These days it seems like more men and women are comfortable switching traditional roles: stay-at-home fathers are enabling working mothers to be the high-powered, bread winners.  According to Sunday’s New York Times article, “Wall Street Mothers, Stay-Home Fathers,” a small, but growing number of women are breaking into high-ranking Wall Street jobs as a result of their husbands’ willingness to take care of the home. Census data indicates that women in finance with stay-at-home husbands have grown almost tenfold since 1980.  Sounds encouraging, right?  Not really, if you think about the idea that the advancement of women is still FRONT PAGE news.

     To confuse matters further, the Times also reported on the front page of its “Sunday Review” section, that “young men are doing no more housework than their fathers did.”  Why would they when they have so few role models? Do those stay-home fathers, married to highly paid, Wall Street women have housekeepers? In an article entitled, “The Case for Filth,” the writer attempts to analyze the reasons why men don’t clean. He concludes that both sexes would enjoy life more if they spent less time tidying the house.  Duh!

     If you have a son, you don’t need a newspaper article to tell you that young men don’t clean.  Of course, if your son has ADHD and an inherent inability to focus on tedious tasks, how much can you blame him for not cleaning up?  Like some young men, my son has thoroughly embraced the idea that filth and squalor are more fun than hanging up a wet towel or dropping dirty clothes in a hamper.  Why would Max—or anyone—WANT to pick up an empty soda?  The can doesn’t look that bad where it landed on the floor beside the wastebasket, a playful pitch that just missed the mark.  Wouldn’t ANY young person of either sex prefer to focus on video games, texting friends or making out with their dates?  In fact, most of the young women who enter my son’s bedroom are so enamored of him that dirty laundry on the floor, an unmade bed, and garbage spilling out everywhere won’t deter them.  Does this mean love is truly blind? Or has Max been rescued by the occasional cleaning lady who miraculously managed to prevent bugs and rodents from disrupting a blissfully romantic encounter?

     Come to think of it, the prospect of bed bugs did not discourage my autistic spectrum daughter, Sarah, from falling in love with Jake.  In fact, Sarah got angry when I would not allow her to go to Jake’s apartment until the infestation was eradicated.   Why was I interfering in her privacy? The idea that she might be bitten by a bed bug and bring the creatures  home with her,  forcing us to move out and spend thousands on extermination, never entered her head.   Fortunately, I was able to explain bed bug infestation to Sarah well enough so that she waited—grudgingly—to enter her boyfriend’s apartment until it was declared bug-free. And I’m happy to report that the romance survived the insect interruption and is going full steam.

     Here in America it seems that each generation cleans less thoroughly than the previous one.  Whether male or female, it seems that the expectations for cleanliness and order are sinking lower than they have ever been.  As my own mother would attest, I am no neat freak.  Mom has fond memories of me doing my homework on the floor “surrounded by a sea of papers.”  I have less than fond memories of her yelling at me whenever I stepped on the perfectly straight fringe of our living room rug.  If I messed up the fringe, I had to kneel down and comb my fingers through the crooked threads so each one lay smooth and straight.  If I made it past the fringe—into the sacrosanct  living room itself—and found the nerve to sit down on a sofa or chair, I would make sure to plump up the pillows when I stood up so that there was no indentation.  Needless to say, the “living room” was the least lived-in room in my parents’ apartment.  Friends from my generation—some of whom grew up with all white living rooms—also report finicky mothers who discouraged them from setting foot on the expensive carpets.  In those days, a “living room” was more like a shrine or museum exhibit, meant to be admired from afar.

     Go back another generation and it gets worse.   When my grandmother came over to visit my parent’s apartment, she ran her fingers over every surface to check for dust.  No matter how meticulously my mom or the housekeeper had cleaned, Grandma always managed to find stray dust particles on a picture frame or shelf edge and shake her head in disapproval.  Cleaning was a moral obligation, an extreme but all-inclusive religion that required hours of tedious sacrifice. After all, cleanliness is (supposedly) next to godliness.

      Of course now that everyone works—male or female, on Wall Street or at home—there is less time and energy for cleaning and housework.   It’s tempting to say that cleaning—an endlessly repetitive task that can never be considered “complete”—is something most people try to avoid at all costs.  In New York City many housekeepers earn $20 -$30 per hour.  Most of them have no college education, and many speak limited English.  In contrast, there are well-educated millennials—male and female— who are earning considerably less—if they are lucky enough to find full-time employment at all.

     I do know of one college grad (female) who is currently cleaning an apartment and thrilled to be doing so.  Gone is the demanding boss from her previous entry-level position who paid her peanuts and expected her to work overtime.  This young woman is left alone to do her job and works fewer hours for a bigger pay check.

     Yet male millennials are not snapping up jobs as housekeepers.  Last time I checked, most housekeepers are still women—surprise, surprise!  Of course there ARE a few “house men,” but they are an elite group, working in the largest, wealthiest homes for much higher pay and health benefits.  Sometimes the “house man” has a title, like “executive assistant” or “valet,” and performs more high status duties, including the supervision of the (usually female) housekeeper.

     So let’s not get too excited about the Dads who stay home, while their wives work high-powered jobs.   These “gender benders” are no more impressive or admirable than all of the women throughout history who have labored in the home and nurtured the next generations.   Whether a person works inside the home for no pay or earns a big salary on Wall Street, each job has value, no matter which gender performs it.

     All great plays and films feature actors with important supporting roles.  That’s why the Tony’s and Academy Awards have a category for “Best Supporting Actor” and “Best Supporting Actress.”  At least on television, both genders are honored equally.



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