Divvying up the household chores

Everyday amazements - January 2005


Dan Baron


First there was the marriage license. Then, the birth certificates for our two daughters.

Now, my wife Nancy and I have another major document in front of us, though this one changes at least once every week.

We call it “the list.”

It may not have the legal standing of those other documents, but we can’t live without it.

We sit down and talk about, sometimes argue about and—we hope—agree upon a list that details how we will divide household responsibilities between us. I never thought I’d use the term “division of labor” in reference to my family, but that’s what we have in mind.

The stakes are high: Making sure everyone in the house–especially 4-year-old Dina and 1-year-old Ally—gets what they need in a loving, functional home where Mom and Dad are both involved in making it all work.

Not that we know exactly what that means. My wife and I both work full time and agreed long ago that we’d share responsibilities at home. Still, one of the few things we’re totally clear about is that our roles and expectations aren’t as clearly defined as they were for our parents.

The specifics may vary, but we certainly have a lot of company these days, according to many researchers on parents and families.

“Social scientists would say norms are changing, or at least are uncertain,” says Linda Waite, professor of sociology and co-director of the Alfred P. Sloan Center on Parents, Children and Work at the University of Chicago. “In the 1950s, we were pretty clear–everybody knew the husband wasn’t going to come home and make dinner. Now, part of the challenge is that when things are undefined there’s more room for negotiation—and conflict.”

Waite has studied how much time husbands and wives spend on housework. A report she co-authored on the subject will be published this year by the National Council on Family Relations.

An early version of the report had a very telling title: “How Much Time Do Husbands and Wives Spend on Housework? Estimates Depend on Who You Ask, How You Ask, and What You Ask.”

That title will be shortened by the time the report is published, but it captures something relevant for me: There’s an awful lot that’s still disputed about who does housework, a topic that affects just about every family I know. It’s also very tough to quantify.

The question in our house, though, is not just “How much?” but “Why?”

“Why should I always be the one to go shopping for clothes with the girls?” Nancy asks me.

“Why should I be the one who gets up most mornings with the girls?” I ask her.

We are just as likely to ask questions related to how much we’re doing around the house, whether that means cleaning dishes or making the bed.

Almost inevitably, we keep coming back to the differences between men and women on this issue. Based on the research, that’s still a hot, yet largely unresolved, subject.

According to Waite, wives still spend more time on housework than husbands, “but the gap is much smaller than wives think it is.”

OK, I admit that the first time I read that I wanted to rush home and share this news with Nancy.

I didn’t, though, since she was in the middle of doing two or three things for our home at the time. Besides, it would be fair to say that she still does more around the house than I do.

It’s tempting to keep score on who’s doing what and easy to squabble.

At some point, though “division of labor” doesn’t have to mean division in the household. Nancy and I are learning that when you’re on the same team, focusing on your own statistics kind of defeats the purpose of the game (I doubt, however, that she’d use a sports analogy to make that point).

There are no easy solutions, but we’re getting better at this. It’s easier for me to wake up with the girls, so I do it. It’s easier for my wife to shop for girls’ clothes, so she does it.

Besides, even though we sometimes fight over these responsibilities, we also tend to love them.

In some cases, I figure, it’s also best to leave things as they are.

If things were totally “equal,” I’d be buying clothes for my daughters half of the time. However, having a color-blind dad like me who can barely match his own clothes shop for outfits for young girls might not be the best idea. Unless, of course, the “scarecrow” look becomes the latest trend in girl’s clothing.

Maybe, I tell my wife, I should focus on another item on our list.

Then again, maybe it’s time to realize that finding a way to manage a household is an issue that extends far beyond the walls of our own home.

Kathleen Gerson, a sociology professor at New York University, believes that major changes need to be made in the workplace and communities that would benefit parents at home.

“We still live in a society that holds onto the idea of an ideal worker who works full-time, overtime and in an uninterrupted way,” says Gerson, who co-authored the book The Time Divide: Work, Family and Gender Inequality earlier this year.

“That’s in direct conflict with the needs of families and sharing of domestic work—especially when children are young.”

Gerson makes a good point, and I feel fortunate that my wife and I both have some measure of control over our work schedules.

Still, there’s always room for improvement. Now, let’s see. Clean out the basement. Make dinner for the girls. And, oh yes, advocate for more family supportive workplaces and communities.

We’ll have to put that high on the list.

Dan Baron is an Evanston writer. You can reach him at [email protected]


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