‘When I come home, the house is a s---thole’: Why WFH husbands don’t do the housework

wfh husband
wfh husband

She commutes to the office every morning; he stays at home with the children and a laptop. This is now common among young, middle-class families in the area of London where self-described “work from home husband” Daniel Tannenbaum, 34, lives.

“At the school my eldest goes to, there are more dads than mums doing the school run, not just in the morning but at 3.30 or 4pm too,” says Tannenbaum. While Tannenbaum runs his own digital marketing company, his wife, Samantha, 35, is a dentist and partner at a Hertfordshire clinic.

Their situation “came about naturally,” he explains. “I attend to the children [aged two and five] if they’re sick or up at night, because if my wife is too tired, she might drill into someone’s cheek.”

The Tannenbaums are part of a post-Covid phenomenon: more women than men have been hauled back into the office, as their jobs – disproportionately in education, retail or healthcare – can’t be done properly (or at all) from home. Among the couple’s friends are stay-at-home dads working as insurance brokers, surveyors and start-up founders, and office-based mums in the public sector or working in healthcare jobs like Samantha.

“It works very well for all of us,” Daniel says, “but my in-laws find this way of living very bizarre and alternative, as they’ve got a strong concept of gender roles and whose job it is to do what.”

Forty years ago, of course, it was still largely accepted that men would leave the home to go to work and women would manage the house – cleaning, cooking and attending to children – around their paid work. If women are now the ones commuting to a workplace, surely it should follow that the parent at home takes on the bulk of the domestic labour?

Not so, if anecdotal evidence is anything to go by.

“I don’t resent being called into the office, as I find working from home distracting,” says Laura*, 44, whose husband is “a standard TWaT” (meaning that he works in the office Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, with Monday and Friday from home).

“While at home during the pandemic, I was supposed to be glued to my laptop, but I found myself constantly sweeping a critical eye over the cleanliness of my home and focusing on those domestic chores too,” Laura says. But “the same critical eye does not seemingly afflict my husband”.

Far from coming back to a house tidier than the one Laura left in the morning, “all breakfast foods are still out, no washing of pots or clothes is done” and by the evening “all surfaces are covered with detritus”.

‘Men and women are brought up to see the world slightly differently’

In a rather depressing but not altogether surprising discovery, recent research would suggest that the shiny new concept of WFH husbands doesn’t necessarily equate to an equitable sharing out of domestic chores.

In 2023’s British Social Attitudes Survey, 63 per cent of women said they did more than their fair share of housework, while just 22 per cent of men said the same (32 per cent of men admitted they do less than they should). And in the same year, Ohio State University published research that showed that while both husbands and wives completed more family-related chores when they were working from home, men still lag behind women.

“Empirical evidence does show that women who are working from home do more housework than their partners, and also that they pick up more chores than they would do if they were working elsewhere,” says Heejung Chung, a professor of work and employment at King’s College London.

This was a pattern that emerged during the first Covid lockdowns, says Chung, but one that “we’ve seen continue now that the pandemic has ended and people are going back to work”.

Men who worked at home during the pandemic “generally tended to shirk away from doing housework and childcare,” Chung says. In fact, women who were allowed to leave the house for work throughout lockdowns “still did more domestic labour than their work-from-home counterparts”.

It’s tempting for frustrated partners to blame the undone labour on their home-working husbands’ laziness. But could there be something in our upbringing and environment that makes it so much harder for men to identify the domestic chores that, to their female partners at least, so clearly need to be done?

Tom McClelland, a philosophy lecturer at the University of Cambridge, believes there is. After reviewing more than 60 studies that explore how household labour is carried out in heterosexual couples, and finding that women consistently do more than men across the board, McClelland believes that the problem is best put down to “affordance theory”.

This is the idea that certain objects come with “invitations” to do different things. “The way people see the environment around them differs from person to person, and a key difference in that is in gender,” McClelland says.

“Men and women are brought up to see the world slightly differently, and that seems to change which affordances the environment around you invites,” he explains.

Women might see a laundry pile as “to be washed” or a dishwasher as “to be emptied”, but these same associations are not so ingrained in the majority of men.

Crucially, it’s not what we’re explicitly told to do but rather what we see done around us – especially in our early years – that builds these “affordances”, McClelland says. “I’ve often had men tell me that this idea that ‘they can’t spot things’ doesn’t apply to them, because they were brought up by a single dad who did everything,” he says.

This might explain why work-from-home husband Daniel Tannenbaum – whose in-laws see the set-up as “bizarre” – remains “completely clueless” when it comes to housework, after more than a year of WFH full time.

Daniel Tannenbaum and his wife Samantha with their two children
Working-from-home husband Daniel Tannenbaum, pictured with his wife Samantha and their two children, admits that he struggles to keep up with all the household chores

He describes the couple’s housework and childcare split today as “75-25”, weighted towards him, but admits that during lockdown – while he was doing his previous City job from home – his wife still took on roughly the same amount of work at home as he did.

“It can feel like I can do a hundred things right, but if one thing’s left over then my wife will pick up on that and often she’ll be frustrated with me,” Daniel says. “It’s like we can look in the same room and she’ll see a hundred things to do, and I won’t see anything.”

It remains a conscious effort for Daniel to do the things his wife does automatically, and this has turned into discussions over “standards”, he says. The laundry gets done while Samantha is at work, but “there are definitely a few things that used to be white that are pink now, and the kids are never dressed as nicely as they are when she’s in charge”.

To Daniel, this is a matter of “fun”. “We put our own spin on things,” he says, and “while mum’s not here it’s OK to play ball games inside, have things flying about and have everything being a bit more relaxed.” This attitude, explains Daniel, keeps him and his WFH-husband friends from feeling “emasculated”.

‘There are days where I do feel like I’m going insane’

It’s unlikely, however, that wives returning from a hard day in the office will be particularly sympathetic. Laura, for instance, says that while her husband is a “vital and hugely appreciated cog in the weekly childcare juggle” and the children are fed, washed and happy, “the house is a s---thole”.

Workplaces might now accept that both parents need to play an active role in their children’s lives, says Chung, but washing and cleaning still come with stigma attached – another reason why WFH husbands do less, despite taking on this more traditionally feminine family role.

“We’ve been heavily socialised for generations into thinking that housework is all a woman’s responsibility while the man is meant to be the breadwinner,” says Chung. And, while expectations might have changed around parenting, conventions around housework remain “a fact that does still play out in couples where one or both partners is working from home”.

This “breadwinner” pressure also makes men believe they always have to be “on” or available to do paid work, she says.

“Men are more likely to focus solely on work during work time, as they can fear being penalised if they aren’t constantly available to be on calls or pick up tasks,” Chung explains. “Because men haven’t been asked to balance housework with paid work, historically speaking, it isn’t something they have learnt how to do in the same way.

“Women squeeze in as much housework as they can when they’re working their paid jobs remotely, or they’re still expected to take on the bulk of it when they get home from the office.

“And we wonder why women experience huge levels of burnout.”

Yet, even for WFH dads, fitting work around family life isn’t without its pressures. “Me and all the other dads get to be there for music recitals and sports events,” says Daniel, “and we’re the ones who take the kids home at the end of the day and start making dinner. But after dinner, lots of us are grabbing the laptop again. It can become a lot, and there are days where I do feel like I’m going insane.”

Welcome to the club, lads.

* Name has been changed