Honey, I swept the floor!
Why do so many husbands feel the need to boast about completing simple household chores? With mine, it’s all about branding.
Closing the Whirlpool’s door with an exaggerated swagger, Christopher rolled down his oxford sleeves and said, “Just unloaded the dishwasher!”
I stared at him. I had loaded the dishwasher that same day without feeling the need to tell anyone.
Earlier he had washed the windows. Each time he walked back into the room, he pointed out the improved visibility: “Boy, do those windows shine!”
I should have laughed at him, but I was too tired to think anything was funny, so I said, “Who do you think filled the dishwasher, did two loads of laundry, car-pooled, cleaned the mustard spill in the refrigerator and billed a seven-hour day?”
My husband didn’t respond; he just started talking about the windows again.
I have heard him tell clients: “If you fail to define your brand, your competition will.” It took me a while to realize that he was applying the principles of branding to our marriage.
Christopher and I both have jobs, sharing household duties and responsibilities for our two children. In our sane moments, we appreciate each other’s contributions and our ability to forge a modern relationship. But when the chaos of our life gets to be too much, we turn on each other.
It wasn’t always like this. In the beginning of our relationship, living together in a tiny apartment on East 11th Street in Manhattan, Christopher and I rarely disagreed. We both loved the same spicy food and had grown up in the ’70s as latchkey kids who watched “The Brady Bunch” and ran feral while our feminist mothers changed the workplace.
Together we supported each other’s passions and compulsions, living in the moment with little regard for social norms or the future. Household tasks were divided up by aptitude or preference, not gender. Making the bed made Christopher feel organized and ready to start the day; I liked to vacuum.
On weekends, we walked our dog around Chinatown in search of hot bean paste or wakame for the elaborate meals we cooked together. Always on the lookout for ways to crack each other up, we took pride in getting the other person to laugh so hard they spit coffee.
Not until I was pregnant with our first child did we find ourselves on opposite sides of key issues. At first, we took turns on who got to make decisions: He followed my lead when I wanted to take a yearlong maternity leave, and I conceded to him on store-bought diapers.
After our son was born, there was so much to do and so little time that everything turned into a negotiation: whose turn it was to sleep in, who got a night out with friends, whose dreams were more realistic and who got the full-time job with health insurance.
We continued to divvy up tasks randomly as we always had, but the negotiations grew increasingly contentious. We had evolved enough to shed traditional roles and aspire to an egalitarian relationship, but that didn’t solve the problem of nobody liking the drudgery of household chores, particularly the never-ending laundry and dishwashing. Without any division of labor or set roles, we each thought we were doing everything (because we were).
While I just dug in without talking about it, Christopher would announce each completed task like a CNN correspondent dramatically reporting breaking household news: “Trash has left the building!”
After our second child was born, his announcements grew more brazen. He would claim, for example, that he had “done the laundry” after moving one load of wash to the dryer. But whenever I called him out on it, he wouldn’t back down. The busier our lives became, the more his habit angered me and kept me on the defensive. But maybe that was the point.
A pattern was starting. Christopher’s announcements seemed to be a way of building a case for what he wanted to do — organizing the barn or launching the boat — rather than what had to be done, such as scheduling dentist appointments and ordering heating oil.
His messages were strategic and part of a larger campaign. Christopher had spent his career developing identity management strategies for corporations, and he was now applying these skills to our relationship to build a more successful brand for himself.
While he never actually came out and said, “I do more than you,” he didn’t need to. By consistently claiming credit for everything he did, he was dominating the dialogue in our new domestic world order and positioning himself as the winner in the “who is doing more” fight.
By the time I figured this out, he had already captured a significant amount of brand mind share. Whose day was harder, whose parenting technique was better, who was responsible for cleaning the flotsam at the bottom of the garbage can — all of these conflicts could be branded or rebranded to his advantage. If I allowed Christopher’s brand to take over our household, I would be in danger of becoming the AOL to his Google.
Public relations is what I do for a living, so I was going to have to use my skills at home too. As soon as his car pulled into the driveway, I met Christopher at the back door and started firing off my own announcements: “Cleaned up vomit and poop today” and “Wrote an article with a child climbing on my back.”
But instead of conceding or validating my clearly more difficult day working from home with no child care, Christopher grabbed the broom and started sweeping Cheddar Bunnies off the kitchen floor in an overly theatrical way, as if he were trying out for the role of janitor in a community theater production.
In one swift move, he shifted the conversation, drawing attention to what I hadn’t done that day instead of what I had, making our messy kitchen the story and putting me on the defensive again.
Social media has taught everyone to build personal platforms, so my problem wasn’t unique. My friends — men and women — shared similar stories about how branding had invaded their marriages.
One friend told me her husband had branded her “the expert” (because she is a psychologist) to justify deferring to her with decisions involving their children’s education or developmental needs. “I finally realized he was just citing my Ph.D. to get out of the drudgery of dealing with school issues or having to read a parenting book,” she said.
Another friend said: “After my husband cleans the garage or the pool, he makes each person in the family come for a separate ‘viewing’ so he can solicit praise and bask in his accomplishment.”
With us, branding was even at the foundation of Christopher’s parenting style. He introduced lofty public service campaigns about the importance of consistent bedtimes that lasted until it was my night to go out with friends. On those evenings, he’d host movie dinners where nobody got to bed on time or brushed their teeth as he cultivated his “Dad is more fun” sub-brand, distinguishing himself from my more practical brand of routines, eating your vegetables and “How do you know until you’ve tried it?” slogans.
In the morning, when it was my shift again, I had to rouse our tired, cranky children and get them to school while hearing real-time testimonials from his new “brand ambassadors”: “Dad let us watch a movie you said we couldn’t.”
Thankfully the “Dad is more fun” brand collapsed on its own after I went to visit a friend for a week and Christopher had to get the children to school every morning on his own.
When we entered the most recent phase of our marriage, with both of us having full-time office jobs, I thought the “Who does more?” fight would end.
But Christopher still manages to drive the conversation by complaining about how his longer commute that “crosses two state lines” gets him home late, even though sitting on a Wi-Fi-equipped bus while sipping coffee and binge-watching “Game of Thrones” sounds a lot easier to me than handling all of the car-pooling, after-school activities and homework.
Finally I confronted the issue head-on: “I know what you’re doing. Stop branding in our house.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Do you really think you’re busier than me?” I said.
“I never said that.”
“Well, maybe you should,” I said. “In fact, why don’t you send a news release to The Portland Press Herald. The headline could read: ‘How Does This Man Do It All?’”
“I really think it’s more of a national news story,” Christopher said with a smile.
I laughed, but actually he’s right. It is a national news story. From coast to coast, husbands are announcing, “The trash is out!” and “The floor is swept!” — constantly trying to seize the upper hand in the domestic chore branding war.
Time to change the narrative.
Brooke Williams is a writer and communications professional in Kittery, Me.
A version of this article appeared on New York with the headline: Honey, I Swept the Floor!.
Cover photo: Brian Rea by the New York