7 Tips for a More Equal Household

Feminist marriage hacks for the designated worrier

started Mother’s Day weekend by loading myself and a bag of potted roses into the passenger seat of the car, heading off to our preschool’s Mother’s Day party. As I did so, I pointed out to my husband David that—no matter how egalitarian our marriage—I was still the one keeping track of teacher appreciation week, and running out during the work day to get flowers and write cards. (Keeping rather poor track, or I wouldn’t have run out at the last minute on a Friday afternoon, but still keeping track.)

So when I opened the Sunday Times to read “Mom: The Designated Worrier,” I sighed, because here it was in print. Proof that no matter how hard we tried, we just couldn’t break the gender molds. That, as the article articulates:

Sociologists sometimes call the management of familial duties “worry work,” and the person who does it the “designated worrier,” because you need large reserves of emotional energy to stay on top of it all. I wish I could say that fathers and mothers worry in equal measure. But they don’t. Disregard what your two-career couple friends say about going 50-50. Sociological studies of heterosexual couples from all strata of society confirm that, by and large, mothers draft the to-do lists while fathers pick and choose among the items. And whether a woman loves or hates worry work, it can scatter her focus on what she does for pay and knock her partway or clean off a career path. This distracting grind of apprehension and organization may be one of the least movable obstacles to women’s equality in the workplace.

But then I kept reading. And instead of feeling depressed, I felt cheerier and cheerier as the article went on. Because sure, our balance of household labor isn’t perfect (is that even possible?), but we were doing a damn good job of avoiding many of the traps the author laid out. Perhaps this is generational, since Judith Shulevitz says:

With new generations come new hopes. According to research done by the Families and Work Institute, more millennials share domestic labor—and the management of it—than Gen Xers did.

But perhaps not. David and I are, after all, maybe Millennials maybe Gen Xers. But we do come from households where domestic labor was not divided along gender lines (mine), and where a working mother was the norm (his). And it turns out, the behavior parents model really does make a difference. I don’t think twice about men being the primary cook, and David doesn’t think twice about women being the primary breadwinner. For me that means that it’s worth all the extra effort it takes to try to create a more egalitarian household, because I want to model that for the next generation.

Over a decade of trying to hash out our approach to household chores, we’ve worked through a lot of obstacles, including one of us not being very skilled at cleaning and cooking (me), one of us not being fantastic at financial management (him), being overworked and overtired and not having a lot of time to spend on the house (both of us), and the inherent gender divide that comes with the chores of raising very tiny children that one of you gave birth to. In that same decade, our responsibilities have gotten greater, our house has generally gotten cleaner, and our fights have gotten fewer.

So in the interest of sparking conversation about what works (and what doesn’t) here are seven things that we’ve learned over the years.

1. Different people are primarily responsible for different tasks. Over the years, David and I have varied how we divide up our tasks, but we always divide them up. Currently, David is in charge of cooking, and the related grocery shopping (this will probably never change). He’s also in charge of day to day financial management… and diaper changes. At the moment, I’m responsible for an array of duties including daycare drop off and pickup, laundry, and yes, organizer and keeper of lists. We have a few shared projects, including general cleanliness of the house… and raising our kid.

This division of household departments leads to a huge reduction in fights, not just because we both know what our jobs are, but also because we’re both managing our own jobs. I don’t tell David how to cook dinner, and he doesn’t tell me how to manage the laundry. We can ask for help if we need it, but instead of the muddled and fight inducing, “WHY DO YOU NEVER HELP ME WITH ANYTHING,” the conversation is more likely to lead with, “My back is hurting from pregnancy; I need you to carry the laundry up the stairs.”

2.Be a good teacher (and lower your standards). For a woman, I have something of a unique perspective on How to Teach a Grown-Ass Adult to Do Stuff Around the House. In short, I grew up in a household that was in enough disarray on the chores front, that I didn’t emerge with a clear skill set, or a lofty set of standards. (You don’t use gloves and a scrub brush to clean the toilet? Dish soap does not in fact work in the dishwasher? You don’t say!) As a result, I have a pretty clear idea of how to guide skill acquirers in a helpful way, and how to shut them down forever. Here, from the New York Times article, is how not to do it:

I’ve definitely been guilty of “maternal gatekeeping”—rolling my eyes or making sardonic asides when my husband has been in charge but hasn’t pushed hard enough to get teeth brushed or bar mitzvah practice done. This drives my husband insane, because he’s a really good father and he knows that I know it. But I can’t help myself. I have my standards, helicopter-ish though they may be.

What, you ask, might work better? Other than trying to cut down on eye rolling, the following formula has worked for us:

  • Explain tasks to people clearly. Just because they don’t know how to do laundry, or run the dishwasher, doesn’t mean they’re an idiot. It just means nobody ever taught them. And the good news is, with the exception of cooking, most household tasks are not actually that… complicated. If your partner can’t remember which setting applies to which kind of laundry, that’s nothing a note taped to the laundry basket can’t fix.
  • Don’t micromanage. While I’ve learned to do a lot of things around the house, the one thing I’ve gotten less skilled at over the last ten years is cooking. Why? Because every time I try to do something in the kitchen, David walks in (even if he’s deathly sick and I’m trying to help out), and starts correcting me. “Actually, you should cut the onions this way.” “Actually, if you season the pan first you’ll have better results.” ACTUALLY: if you want it done your way, you should do it your damn self. All of which is to say, if you teach someone how to do something, and then walk around telling them they’re not doing it well enough, you will very quickly find yourself doing it on your own.
  • Lower your standards. Yeah, maybe you like the bathroom cleaned to a specific level of shine, or the laundry folded a particular way. But the joy and pain of partnership is that the other person might not agree… or might have different (and possibly lower) standards. If you want any hope of sharing chores over time, you have to let people’s standards be different than yours, within the realm of reason. (Cleaning the bathroom once a year is probably not good enough, but the mirror not getting washed regularly? Live with it.)

