Monday, April 30, 2012

What I Learned about Chores

I have to confess that I am a bit sick of thinking about issues related to being a mother in the workforce. Things got a bit nasty on my last post on working motherhood, and I had to threaten to delete comments written by actual people (as opposed to spambots) for the first time ever. And with the recent Rosen/Romney insanity and the fact that the English edition of Elisabeth's Badinter's book about how we're all being oppressed by motherhood was just released, triggering a bunch of annoying articles about it that I stupidly went and read... I think I'm just weary with the judgment and venom that the topic brings out in people. I can't even bring myself to go find the appropriate links for the Rosen/Romney and and Badinter stuff. You'll have to resort to Google. I'm sorry.

If you're sick of the topic, too, you may want to click away now. Don't worry, I won't blame you.

But I need to write one more post on this topic before I take a little break from it for awhile. I really want to wrap up what I learned from my recent post about men, women, and chores before the discussion fades from my memory. That post beat my previous number of comments record by at least 2x- and I read every single one of the comments. It sparked several posts from other people, which had their own interesting comments sections, and I read all of those, too. Here are the posts I know about (let me know if I missed one, and I'll add it):
Nicoleandmaggie also had a deliberately controversial post about chores, in which they argue that we are a little bit too obsessed with cleanliness, and that many of us might be happier if we'd let our standards in this area slip a bit. That post was planned well before I wrote my post, though, so I can't claim any credit for inspiring it. Still, it is quite relevant to my thoughts on this topic, and has some really interesting comments, so if you are interested in the topic, go read it if you haven't already.

You may remember, that part of what motivated me to write my original post was a desire to have better advice to give to worried young women who are hearing from all directions that they will certainly be doing more of the housework and parenting, and that this is why women are leaking from various pipelines, etc., etc. They see me claim that this is not how my life worked out and they want to know how I solved this problem. And up until now, I've mostly been limited to telling them to choose their partner carefully. Which I still think is good advice, but perhaps a bit limited.

But now, maybe I can tell them a little more.

I've decided to write the rest of this post as if I were giving advice to that hypothetical young woman (or man! Gosh, wouldn't that be refreshing?) who has emailed me worrying about how to combine parenthood with a career. I'm doing this because it makes it easier for me to write, and as I mentioned last week, writing time is at a bit of a premium for me right now. However, please note: if you do not feel like you need advice in this area of your life, then I am not writing to you. If you've made different choices than I have, and are happy with them, then hooray for you! Really. If you've made different choices than I have, and are somewhat unhappy with them but have decided you don't want to try to change them but want to complain about them anyway, then, um, I guess that's OK, too. I'll make you a deal: I won't be bothered by that if you don't make me listen to the complaining. Regardless, I am really, truly NOT JUDGING ANYONE. Really. Truly. I save my judgmental streak for people who hurt other people. 

But some people do want to change things, or avoid getting into unhappy situations in the first place. And here is what I would say to any of those people, if they were to ask me:

First, it is OK to take the division of household work seriously. I didn't read a single comment or post that would make me think otherwise, but if you need a reason other than comment volume, here is mine: chores equal time, and time is precious. It is irreplaceable. I have a limited amount of time, and I don't even know how much of it I have. So I guard my time jealously. Time I spend cleaning the toilets is time I don't spend playing with my kids or working on the various projects I have going. And playing with my kids and having time to work on those projects help keep me sane and happy. So, someone who won't do his share of the chores is essentially saying to me: "my sanity and happiness is more important than yours"- and I won't have that. You may feel differently than I do about that, which is obviously fine. But don't let anyone tell you that this subject isn't worth worrying about.

Second, sort this out with your partner before you have kids if at all possible. Again, I didn't read a single comment or post that said that having kids made this easier. Quite the opposite, actually. As I alluded to in my post about being a feminist mother, having kids made this harder for me and my husband- and we started from a really good place. Even if you try really, really hard to share the parenting equally, chances are good that the mother will spend more time on parenting tasks than the father, particularly when the kids are really little and the mother is breastfeeeding, dealing with separation anxiety, and all that. My husband and I had to make a conscious decision to trade off some other chores for the parenting work, even though we both think that is a sucky decision. For instance, I'd like to spend less time snuggling Petunia in the middle of the night. My husband would like to spend more. Too bad for us- Petunia has her own ideas on the subject, and right now, we've decided to let those trump ours. I think agreeing on this sort of trade off would be much, much harder if you're starting from a less equal starting point.

