This is what happened when my husband wouldn’t do the dishes

silver pots unwashed in a sink

By Molly Winter

On FaceTime, my friend Rebecca tells me she can’t go back to her kitchen. Maybe tomorrow. But not tonight. She’s already done the dishes 810 times since the pandemic began. Number 811 will push her over the edge. I get it. 

Almost 20 years ago, Rebecca and I ran a group for middle-school girls, helping them to…Wait, what are we helping them to do? Rebecca asked me as we made our promotional brochure. Become strong, self-actualized women! I shouted, and we both fell over in spasms of laughter.

Now, we are two strong, self-actualized women—with husbands and sons. But these last months we’ve still spent waytoomuchgoddamn time doing pandemic dishes.

Rebecca’s sons are younger than mine, so I coach her. You have to get the boys to do the dishes. We both know that our husbands, who grew up together in the same 1970s Long Island milieu, count as two of the boys.

I remember my father sitting in front of the TV most nights, with a beer in his hand. My mother—after making dinner and washing the dishes—was often at the kitchen table, falling asleep over a pile of half-graded papers. My father would stand and stretch.

You coming up, Mary? he’d ask.  

No, she’d say wearily. I still have more grading to do.

Both of my parents were teachers. My father would critique my mother’s lack of efficiency before heading up to bed, leaving her to her work, never questioning how he managed to have enough free time to get his grading done as well as a decent night’s sleep. My dad occasionally did dishes when I was a kid, but never enough to balance the exhaustion scales between my mother and himself. When she did dishes, it was her job. When he did them, he was helping. 

Now, my mother has Parkinson’s, and my dad does the dishes every night. In the past several years, he has tasted a slice of the workload she shouldered for decades, and he marvels over how hard it must have been. Housework really is a full-time job, muses my septuagenarian father. No shit, Dad, I want to say. No shit.

Like his own father, my husband also won’t do dishes. He’ll change the cat litter box. He’ll pay the bills. He’ll go grocery shopping. But not dishes. A recent study by Review of Economics of the Household shows what women already know. Regardless of who works outside of the home, men do less housework than women. And COVID has made the imbalance worse. As a result, it can feel like we women are trapped in an Escher lithograph, a vicious cycle that will never cease, of sinks that refill like a fever dream, of sons watching mothers who do dishes and fathers who don’t. 

At the same time, I know that the dishes dynamic which I and many of my friends experience isn’t always the case. My husband and I have an open marriage, and one of the interesting sidebars to our arrangement is the intimate vantage point from which I can view other marriages, specifically the marriages of younger men, men who are 10, 12, 14 years my husband’s junior. A birthday in the late 1960s versus one in the early ‘80s seems to make a world of difference.

These men do the dishes. 

Sometime in mid-April, several weeks into lockdown, I lost it. After dinner, my husband picked up his own dish, put it in the sink, and walked away. What are we teaching our sons? I shouted without preamble. A fight ensued, naturally, ending with my husband angrily stomping down the steps to his basement office and me slamming pots and pans dramatically on the counter. 

My boys, 18 and 15, stood up, ushered me out of the kitchen, and did the work. The next day, in silent apology, my husband scrubbed all the toilets. 

My sons have continued to do dishes every night for the past nine months. They take turns, and sometimes they argue with each other, but it is tacitly understood that the task will not fall to me. The morning after Thanksgiving, I come downstairs and see the clean silvery sink, the wiped-down surfaces—not all of them, but most. It was my elder son’s turn last night, and he did a bang-up job. I want to sing.

I’m an adult, Mom, he’d said to me in the aftermath of that April fight. I don’t need a role model. 

His words unlock the door at the top of Escher’s staircase.

Molly Roden Winter comes from good Midwestern stock and now lives in Brooklyn with her husband and teenage sons. She is at work on a memoir about two generations of open marriage—her own and her parents.’ You can learn more and contact Molly here.

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