Both men and women rank sharing household chores as the third most important ingredient in our recipe for a successful marriage, right behind faithfulness and good sex. Yet the latest data tells us that in dual-earner couples, mom is still doing more housework and more childcare than dad does. Surprisingly, when mom earns more than dad, she does even more – not less – of the family work than other employed moms. As Amy Vachon, co-author of Equally Shared Parenting: Rewriting the Rules for a New Generation of Parents says, “Sharing doesn’t come automatically, because our culture pushes us into traditional roles.”
For many mothers our approach to sharing chores and childcare consists of doing the tasks ourselves, nagging our partner to do them, and then resenting that we are doing and nagging. That is a recipe for failure. A recent UCLA study looked at when women are most satisfied with the division of household labor. Is it when she does everything herself, when her husband does many tasks but she manages all the tasks, or when the two of them are working as a team? According to Dr. Tamar Kremer-Sadlik, UCLA Professor and co-editor of the book Fast-Forward Family: Home, Work, and Relationships in Middle-Class America, a woman’s satisfaction is “not about an equal amount of labor but that there is a sense of coordination and shared goal of doing something for the family, of working as a team, even if the two of them are not doing exactly the same amount.”
If you would like to work more as a team with your partner, these six tools can help you get out of the rut of managing family tasks yourself so you can reap the benefits of sharing responsibility.
Create a custom list of all the work.
Make a list of all the tasks required to keep all the trains running at home. Ask your spouse to review it with you. Who’s responsible for what right now? What is the best way to make sure everything gets covered?
Putting a piece of paper on the table focuses the conversation on the shared work of caring for the family and your partnership with each other, instead of focusing on the person and the dirty laundry he doesn’t seem to see. Walking through a list also makes you more appreciative of each other because so much work is already getting done. Once you realize this, it’s harder to take each other for granted. Get started with this sample and a fill in the blank template, and you can pull ideas from this exhaustive list. Be sure to include planning and coordination tasks along with the daily and weekly chores.
Revisit your list often.
Tired of fighting about family chores in that moment you discover no one has clean underwear? Making “who does what” a regular conversation provides the opportunity to see what’s working and what’s not before blow-ups happen. My husband and I sit down as a team every six months with our list to check in and make adjustments. Pull out your list whenever a major family change comes up like a parent taking a new job, when summer schedules kick in, or when there is a medical crisis in the family.
Ask your partner to take responsibility.
If you ask him to handle the grocery shopping, and then get peppered with questions about what should be on the list and texts from the store about which brand of bread to buy, he’s taken the task, but not the responsibility. Ask for what you really want. For example, at a time when my work hours were about to go up, I said to my husband, “I’d like to you to take responsibility for meal planning, not just the task of grocery shopping.” I told him what taking responsibility meant to me. He owns it. He makes the plan and the shopping list. He makes the decisions, and I don’t have to think about it. Though of course he can ask me for help and input if he wants.
Agree on “good enough.”
“Good enough” childcare does not simply mean “the kids are alive at the end of the day.” According to my husband, washing the car once a year is not “good enough” car care either. You and your partner likely have different standards and different skill levels for various responsibilities. One particular challenge Dr. Kremer-Sadlik notes is that, “Women have been socialized to do household chores, and so they may have more skills and higher standards.” Don’t assume the two of you have the same standards or that yours are “right” because you’re the mom.
Discuss what makes a family dinner “good enough.” Maybe it must include a fruit or veggie. Consider what makes the laundry done “well enough” from both of your points of view. Maybe folding is optional but separating darks and whites isn’t. Watch out for a tactic my husband has tried where he says, “Fine, if you want it done that way, then you do it because I don’t care that much.” Clarify that if one of you has higher standards, the other partner can’t use that as an excuse not to do that task at all. Find a compromise first, so that either of you can get it done “well enough.”
Women have absorbed a lot of messages about what a “good mother” does and how – namely everything and perfectly. So we hover and manage everything he does in order to meet those crazy ideal standards. But when we won’t let go, no one is happy.
The UCLA studies confirm that when we micro-manage we resent it, and he feels constantly nagged and criticized. As Dr. Kremer-Sadlik advises, “If you want men to do things, you have to let them call the shots in that area.”
Ask everyone to pitch in.
As soon as kids are old enough to have chores, include the entire family when you review the list of chores and childcare. Everyone gets the message that family work is a shared family responsibility – not just mom’s responsibility. The last time we did this in our home, our daughter negotiated to do laundry if my husband would take her chore of changing the cat litter. I agreed to get my own car washed at least once a month.
While these conversations may sound like a lot of work, taking time up front to create clarity and share responsibility saves time in the end. One study found that couples who had a clear understanding between them “did not spend as much time negotiating responsibilities; their daily lives seemed to flow more smoothly.”
Follow the recipe for a team approach to chores and childcare and you’ll save time and strengthen your marriage. Remember what Amy Vachon says, “It’s a gift to give your partner the responsibility and the power, not just the task.”
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