Along those lines- if you haven't found your partner yet, I'd suggest asking him if he plans on taking any paternity leave when he has kids. Don't be surprised if he hasn't thought about it, but do pay attention to what his eventual answer is. Nicoleandmaggie referenced a study showing that the division of household work is more equal in families in which the father takes paternity leave. This makes intuitive sense to me, because a Dad who has spent a significant amount of time being the sole caretaker for a little baby probably understands how much work that is. Even if he doesn't also have to lactate. And a Dad who understands how much work caring for a baby is may be more likely to think "hey, I think I should just do those dishes tonight, while my lovely partner gets our baby to sleep." 
For what it is worth, my husband took some paternity leave both times, including splitting a month with me: for both Pumpkin and Petunia, when the baby was four months old, I went back to work 3 days a week and my husband stayed home with the baby for those days. It is nowhere near what the Swedes do, but it did give him several days per week when he was the sole parent with the baby for over eight hours. We live in California, so we both qualified for some paid parental leave- it didn't completely cover our lost salary, but it did make this an easier decision to make. I think he's inspired one or two of his colleagues to follow the same pattern, too. And completely independently, I know of at least one male colleague of mine who did something similar. I hope someone is studying how these changes are playing out here in the US!

Third, don't assume that people can't change. I say this not because I have myself brought about change in my husband- I lucked out, and he thinks that it is "obvious" that having an equal division of labor is the right thing to do. I say this because Ginger and Hush wrote comments saying that they were once the guilty party who wasn't contributing as much as their partners to the household chores- or whose partners thought that, at least. If they can change, so can your partner, if he really wants to. Yeah, yeah, I know. There are cultural influences at work that might make this harder for him. But the great thing about being human and having a big, powerful brain is that you can choose to actively work against those influences. Now, I'm not saying that it will be easy to get this to change, or even that it will necessarily be worth the effort it will take you. But I am saying that it is at least possible for your partner to change and start doing more chores.

OK, so given all that, if you are in a relationship in which the division of chores is not as equal as you would like, what can you do? The way I see it, you have three options:

1. Care more
Some people here and on Laura Vanderkam's post were surprised that I'd leave a partner over this issue. But as Cherish's post and Erin's comment on my post show, I'm not alone in that, and while I do not think any less of people who would not leave over this, I do think that if you care enough that it is a deal-breaking issue for you, chances are excellent you'll end up with an equal chore split, particularly if you take my second point above to heart and sort this out before you have kids. Once you have kids, you may be stuck with lingering inequality even if you do leave, because you are too good a mother to make your children suffer because their father can't get his act together and remember that it is his turn to take in treats for the class or whatnot.

2. Care less
This is the approach advocated in Nicoleandmaggie's post, and I think everyone should really consider it. Laura Vanderkam has argued something similar before, too (but I can't find the post- Laura, send it to me and I will link it)- namely, if you and your partner are disagreeing about how often the windows need to be washed, there is a chance that he is right and they don't need to be washed that often. If your house is not a health hazard, then it really doesn't matter if it is a bit messy. Note that I say that as an asthmatic who has a severe dust allergy. Removing dust is a priority for me. Removing clutter... not so much. Cleaning the windows? I care about that only because my husband does. 
3. Decide to stop caring
You can also decide to make peace with the inequality on the chores front. Partners are people, and are a total package. Perhaps your partner provides something else that you decide compensates for the fact that he can't ever remember to do the dishes. That is fine. Great, even, as long as you are truly at peace with your decision to let this issue go. Shandra and GMP had really good comments about this approach.

I guess there is a fourth option, too- just stay unhappy. But I'd try the other three options first! Personally, I'd go with a mix of 1 and 2. But that is just me. Only you know what is right for you.

I want to thank everyone who took the time to write comments on my first post and/or write their own posts on the subject. I truly learned a lot from reading your words. I wish I had the time to link to more comments in this post- but if I try, this post may never get posted. I am much, much happier with the answer I can now give to a young person asking me about this topic. If you feel I've missed something essential, or just have more to say on the topic, by all means- leave me a comment here. For some reason, this topic gets emotions running high, so please, try to keep your comment respectful to people who think differently than you. Feel free to argue points, but please do not bash other people for their opinions. I'm feeling a bit touchy on this point right now, so I might moderate with a heavier hand than usual.


  1. I love this. And I didn't make the connection between paternity leave and a better chance for equality in chores/parenting, but man, it makes total sense and my anecdotal evidence definitely confirms it.

    My hubby took the 4 paid weeks our company offered, and a couple more weeks unpaid as well, but even before that, he rearranged his work schedule so he was primary caretaker of our baby when I was at work for 2 days/week. So for a full year he was solo w/ baby while I was at work.

