Wednesday, May 15, 2013

An equitable division of labor

Let me start by saying that I had a lovely Mother's Day weekend.  On Saturday a friend generously invited me to go to the ballet with her--an event Henry categorically refuses to attend.  I got to get dressed up, drink a free glass of champagne at the fancy-pants reception for big donors we snuck into during intermission, and generally feel like an adult rather than a parent.  On Sunday the weather was beautiful, and I spent the afternoon riding to bike shops looking for new wheels that will work with HP's child seat, eating good cheese from my favorite local shop, and reading uninterrupted while HP and Henry went on a walk.

But here's the thing.  I had envisioned a day where my husband took over all of my every day duties so I would get a legitimate break and he would recognize, appreciate, and sing me praises for all of the work I do for our family on a daily basis.  

That didn't happen.

I still washed and hung a load of our laundry.  I still dealt with the diapers, including extra cycles with various cleaners to try and get rid of the ammonia stench that just will not go away.  I still cooked dinner.  I still did dishes in the morning.  I still changed dirty diapers, made snacks, and cleaned up the food that fell under the table.

I am not saying that to make it sound like Henry is lazy or uncaring--he's not.  In retrospect, my expectations were both unrealistic and unexpressed, so how could I reasonably expect them to be fulfilled?  At the end of the day, we were sitting on the couch talking and I told him, "You know, I was expecting to take a break today from my usual chores.  Instead, one of two things happened: I either did the task anyway because it needed to be done or didn't do it and simply created more work for myself tomorrow."  

It may sound like I was being accusatory and ungrateful, but we actually laughed at the situation and then had a productive conversation about how the workload should be distributed on the weekends vs. the week to be more equitable.  Our conversation brought about an "aha!" moment regarding our current division of labor: I most often do the everyday tasks while caring for HP (even on the weekends), while Henry takes the initiative on larger projects.

One of my strengths is the ability to get a lot of stuff done while keeping an eye on HP.  I wash dishes and clean up the kitchen multiple times a day (no dishwasher, a small drying rack, and limited counter space makes that a necessity).  I do the laundry when it needs to get done.  I sweep and vacuum and clean the bathrooms (though the last one admittedly happens about a third as often as it should).  Henry will happily do any of the above tasks without complaint, but I have to specifically ask; he rarely takes the initiative.

Henry's strength is in doing bigger projects.  On Sunday when he wasn't doing the daily/weekly chores that I thought he would, he was finishing rebuilding the pantry.  Over the course of two weekends, he took out all the old boards, bought new wood, cut the wood to size, stained it, painted the walls, and reinstalled everything, including the trim.  Last month he installed a solar tube to bring more light into our living room--something I have been wanting since we moved in more than a year ago.  Back in January, when I casually mentioned I would like a built-in organization system in kitchen cupboards to hold the cookie sheets, muffin tins, and other assorted baking items, he finished the project within two hours of my comment.  

Henry and I have different tolerances for everyday disorder.  It makes me crazy.  I feel like I can't do anything else until the kitchen is clean, the toys are thrown back on the shelf, and I am not stepping on HP's latest meal when I walk across the room.  That stuff doesn't bother Henry.

As frustrating as it can be to feel like I am the only one who does certain tasks, I am thankful that we have different strengths.  If it were up to me I would have completed only a tiny fraction of the house projects on our list.   I rarely take on big projects without prodding because it always feel like so much effort and the power of inertia keeps me from getting started.  With Henry around, we tackle at least one big thing a month, and usually more.

I do not think that the fact that Henry works on larger projects around the house lets him off the hook for not being proactive about the everyday tasks, just as the fact that I do the biggest share of the daily tasks doesn't let me off the hook for avoiding big projects.

When I start getting irritated about what I perceive to be an unequal labor distribution, I try to remind myself of these facts about shared work from Gretchen Rubin to put it in perspective.  It's easy both to feel unappreciated and to take a loved one's contributions for granted--as Rubin notes, we are often quick to see our own efforts and slow to recognize those of others. 

Eventually we can enlist HP into doing all the chores and our problems will be solved.*  Until then, Henry is going to try and be more proactive on the weekends, and I am going to try and work on bigger projects during the week.  Will it be perfectly equitable?  Probably not.  But it's a step in that direction.

*Kidding.  Sort of.


  1. I don't know... my friend runs a daycare from her home, and her kids love the clean house "game". She hasn't dusted baseboards or swept in ages, and for the boys who can't seem to aim into the toilet, they're responsible for cleaning "their" bathroom! You never know... HP might be down :P

    Also, fun fact: I have another couple who "renegotiate" their relationship tasks every 3 months (most recent development? he irons regularly, so she wants to add her stuff to his, but they haven't fully worked it out yet :)

    1. I have every intention that he will be a contributing member of the household! Children=free labor. (Once again, kidding. But also serious.) In general I think kids like to participate and take on responsibility--it gives them a real sense of accomplishment and the knowledge that they are contributing members of the household.

      I love the idea of having a set time to renegotiate tasks. Henry and I have been through many iterations. One of the most successful was creating two lists of chores (list A and list B) that had to be done every weekend. Each week we would switch lists. That was our most equal distribution, but it was different when we were both in grad school. We're still searching for the solution that feels the most fair in our current situation.

  2. Again, your post really spoke to me. I can't get anything big done until everything is tidy. I also want a "break" on the weekends, but rarely does that happen. Glad to know that you struggle with this too!