3. Beware the (bullshit) gender argument… except when it’s actually factual. Right after Shulevitz’s posits that, “Gay couples, on the whole, are more egalitarian in their division of labor,” she turns around and tries to float this argument:

Allow me to advance one more, perhaps controversial, theory about why women are on the hook for what you might call the human-resources side of child care: Women simply worry more about their children.

If there is one argument I’m tired of, it’s the “women just biologically have more desire to care for their kids/take care of the household than men.” I mean, sure, there are some women for whom this might be true… and there are some men for whom it is also true. But that comes down to a mix of personality, and yes, socialization.

But the bottom line is this: when it comes to managing a household, running lists, and keeping things organized, anyone can do it if they set their mind to it. First off, there are tons of families with two dads where the dance recital costumes are somehow procured, dinner fixed, and the laundry washed. Turns out, when you don’t have an excuse or someone to fall back on, testosterone does not prevent you from managing those straightforward actions. And second off, as someone who does both jobs, I can assure you that being a CEO and running a household are very similar skill sets. So unless you’re going to tell me that men don’t have the skills to be CEOs, I’m not going to buy that they don’t have the skills to help manage their households and children.

However, there is this one major caveat: childbirth. During the period of our lives when we had a very small and nursing child (a year ago/a month from now), or I was pregnant (three years ago/right this second) we were not able to choose how we divided things up. I, unfortunately, had to do the heavy lifting on pregnancy, and having done that, was the only one who could do the heavy lifting on nursing… which often meant being the primary caregiver. It took us many months, and a lot of fights, to wrap our heads around just how not egalitarian the whole process was, and how far out of our control it was. What we’ve learned is simply childbirth and early child rearing is hard, it’s women-centric, and sometimes that sucks. As a result, David has to step up in a million ways (because if I’m nursing for seven hours, I’m not also going to be cleaning the house or cooking), and we’ve sometimes had to rearrange our career hours, and/or hire help. In short, we can’t make childbirth egalitarian, but we can try to hack (at) it.

4. Let people play to their strengths. All that said—different people have different strengths, and they sometimes fall along traditional gender lines. It’s not always worth fighting, just on principal. I might not be a better cook, but I’m a better list maker. So gendered or not, I’m the one currently carrying around the list of things that need to get done before the baby arrives, and forcing us to check things off. Sure, I could resist on the grounds that managing the list is traditional women’s work, but the truth is I’m naturally good at it, and David’s naturally terrible at it. And sometimes being egalitarian means letting everyone do what they want to do, instead of forcibly dividing things exactly evenly.

5. Set a schedule (or not). There are a lot of brilliant ideas out there about chore wheels and chore schedules, and they work for a lot of families. For our family though? They’ve never really worked. Now that we have a kid, and more things to manage, we have something of a vague schedule—grocery shopping for the week usually happens on Sunday, laundry usually starts on Saturday, general cleaning and tidying takes place at various predictable intervals throughout the week. But that schedule is really driven by the person in charge of the task (see #1). If I want to do laundry on Monday instead of Saturday, well, that’s nobody’s business but my own.

6. Sometimes it’s time to bring in help. For many of our ten years together, hiring anyone to help us out with chores or household tasks was completely out of our budget. But when hiring some help was a vague possibility, we didn’t do it for years, because we couldn’t figure out how much was worth spending, or how to justify it to ourselves. In the last year, we decided to start small, and it was a game changer.

Instead of bringing in a cleaning service once a week, or once every other week, we settled on once a month. They come in and do the deep cleaning, I give all of the workers a pretty large cash tip, and the whole situation feels like win. Sure, we’re still sweeping the floors and vacuuming in the interim, but we’re no longer wondering how long, exactly, it’s been since the toilet got cleaned. But beyond that, we’ve decided to practice self-care by hiring people to help with smaller projects that we spent lots of time worrying about, and never seemed able to accomplish. Hire a Task Rabbit to paint our bedroom? Best money I ever spent. Hire a gardener to clean up the yard after winter? My pregnant back just was never going to manage that. Hiring some help to warm up meals and generally take care of us after the baby is born, with no family around to help? Turns out my sanity is more important than… whatever I was going to spend that money on.

In short, we’ve had to realize that hiring help isn’t a sign of moral failing. And we’ve worked to re-prioritize our spending a bit. Sometimes self-care is more important than objects, and sanity more important than savings. Plus, we try to think about how we can best hire people that we pay fairly, so we can feel good about it.

7. Think carefully about how you balance your life outside of the home, as well. It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that an egalitarian home life just… happens. But it doesn’t. Not without a lot of planning and discussion and thought. If you set up your lives in a traditional way, where a male partner is bringing in most of the money and working the longest hours… the female partner will probably end up running the household. Why? Because someone has to. And that’s fine, if that’s the choice that works for you. But having realistic conversations early (and often) about what realistic division of responsibilities you can live with is key to building a household intentionally, and not just stumbling into prescribed roles. We have a reasonably egalitarian household, but we also work similar hours, at jobs we care about equally, with similar levels of responsibility, and bring home reasonably similar paychecks. It would be lying to say that didn’t really help.

How about you? What are your struggles with egalitarian household labor? What tips and tricks have worked for you? What problems are proving intractable? Where could you use a little moral support/advice/man-have-I-been-there’s?

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