    I think that made ALL the difference in the world, even after he went back to a "normal" schedule and we put our daughter in daycare for those 2 days.

    Just today I was marveling that he packed her lunch for preschool tomorrow. I totally could have done it and usually do. But he just did it. It takes 10 minutes, but the goodwill generated by that one action totally makes my day :D

    I'll stop gushing now. because you know, I must not really be happy according to the Internets :D

    I will say that I think it's a basic human reaction to feel judged when someone talks about their choices and they're different from yours. I had a friend who posted about how she forgoes her "me time" in order to be a mom, and at first I felt judged for doing things like Girls' Night, taking a trip without the kiddo, etc. But I realized that she was talking about what works for HER, without at all judging what other people do. it took me a couple of minutes to process that, though, without feeling hurt or defensive.

    1. I think you are right about how easy it is to feel judged by choices different from your own. I think this is part of the reason we have "mommy wars" (another part being that the media likes to fuel them). I've tried to consciously choose not to see other people's statements about how they live their lives as a judgment on my own choices. It is hard, though!

      I actually considered writing a post about this, inspired by @FeMOMhist's tweet about declaring neutrality in the mommy wars... but since I want to take a break from the topic, I don't think I will. It was a brilliant, funny tweet, though:

      "Officially declaring self non-combatant in mommy wars. Maybe Switzerland? Could eat chocolates instead of ripping other women to pieces."

    2. Love that post by @FeMOMHist. Chocolate is way better.

  2. Really nice round up and summary Cloud. Well done. Slate should be emailing you for their next roundtable if you ask me. :)

  3. I just wanted to add one clarification on the earlier thread (as it relates to this summation here). As I mentioned in the earlier comment thread, having an equal partner was a non-negotiable for me, and I wouldn't have married him if I hadn't known what kind of partner he would be. But - and here's what I want to clarify - to me this isn't about forcing him to live up to my standard of cleanliness in the house (I definitely fall into N&M's category of "care less" on the cleanliness front), or even about worrying too much about chore division. We actually don't worry about that stuff at all, or think about it all - it works out. We have approximately the same attitude toward cleanliness, about child-rearing, and about money. We never fight about any of these things. I don't need to have conversations with him about chores, because he's right there with me, pitching in (he's actually a better, more thorough cleaner than I am), doing projects, playing with the kids, generally engaged in our lives as a participating member. To me, that's what a partner is - not someone who agrees with you all the time, but someone who understands how to figure out what the family needs, and works with me to do our best to accomplish those things. (Thus, I can perfectly well imagine an equal partnership between a SAHM and a WOHD, etc.)

    In fact, there is very little structural equality in our day to day lives. I took 7 month maternity leaves in which I was the primary caregiver. He took some family leave as well, but was never a primary caregiver (ie, 20 hrs or more of caregiving per week). Moreover, we live 350 miles apart for 20 weeks a year (at a minimum). I have the kids with me. We talked about sending them back and forth, but the logistics were too complicated, which means I'm on my own handling everything for half the year. (Or 33% of the year) I mention these facts because they underscore my point - to me, having an equal partner isn't about "equality" (which like in Siblings without Rivalry, I'm not sure exists among partners), it's about having someone who has *profound respect* for your individuality, ambitions, needs, and desires, who *listens* to you when you articulate those, and tries to facilitate them. We've faced enormous stresses - my career vs. his most prominently - and we have never fought about it, because we both intensely and deeply want for each other, and also for ourselves. (This last point is I think the most important.) I wouldn't leave a partner who refused to do the laundry (I like doing the laundry and think it's not a big deal) - but I would leave a partner who didn't listen and try to help when I felt like something wasn't working for me. Does that make sense?

    1. Makes perfect sense to me. And articulated my point about why I'd leave a partner who wouldn't do his share better than I did, I think. It isn't about the chores- it is about what the fact that he wouldn't compromise on something so important to me says about our relationship. Of course, that is a hypothetical, since my husband gets this and it isn't an issue for us.

      But we do occasionally argue about chores, when one of us thinks things are out of whack.

