing what needs to be done will help divide the chores.
Appreciate your partner – instead of nagging, give positive feedback when chores are done.
Be patient – things happen and not everything can be completed to deadline, patience means everything will be done in due course.
If all else fails, strike! It's amazing how quickly someone can learn to do the laundry when they run out of underwear!