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For Valentine's Day and every day

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Two aprons -- Superman and Wonder Woman

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Holidays serve many purposes: they mark the year's passing, they bring people together, they stimulate the economy and they almost always include chocolate. Usually, though, women make more of a fuss about holidays than men -- maybe because women handle most of the preparations.

I've met a lot of attached men who say they don't have much time for "Hallmark holidays" like Valentine's Day and Mother's Day, when (they say) all the restaurants offer specials at inflated prices. At the same time, at least on Valentine's Day, they're also likely to arrive home feeling romantic, perhaps hoping for a decadent Valentine's meal on the table. After all, decadent eating is more fun with two. Believe it or not, so is cooking.

Fellows, if you want to show your partner you love her, ignore the commercial messages. Never mind the itchy lacy lingerie, the big box of caloric chocolates to share, or the latest home appliance--– unless she's specifically asked for it. Valentine's Day is about loving gestures like drawing a heart in the snow on her car (or better still, clearing it off). Or holding her hand like you're the luckiest lover in the world. Or making or choosing a greeting card to make her smile.

Most women plan their days and their lives around their family duties in a way most men don't, a fact that has remained true since 1978, when I started studying who does the housework. Of course, back then most women identified first as housewives and mothers, even if they had significant careers. In the 1950s, learned professors and clerics argued seriously that women were innately, genetically, predisposed to enjoy housework.  

In 1975, British sociologist Ann Oakley blew away such absurd assumptions with her survey finding that 70 per cent of women said they didn't like housework, a finding that has been replicated many times over, including by me. Recently (in 2014), I interviewed 54 women my age across Canada for my seventh book project. Among the questions I asked them was, "What is your approach to food?" Most replied, essentially, "I cook from scratch," and usually with a minimum of fuss.

But here's the switch: about 20 per cent said, "My partner's a better cook." I also happen to know a few men who are caring for seriously ill wives, standing by them, although the majority of men don't. And I rejoice, sometimes I even dance on the sidewalk, when I see a father deftly shepherding children. Fellows, if you're in one of those categories, what I'm about  to say does not apply to you, because you already know it.

I have sad news to break to the rest of the true believers: I'm sorry, guys, the House Elf exists only in Harry Potter stories. Dinner doesn't magically appear on the table. Dishes don't magically clean themselves, nor does the magic laundry hamper somehow return stacks of clean neatly folded clothes to your bedroom. The reason your partner's bustling around while you're watching TV? That's how the work gets done. The extent to which you ignore essential daily chores is the extent to which your partner pays with her own time, her earning power, and possibly her health.

Men's health benefits dramatically from having a devoted partner who looks after them. Married men live longer and fare better in almost every indicator than single men. Women also benefit from good marriages -- but generally speaking, even including finances, not nearly as much as men. Indeed, one report says marriage (let's say partnership) is five times as beneficial for men as for women.

Bad partnerships are destructive to both men and women, but more so for women, significantly raising the risk of heart disease, according to the journal Health Psychology. We're not even talking about the risks of childbearing. For most women, partnership increases stress.  

Stress is related to expectations. We all face frustration and challenges at work -- and most women do earn their own money these days -- but a guy who comes home from work frustrated usually expects to find dinner on the table. Women come home to a "second shift" of work in the home, even if the male partner is unemployed. A recent post at Slate says women spend an average of three more hours a day than men on invisible House Elf work. Men would rather sit on the couch watching TV and eating bon-bons -- er, chips -- according to the article.

Look at things this way: a woman who spends the day working for money and the evening working on chores is likely to be tired by the time she puts her feet up... and not much interested in romance. She might even be folding laundry or building a homework diorama long after her partner dozes off or heads to bed. And unless you're trading off shiftwork hours, the very idea that housework keeps her up late should set off your own alarm bells. Women need sleep too.

All of which is not to scold anyone, but to point out the opportunities to earn her surprised and sincere gratitude by relieving her obligations -- so you can sweep her off her feet. Turn off the TV. Step up. Work alongside her. Follow her lead. You might learn a lot about how your household runs -- like where the cleaning supplies and baking pans are kept.

Have you ever seen Prof Mark Gungor's explanation of the difference between men's brains and women's brains? Gungor says that men's brains are organized in boxes -- "a box for the job, a box for you, a box for the kids... hundreds of boxes. And the Number One rule is that the boxes don't touch." But men's favourite box, he says, "is the Nothing box." Men like to park themselves in the Nothing box and not think at all. Whereas, he says, women's brains are like electric globes, always crackling with arcs of energy from one point to another. When a guy is in his Nothing box, he doesn't even see the housework -- whereas a woman's crackling brain can see nothing but chores that need to be done.

So here's an easy and meaningful way for a guy to show some caring and appreciation: get out of that Nothing box, open your eyes, and stop believing in the House Elf. Share the housework. It will get done in half the time, once you learn to work together. You'll learn how to take care of yourself, or both of you, if something should happen to her. Most of all, she'll feel lighter, freer, happier -- and very glad to have you for her partner. Happy Valentine's Day!

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