Every couple has to figure out who does what to keep things running—and for a lot of people, it’s a sore spot. Is it an issue for you and your partner?
In an earlier era, household division of labor was clearly defined: The man earned the money and took care of the yard, while the woman was responsible for the house and the kids. This arrangement wasn’t great for those who felt trapped in “breadwinner” and “homemaker” roles, but for many families, it was more or less equitable in terms of overall workload.
Today, couples are much more likely to negotiate their own division of labor and much more likely to be intent on keeping things fifty-fifty. The thing is, too rigid a focus on things being exactly even can create problems. So can dividing tasks without really thinking through what works for the two of you as individuals and as a couple.
There are two key variables to keep in mind: how much each partner works outside the home and how each feels about specific domestic tasks.
In this post, I’ll use “work” to refer to paid employment (including in a home office), even though of course it is also work to run a house and care for children. When I talk about “domestic work,” I mean all the things it takes to keep a household running: laundry, groceries, vacuuming, paying bills, childcare, pet care, yard work, planning holidays, the whole multifaceted shebang.
Who likes or is good at what? If you hate doing the laundry and your S.O. doesn’t mind, go with that—and take on something your partner doesn’t like doing. If you both hate a certain task, agree to alternate every week or month (or hire someone to do it, if that’s possible). Or you do one yucky task regularly in exchange for never having to do something else you hate. As much as possible, play to your strengths and preferences.
How much time does each partner put in on the job? Include commuting time and work done after hours (like an hour every night checking office emails). If one person works outside the home and the other doesn’t, the at-home partner should, in my opinion, do the bulk of domestic tasks so the breadwinner can focus on supporting the couple/family. The longer and less flexible the job hours, the more the at-home partner should try to take pressure off the provider. If both partners work about the same number of hours, domestic chores should be divided evenly (the amount of time spent on domestic tasks, not the number of tasks). If both people work but one works much longer hours, the one who works less should do proportionately more domestic work.
Two gray areas here are unpaid and very-low-paid-but-satisfying work. In some families, one partner earns all or most of the money and the other is very busy with volunteer work or something fun or creative for which they get paid a small amount. This is wonderful when it works for couples; I am a big fan of volunteer work and of creative outlets. But sometimes this volunteer or less-remunerative job takes so much time that the household suffers or too many demands are placed on the employed partner. There is no one answer for how to sort this through except talking to your partner and thinking about the impact on the household as a whole (as opposed to any one individual).
Here is a key question to ask yourselves: What is the division of leisure? Rather than getting caught up in dividing tasks evenly, try to arrange things so that both of you are getting (on average, over the course of the month) about the same amount of time to chill or do things you enjoy. If one of you is usually stuck with responsibilities while the other is watching TV, out with friends, or enjoying a hobby, resentment can develop. If your schedules are very full, there may not be much downtime to be had—but you should both be getting some of it.
Bonus question: Can the kids help? If they’re infants, obviously not. But even elementary-age kids can take on tasks so the adults won’t have to—things like feeding the dog; gathering, sorting, and folding laundry; clearing the dishwasher; vacuuming. Once you’ve taught kids to do the chores and established an expectation that they’ll do them, the load on parents gets lighter. (And you can add new tasks every year.) This also has two benefits for the kids: They learn skills that they’ll need later in life, and they develop confidence. Research shows that kids who have regular chores enjoy contributing to the household (despite the whining) and develop feelings of competence (because they do become competent at the tasks you’ve taught them).
As you think about all this, the core question is: Does your division of labor work for you as a couple (or as a family)? What overall arrangement best serves the common good? Have you arranged things so that no one is likely to feel unduly burdened or resentful? If things were flipped, would you hate it? Do you appreciate your partner for taking on the responsibilities he or she does? Over the years, you may modify who does what, but always keep in mind the need for balance.