I'm thrilled to see the sheer number of discussions lately around the fact that women do a whole lot of extra work in most households. Not just household chores, but additional significant unpaid mental and emotional work, too, as MNN writer Angela Nelson documents in this well-written and thoughtful example.
It's something I noticed years ago when I was a popular babysitter, and I saw how many different families operated. I learned then how much labor and care children really require, and also how much of that work — physical, emotional, social, mental — falls to women. Among the families I babysat for, that was true, including families in which the women out-earned their husbands, women who worked longer hours, and even true for a woman who was pursuing a Ph.D. while being employed full-time.
I watched, and I listened — and I got mad. Men, from what I saw, got away with doing a lot less of almost everything. Let me be clear: Most of these men were and are engaged and caring partners. They were also really great parents who loved their kids in ways both practical and otherwise. These were the good guys. But to my observations, they just plain old did a lot less actual work, and much more "fun stuff" with their kids. Meanwhile, their wives picked up the slack, including the myriad details of daily life — as well as more of the discipline and organization. (It's worth noting that research by the Pew Foundation has found my personal observations to be widely true.)
It wasn't fair, and it wasn't right. It still isn't.
How to draw the line
I decided those many years ago that I wouldn't live like that, and I haven't. I don't do extra emotional work or really, any additional work simply because I'm the female half of a heterosexual relationship. I chose not to have kids, so I know my situation is different than many women's. But I know of other child-free couples (some of whom are younger than me and will have kids at some point), where the women's labor is still greater. It's not just kids who encourage women to do so much more — the trend starts long before that in most relationships. Kids exacerbate and amplify dynamics already at work in a couple — in this way and many others.
What do I (not) do? I don't pick out gifts for birthdays or Mother's Day or Hanukkah and mail them to my partner's family — those are his responsibility. I don't keep track of any of my partner's soap/hygiene stuff or his doctor's visits, when his good shirts need dry cleaning, or if he needs new socks. If he runs out of soap or the toothpaste he likes, it's his problem. If his teeth rot out of his head, he's the one who has to suffer through painful dental work. (To his credit, he doesn't have this problem because he's a grown man who knows how to take care of himself.)
Sound mean or unloving? In turn, I don't expect my partner to keep me in my special body oils or favorite deodorant, to get the stains out of my bras or schedule my gyno appointments — see how crazy it seems if you flip the labor? (Can you imagine a bunch of husbands sitting around saying things like "I forgot to pick up Anne's favorite rose kombucha AND spaced on scheduling her Pap last week! I'm such a bad hubby!" Yeah, no.)
In my relationship, we split the housework 50/50. If I sense I'm doing more than my fair share, I push back — hard. Seven years in, I have a great relationship with a man who does 50% of the labor — with plenty of flexibility for if one of us is sick, or traveling or has a big project due. The only extra emotional or mental work I do at home is ensuring that work (all the work, not just chores) is relatively evenly divided.
I don't do any extra housework because I set it up with my partner not to, and I don't do extra mental and emotional work in my household because I have refused to. The world has adapted around me, rather than me to it.
Think of it as Leaning Out
Where did I learn this? I had a good lesson in delegating responsibility from my grandmother, who raised me to take care of my own stuff from a young age — from making my bed at age 6 to doing my own laundry by age 8 to putting together my own school lunches by 9. If something went wrong (I forgot lunch or my favorite corduroys were dirty), it was on me. I learned quickly to be organized and to create schedules for my household chores.
Consequently, I completed my college applications on my own, after doing research on the best school for me, and packed what I would need my first semester from a list I wrote myself. I had zero issues transitioning to a college many hours away from my childhood home, while plenty of my friends had to figure out how to do laundry, get to class on time and perform at a college level academically all at once — and couldn't handle it. I had enough free time that I decided to double-major and founded a student group by the end of my freshman year, while seeing tons of live music, and making plenty of new friends, many of whom I still have today. My grandmother expected responsibility from me, and I rose to the challenge. Doing things myself gave me confidence, too. She wasn't doing so much extra work because she knew how to delegate — to her child and to my father, to my aunt and uncle, and to others in our community.
I think of it as Leaning Out: I do a lot of visualization in my meditations, and one of them is just taking a deep breath and sitting back in life. It's important to step forward for what matters, but you don't need to step forward every time. If you find yourself being the one who keeps track of someone else's problem, or baking cupcakes for every birthday or new hire in your office, making sure your husband leaves on time for a plane, or keeping track of your 12-year-old daughter's stained soccer shirts, stop. Lean out.
You can lovingly expect the people in your life to be responsible for their own flight times and stained shirts. If they don't pick up the slack you've let out, they'll miss out, and that is their problem, not yours. They might think you're being "mean" for a short time, but the upshot is that they will learn responsibility and accountability.
For those chores that need to happen (like caring for very young children or elderly parents), sit down once and officially divvy them up. Be clear about who does what. If you find that you're doing extra work, assign it back to the other person or people in your life.
It all comes back to trust
If all that sounds harsh or scary, remember that delegating responsibility means you trust your spouse or kid, which you should. I hope it's not putting too fine a point on it, that if you feel you "can't" assign work out to other family members, you're being distrustful of their abilities — and not allowing them to learn life skills.
The only way to stop doing extra work is to stop doing it. If you do, your daughters will grow up without that burden and your sons will grow up as truly equal partners. After all, kids learn by example. I did.
And ultimately it's insulting to grown men to assume that they can't handle as much mental organization and emotional work as women do. Demand and expect them to shoulder their fair share (of all the different kinds of work) and both of you will be happier at the end of the day.