When I was growing up, all the cleaning supplies were stored in the closet by the garage. The large bucket was a vivid blue, and the vacuum was a canister model. The accompanying rubber gloves were often yellow, but not always, and hung on a hook beneath the kitchen sink. The last time I saw my father use these supplies was sometime in 1992, as my college career came to a close and I moved away for good. As he had done before, he dutifully scrubbed off the remains of the harsh winter and Pittsburgh grime from his car. My dad loved a clean car, and returning his to that condition was the only time he opened that closet.
My mother, on the other hand … well, there is folklore that every single member of my extended family has seen the blue bucket in action. No matter who was present or at fault, spills were cleaned up immediately and thoroughly, high heels and dresses be damned. And when the young cousins secretly had an M&M fight in the formal living room and she couldn’t express her outrage via the bucket, she admonished each one over the phone and demanded an apology. Still, as much as my mother deserved those apologies, there was something troublesome about the frequency and fervor surrounding her use of the cleaning supplies.
It took me 40 years to figure out why she was always so angry, but eventually, I understood: My father never helped.
Still, as a mother myself now, and one who considers herself an ardent feminist, it can be challenging to do things differently than what I saw growing up. I never forgot my mother’s anguish, but in my earliest years of parenting, I neglected to shift the paradigm. Instead, I did something both weird and lazy: I cleaned in secret, when my children weren’t looking.
I was only working part-time, and I thought my husband shouldn’t have to clean on top of working more. I even shooed him away when he tried to help. Two (conflicting) things were behind that stupid decision: First, I felt a sense of shame that I wasn’t bringing in more income, and second, those 18 years under my parent’s roof had left an indelible mark.
One fateful morning, I sensed the presence of my children as I scrubbed the kitchen floor on my hands and knees. I turned around to watch them staring, and lo and behold, my mother’s resentment oozed out of my every pore.
One recent study found that men and women ages 18 to 32, across education and income levels, believe in equality when it comes to gender roles. But when having to navigate a lack of family-friendly policies, most fell back on traditional roles.
Before those findings, a Canadian study explored the link between gender roles held by parents at home and the career aspirations of their children. Unsurprisingly, it found, “Mothers’ explicit gender role beliefs about domestic roles predicted those same beliefs held by their children.” I was living proof of that. What was revealing in the study, though, is that girls who saw their fathers take on an equitable share of the household cleaning expressed greater interest in working outside of the home. According to the data, girls were less driven by their high-achieving mothers if those women shouldered the majority of the domestic tasks at home.
I spoke with psychotherapist Lisa Arnone to see if she thought it was important for girls to see their dads clean.
“I think it is valuable for girls (and boys) to see their dads doing non-gender-bound labor inside and outside the home,” she said. “Cleaning would be the bottom of that barrel in terms of women’s work, and so I think the idea of watching your dad clean challenges norms and expectations in all kinds of ways: Status, power, competence, and availability all get redistributed when low-status jobs are shared equally in a family.”
Arnone labeled cleaning for what it was: a low-level job. Even though I brought in less income and even though I had more time, it wasn’t OK that I was doing the lion’s share of the cleaning.
But the real impetus for change was the possibility that our 8-year-old daughter’s future options could be impacted by her father’s domestic contributions (or lack thereof). And while there isn’t a mountain of hard data beyond the Canadian study to support the theory, it just made sense. Arnone expounded on the concept: “I think girls will be more ambitious if they have a mother who married someone who shares the responsibilities of the home equally and without question.”
Rather than fret over time lost setting a poor example for our daughter, my husband and I simply and immediately changed course. The first step was having him take on more domestic responsibilities, in full view of the children. Then we got serious and turned house cleaning into a family affair. Up until that point, the only meaningful and regular contribution our 8- and 12-year-olds had been making was folding their own laundry.
My family created a list of tasks and how often we felt they needed to be done. We also discussed age and abilities: Vacuuming would be challenging for the 8-year old. Replacing sheets can be difficult for young children, but everyone can tear sheets off a bed. My favorite part of the process was addressing preferences. My husband dislikes dusting, and I can’t stand vacuuming. My daughter likes dusting, and my son likes handling the loud vacuum. This process gave us an opportunity to hone our teamwork skills, although of course it wasn’t always seamless.
Then we wrote it all down — right on the family calendar, along with school and sporting activities. Even for families who hire a cleaning person, it’s likely that some upkeep will be needed. Utilizing a calendar puts kids in charge of executing what is expected of them. All of these concepts, by the way, also apply to single-parent and same-sex-parent households (which tend to divide chores more equally, according to a recent study) — not just dads — and more generally they apply to anyone watching someone else push the mop.
Tantalizingly, the Canadian study also reported, “Findings suggest that a more balanced division of household labor among parents might promote greater workforce equality in future generations.”
At the risk of oversimplifying, it’s encouraging to think that the simple task of sharing household chores might have such a far-reaching effect. Our children will be better roommates one day. Having witnessed their parents contributing to the household equitably and generously, they might have a greater capacity as partners down the road. And, if seeing her dad scrub the kitchen floor now makes our daughter chase bigger dreams in 20 years, what a wonderful bonus that would be.
So, on this auspicious occasion, the perfect Father’s Day gift might just be that mop.
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