My husband and I entered marriage with a "pre-nup." We agreed that were going to have two kids (a boy and then a girl, he said), and we were going to raise our kids in a progressive environment where we shared the work fairly and modeled what we wanted to see in the world.
The kids part went smoothly: first came our son, and two years later, our daughter. But it wasn't until I burned out--twice--that we realized we weren't even close to 50/50.
The second time, I had already decided I wanted to make a major change in my career, and had begun training as a coach. When the time came to make the jump, I took a few months off to complete training, spend time with my children, rest, and start thinking about what I wanted to be focusing on in my coaching practice. One of the first topics I came up with was fairness in domestic division of labor. While I thought we were pretty fair, I was still exhausted. So I did what any sensible data fanatic would do: I started documenting.
I started a log, and I gradually collected all the things I was doing. And I watched, and noticed what my husband was doing. And I logged what he did. And at the end, I sent him the list, and I asked him if he had looked at it. "Yeah," he said, and paused. "Whoa."
How Did We Get Here, Anyway?
My husband is a hard worker. He does projects around the house, and he does tasks when we agree on a specific division of labor. But he wasn't doing nearly as much as I was. And we asked ourselves: how did we get here?
What happened was that I was primed--by societal expectation, by habit, by how I was raised, a host of different mechanisms--to just do what needed to get done. And I took it on myself. Not all at once: one play date, one birthday party, one sink full of dishes at a time. For another whole complicated set of reasons, he took on a few things that needed to get done, and more things he enjoyed, like home improvement projects.
The trick is: I landed up with dozens and dozens of things that needed to get done and were time dependent, and he landed up with mostly things he wanted to do, with no time dependency.
Want to Break the Cycle? Understand What Is
To change a process, you need to start with where it is. Like us, you can use a log, or make it into a game trying to see who can list more of the things that the other person does, or find another way to acknowledge together who is doing what around the house.
A powerful piece of this is acknowledgement of each other. Individually, we notice and remember everything we ourselves do; we do not see or remember everything our partner does. Logging who does what is not about "here, see that I do everything," it is about creating a realistic view of where you are right now in your partnership. Take the lead in your relationship by acknowledging the things you hadn't realized that your your partner does, and thanking him or her.
This can be particularly tricky if your partner isn't willing. There is no simple solution to resistance, but one approach is to share that this is important to you and why. If your partner isn't on board talking about what's important to you, it's a sign that you have work that needs to be done before you can tackle division of labor.
Understand Where You Are? Now for What You Want To Be
Before you start divvying up duties or start talking who-does-what, there's an important step, which can be done before or after your picture of as-is: a shared vision for your family and relationship.
Most of us tend to cruise through life without stopping to think about the big picture. Do you know what you want your family life to look like? What are your non-negotiables, and what is most important to you? Do you know what those things are for your partner? How do you see your roles in this family?
It may feel like extra work, but this is actually the most important step of all: coming to agreement on a shared vision of how you want your family to be. It's so important because it becomes a place you can come back to when you are making decisions.
Finally: What Do You Want to Try Next?
Do you want a different division or labor? Perhaps you're fine with the home labor, but in order to make it work, you need to only work outside the home part time. Or perhaps you feel it's time for a complete shakeup! There are a million ways you can arrange your lives: take your vision and look at your list of things to be done.
- What does a fair division of labor look like?
- What do each of you want to do, enjoy doing, or not mind doing?
- Are there things you can do less of, or stop doing entirely?
- Are there things you can hire someone else to do?
This exercise can lead to interesting conversations, things such as: just how neat and clean does to house need to be? Do those cards to family for anniversaries and birthdays really need to get sent? And how do you and your partner make decisions about these things together, even when your ideas of what is important are different?
Come up with a plan that feels fair, and that you want to try, and then talk about how you will do it. Changing habits is hard. How do each of you want to be held accountable by your partner? And how will you commit to receiving feedback if your partner feels you're not following through? This is an essential step: it's hard to tell someone they're not living up to their end of a bargain. Set yourselves up for success.
Build in Check-ins
Finding fairness in a relationship is not a one-and-done exercise. Like anything worthwhile, it's a practice. So make sure to discuss and agree how you're going to assess what is and isn't working on a regular basis, and make sure it happens.
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For my family, I now work two part-time jobs from home, and I have accepted doing more of the family work because I can fit it in. But my husband has also stepped up and does much more of the shuttling kids to activities and running errands. Without being asked, he steps up and I don't have to ask him to do the dishes if I cook dinner; I just have to remember not to just do them myself out of habit.
It's a change for both of us, and we're not done. But it's getting better.
Val Sanders is an Empowerment Coach in Lamorinda, in the San Francisco Bay Area. She helps professional parents find joy and balance in their lives and careers.