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Here’s how I used to think things should work between my husband and I: everything should be split, down the middle, totally equally—the division of labor, the finances, the childcare.
If I cooked, I felt he should do the dishes. If I put the kids to bed, he should get up with them in the morning. We should each put the exact same amount of money into our joint account each month.
(Since we both work for ourselves and are incorporated, we keep most of our money in business accounts, but write ourselves a salary check each month that we deposit in a joint account that we use for household/family/personal expenses—sharing because I always think it’s interesting to hear how people deal with their money and guessing you probably do too.)
I mean, hey, it makes sense, right? You do want relationships and the responsibilities that come with those relationships to be fairly equitable for the sake of harmony. Nothing wrong with that.
Except for this: Seeking to make everything split evenly traps you in a mode of keeping score. And when you are keeping score, someone wins and someone loses. And that is really no way to treat a partnership—because at least one of you and often both of you will feel shitty, either because you’re ‘losing’ or because you’re ‘winning’ and you either feel guilty about or feel like you need to protect it.
It is also exhausting to keep tabs on who did what—that’s a lot of keeping track that eats up a lot of energy.
Plus, fairness is an illusion anyway. You didn’t decide to do this thing called life together because you were seeking fairness. Or because you saw your partner as an opponent. You did it because you love each other and you wanted to have each other’s backs, right?
And someday one of you will simply have to bear more of the responsibility. Like after my husband broke his ankle and couldn’t even get off the couch to pee (he used a pee bottle; something that became my responsibility to empty). There was no getting around the fact that every kid pick-up, meal cooked, plate cleaned, and sidewalk shoveled became my responsibility. If I were obsessed with keeping score that reality would have been a whole lot harder to swallow. (And having to empty his pee bottle was tough enough to accept! Ha. The experience taught me I’m really not a natural caregiver unless you are a small human or adorable dog).
I absolutely don’t believe that women should be the one to do the lion’s share of the work around the house or with the kids. But the idea that we should even be aiming for a 50/50 split of household responsibility is a myth that keeps us unhappy.
I know why the myth exists in the first place—women still do substantially more work around the house and with the kids than men do. In America, women do more than hour of housework more a day than men. In England, women do 60% more housework than men. Even in Finland, where they have apparently figured everything out including education and family leave, women still do 45 more minutes a day of housework than men.
Absolutely, I want women everywhere to free themselves from this heavier load.
But when you’re keeping score, it’s very hard to approach any conversation about it with any semblance of calmness. And when you’re working out who does what, your tone matters so much. If you’re keeping score, it’s going to be a lot harder to manage saying it lightly. Because you will be pissed.
A light-hearted and simple “Hey babe, could you take out the trash?” is a lot different from “HEY! BABE! COULD YOU TAKE OUT THE TRASH!?!!?!”
So let’s re-write the ideal of household division of labor from a scale that’s evenly distributed, 50/50 to a see saw—sometimes you’re up, sometimes you’re down. Who does more can vary from moment to moment, but so long as you’re both cooperating the fluctuation is enjoyable.
I definitely get that heavy, burdened feeling that too much of the household work is falling on me. And that’s my cue that it’s time to speak up and share my experience with my husband. He always, always responds favorably when I come from a place of “I love you, but this is really weighing me down, how can we make this better?” It’s such a different story from when we were first married and I would come at it more from a place of “Hey bucko when you going to do these dishes?!” (I wrote about that a lot here and here.)
Connect, relate, ask, wait, listen – that’s my formula for having those tough discussions about anything, whether that’s related to the division of labor or not. If you look at the first letters of that formula, it spells CRAWL. Which is really perfect, because this formula really forces you to take things back to basics, and hey, if you want to ride off into the sunset together, you first have to learn how to crawl.
We get a cleaning lady twice a month to do all the heavy cleaning, someone cuts our lawn once a week, and I recently hired a dogwalker to take Cookie on a romp twice per week. I know it’s a privilege to be able to do so and not everyone can afford it. But should some proverbial axe fall and we have to cut expenses these are the last things I’ll cut, because they buy back my time and they make my relationship infinitely better.
As you go through the process of deciding who should do what and what division of labor feels right two you, consider this: maybe neither one of you has to do it. Maybe you can pay someone a nominal amount to do it for you. Then you don’t have to fight about it, you don’t have to spend your time on it, and someone else gets to support themselves doing something they are at least theoretically good at an enjoy doing. And that’s a win-win.