    2. @ Cloud, yes. And on a more controversial note, I wanted to add that most of the examples I was talking about in other thread of unequal couples involve situations in which I think there is a distinct lack of respect between husband and wife, where the husband honestly feels on some level like he *deserves* x, y, or z (ie, a hot dinner on the table when he gets home) or shouldn't have to do x, y, or z (ie, to change diapers). Here's why I think it's about feminism: patriarchy creates inequalities between men and women, structural and cultural. Many men - esp. white dudes - are ingrained with a deep sense of entitlement, whether it's conscious or no. Many think their wife's role is to support and facilitate their life/career - and why shouldn't they think that since it's the model that's been portrayed to them since birth? But if you think that your wife has a supporting role in YOUR life, then you need to check your privilege pretty seriously. There's no profound respect there, IMO.

    3. I think the other thing about the kind of respect described here is that at its best it incorporates a long time horizon. So the division of labor today or this year or this decade (OK, not sure I'd go that far, but you get the idea) may not have been in your favor and it's even possible your partner isn't paying (detailed) attention to that (I'd distinguish that from being clueless or not caring, though), and it can all still be OK. One of the things I like about my marriage is not having to calculate whether "he owes me" or "I owe him" (as I have done in some previous relationships) because I know that over time we are each taking good care of, and there for, one another. It makes life so much easier.

  4. Anonymous7:01 AM

    I loved your original post, and reading all the comments... Sorry I slacked on writing a post of my own on the (similar) topic, but - Life. It happens.

  5. I've really enjoyed this topic on your blog and thought you did a very good job of distilling the conversation. I'm sorry you've had to put up with any negative comments just for discussing something! That seems silly.

    Yesterday, one of my friends went back to work after maternity leave and she emailed me asking for advice on how to be a working mom. I thought about it for a while and my main advice was to find out what works for her and stick to it without worrying too much about what other people are doing, but also allow herself the chance to try out different options. I think your post outlines just that - find something that works for you and your partner and do it! Here's the part that I think is important though - don't think that because working through this is difficult, that you are doing it wrong. It is something people struggle with and it's good to get it worked out. Even when I had roommates (and no spouse), division of household work was always a major topic! When you live with other people, division of the work to keep things running is important and it works better when everyone involved is somewhat satisfied with the division. (When I had roommates "somewhat" satisfied was the best I could get. I aim a little higher now.)

    1. Yes, I agree- having to work to sort this out isn't necessarily a bad sign. Like I mentioned in a comment above- my husband and I do still argue about our home labor division occasionally. We have gotten smarter, though, and sometimes we see the discord coming and bring it up as a discussion point during Friday night beers, instead.

  6. I came back to add a little bit though. While chores are called chores for a reason, and scrubbing the toilet doesn't fulfill me as much as working on a book, I actually do think there is a benefit to doing chores.

    For me if I'm grounded and stuff, it's like the meditating on food while you wash the rice; it takes on a kind of connectedness to things that I find anchors me. I've solved a lot of work problems while washing the floors.

    I think sometimes in these discussions we can lose that low-status work (cleaning) can be meaningful to the doer if we give it that meaning. Not that you have to. For me that's one reason I'm a little uncomfortable with the "lower your standards" method -- I mean it depends on so many things, including where your standards start. I grew up in a hoarding environment and it was really not okay.

    My house is definitely not HGTV-ready but I really do find a less cluttered, cleaner environment is of value to me and so finding the meaning in that work has really changed my approach to getting it done.

    1. Pulling weeds is my Zen chore. I actually like to do it, because it gives me time to think. Unfortunately, both of my daughters want to "help" me with it these days. They are completely ineffectual at actually removing weeds, and they disrupt my ability to think!

  7. A very nice summary post! Great job!

  8. Rinna9:55 AM

    I've only recently stumbled upon your blog, and I'm really enjoying it!!! I can relate to so many things that you discuss - it's a bit eerie. Unlike you, however, my husband isn't quite where I'd want him to be in the sharing parenting/housework responsibilities. He's about 1000% percent better than his father, but that's not really enough, is it?

    Which led me to thinking of a great blog post idea, if you are interested and ever have the time. How do you raise sons and daughters who will see the value of being equal partners in the future. I know for a fact that my husband and his brother were raised VERY differently in this regard than their sisters...I have two boys and a girl and, while they are all still quite small, I worry that I might be inadvertently doing the same thing (e.g., my daughter is naturally a much more helpful personality so ends up doing more...)


    1. Hi, Rinna! Welcome. I'm glad you're liking the blog. I've got two daughters, and was raised only with a sister... so I don't have any personal experience on how you raise boys and girls the same in this regard. I'd guess that this is another area where small differences in feedback may make a big difference in outcome, though. Perhaps people unconsciously compliment girls more for being helpful around the house? As the kids get older, a rotating chores schedule could probably help keep things fair and make it clear that chores are everyone's responsibility.


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