Why Being Less of a Control Freak May Make You Happier

A survey finds that many women won't even delegate their most hated chore: housecleaning. And yet doing so could guarantee some measure of happiness.

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On my last birthday one of my sons wrote a poem for me, using the letters of my first name to start each line. It was sweet, sort of. It began, “K: kind of a control freak.” When I read that line, we both laughed: my son laughed at my mock horror, and I laughed because if I weren’t a control freak, he wouldn’t know how to tie his shoes, say please or thank you, or take his muddy shoes off at the front door. Oh, and he would have scurvy.

I am no different from most women. I know this because while by night I am K: Kind of a Control Freak, by day I am the editor of Real Simple magazine, where I have spent the better part of a decade amassing completely unscientific evidence to support the theory that most women would rather swallow fire than delegate household tasks.

Sure, we feel overworked and wish someone would just lend a hand, but experience has taught us that that hand would be making the wrong choices nine times out of 10. And then what? Entropy. Laziness. The diminishing of standards until life is all cartoons and high fructose corn syrup; no educational TV or whole wheat bread.

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But is this really the state of the American woman? Or is it just representative of all of my control freak friends and the women who love Real Simple? To find out, Real Simple recently commissioned a national study with the nonprofit Families and Work Institute, to better understand the relationship women have with time. We surveyed 3,230 women ages 25 to 54 nationwide.

It turns out that the list of things women don’t want to delegate to a spouse or partner is longer than I imagined. There were some predictable tasks that women do not want to hand over, such as decorating, which will not surprise anyone who has watched a husband follow his wife forlornly through the furniture department at Bloomingdale’s. But cleaning? The women in our study named cleaning as their most hated task, and yet nearly half said they would not hire someone else to clean their houses, even if they could afford it. (And more than two-thirds would not hire child care, even if they could afford it. Which is perhaps less about fear of delegating than about 21st-century motherhood guilt, which is another story altogether.)

This is where control freakishness turns, well, masochistic. Because, according to our study, 55% of women who delegate to their spouses more than once a week reported feeling satisfied with their lives. As for those who never delegate to their spouses? Only 43% of those women describe themselves as very satisfied.

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I used to know a woman, a working mother of three girls, who did not ask her babysitter to go to the grocery store for her, even when the children were in school all day. When I asked her why not, my friend said, “Because she will buy the wrong kind of lettuce.” I understood exactly what she meant, although I wished I didn’t. Now that I’ve seen the results of our study, I wish we could have laughed at ourselves and admitted that, at the end of the day, romaine is really not that important.

Am I suggesting that we all relax our standards? Embrace the chaos that ensues when the control freak relaxes her grip and hands off some responsibility, even if the outcome is the wrong head of lettuce or a kid who doesn’t take his muddy shoes off at the door? If it means that we will all be happier, then yes.

Next year I am going to ask my son to rewrite that poem for my birthday. Maybe the first line will begin, “K: Kind of, uh, lazy.” And we will both laugh again. He’ll laugh because he’ll think he’s gotten away with insulting his mother, and I’ll laugh because it means this control freak has finally made a little bit of progress.

Kristin van Ogtrop is the managing editor of Real Simple, the author of Just Let Me Lie Down: Necessary Terms for the Half-Insane Working Mom, and the mother of three.