Home is where we do so much of our living, and maintaining harmony in our homes is so important. The daily patterns of our lives and how we accomplish chores and child care make up the way we organize our families. With this comes the necessity of dividing out the work of the home to those who live in it. Few things are more stressful than hitting the end of the day, when everyone is utterly exhausted, and then disagreeing over who should give the kids a bath and get them to bed.
A frequent point of contention for many couples, especially those with young children, is how much each partner should be doing. Who should scrub the toilets, who should change the grossest diapers, and who takes out the trash?
Those in happy marriages know a secret: If there’s a scorecard for your relationship, everyone loses. Having a well-run home in which things are clean and easy to find and housework fights are minimal is possible, even in homes with lots of kids.
At the end of the day, this division of domestic labor relies on so many different variables that trying to reach equality in tasks will be an exercise in futility. Instead, the focus should be on whether the people in the relationship feel the division of parenting duties is imbalanced.
Many Factors Contribute to Imbalance in the Home
Unfortunately, resentment can grow over miscommunication about who should be doing what or how much. Mothers, weary from spending all day minding children or working and then coming home to find children and housework still needing their full attention, can be disappointed and upset if their husbands don’t understand the overwhelming nature of childrearing and cleaning.
A long-running study, conducted by the University of Michigan and started in 1968, has tracked domestic labor. Its summary of how many hours people are spending on housework per week found that “single women did about 13 hours a week, married women, regardless of age, did about 17 hours a week, single men did about 9 hours and married men did about 14 hours a week. These figures include all single and married men and women, regardless of a number of children.”
While this study was long-lasting and did include many families, it was only looking at “routine” housework. Dishes, laundry, dusting, vacuuming, and the like were included in the number of hours people spent weekly, but chores such as home repairs, yard work, snow removal, and car repairs were not. Leaving out those tasks cuts out many of the things men often do around the home, skewing the numbers and the perception of how much they contribute.
Also not considered is the very real and very wearying work of managing children and their needs. I am long, long past the days of diapers in my own home, but I still remember the sleepless nights, the never-ending diaper changes, and the sheer difficulty of accomplishing tasks that should have been simple.
This is where, for so many families, the mismatch occurs. Mothers are doing many of the domestic tasks, doing the largest portion of child care, and often working outside the home. Fathers also work long hours, often at jobs they find unfulfilling.
This is why communication and mutual respect is a vital part of this picture, and marriage in general. If you feel like you need to shift how the conversation around childrearing and housework is happening in your home because you’re tired of it either leading to fights or of quietly resenting the other parent sitting on the couch on his or her phone while you change diaper 84 of the evening, don’t lose hope. Talking this out doesn’t have to be impossible. Here are some tips for doing it successfully.
Do It When You’re Both Calm
Don’t try to hash things out in the heat of the moment when you’re both tired, upset, and feeling less than charitable. Take time to calm down. Put the children to bed. Sit down and do something together that you both enjoy. Talk about your day, not the housework. Reconnect. The chores will always be there, so don’t get caught up in a fight wherein you say something you’ll later regret and be unable to take back.
Having a discussion about kids and housework when you’re calm also allows both parents to examine the full picture more honestly. It’s easy in the heat of the moment and the height of exhaustion to deal in absolutes — mother always does all the diapers, all the nighttime parenting, all the cooking, and father does all the gross trash, all the yard work, plus providing for the family, etc. But absolutes are so seldom the full story and so rarely a good place to talk about what would be helpful for each person to do.
Don’t Just Focus on the Other Person
If you’re only able to tell your spouse what he or she does or doesn’t do, any conversation on parenting or chores is going to feel less like dialogue and more like an attack. Sure, it’s annoying and upsetting to feel like you’re doing X, Y, and Z, and they’re just surfing social media, but if you want to kindly work on a solution rather than a fight, use some productive language.
Try using “I” statements. Don’t tell the other person he’s not doing things, ask him for help with the things that overwhelm you. Dads might do things in very different ways than moms, but they love their kids every bit as much and want to be active parts of their kids’ lives.
Don’t Criticize How Jobs Are Being Done
Asking someone to help means giving up some control. Few things are more discouraging for someone who is taking over a task than being told his way of doing it isn’t good enough. Don’t be that person.
Dad might not change diapers, brush teeth, read stories, or load the dishwasher the way you do. That’s OK. Kids (and your dishes) are resilient. They will thrive under dad’s methods, and the relationship dad will build through nurturing his children without being micromanaged is incredibly important.
Don’t ask for help and then hover, ready to tell dad he’s messing up. He’s an adult and competent. In addition, letting dad step in and manage things his way will also hopefully help him understand and empathize with the ins and outs of managing small humans.
Share About Your Day
If you’re a stay-at-home parent and your spouse has never been in that role, it’s entirely possible he or she honestly don’t understand what goes into that time and how your day looks. Dad might be walking in the door, baffled at the utter destruction from the kids, not realizing how much mess children can make, even with mom actively cleaning behind them.
Nurturing children, feeding them, cleaning them and cleaning up after them, engaging them with activities, and all the other moment-by-moment parts of being a stay-at-home parent are hard to visualize unless you’ve lived it.
Similarly, ask and listen to how your spouse’s day went. Was the commute a nightmare of traffic, the office stressful and full of contentiousness, and has he or she carried that stress home? Mothers, even though your children might be going through difficult and tiring phases (the endless “no” phase was a trying one for me), if you stay home with your children, you are surrounded all day by people who love you and whom you love. Your husband does not have that same benefit, and remembering this will go a long way in understanding each other.
Is one of you more enthusiastic about helping with homework instead of evening kitchen clean-ups, or can one of you clean up barf without sympathy dry-heaving? Switch those tasks to who is better suited.
Children benefit so much from the inherent differences in how mothers and fathers approach situations. The whole family benefits when mothers and fathers work together, complementing each other’s strengths and mitigating their weaknesses, creating a family unit that is stronger than any part of it would be on its own.
When the family is united on something as simple and basic as how to manage chores and child care, it is because of loving, honest communication. This communication will help both parents and children. Sitting down and working through how to meet everyone’s needs will help the whole family. It’s worth it.
It’s so much more than clean laundry or a sink empty of dishes. It’s two parents who understand each other’s different strengths, weaknesses, and needs — and who demonstrate that care and concern to their children.