Hey, I have an idea. Let’s start off the week with a highly loaded discussion of power dynamics!
When we talk about who makes the money and who does the chores, we tend to frame it in a really dumb way, which anyone who has multiple siblings should immediately understand. Why are chore wars always “husband vs. wife” or “mom vs. kids” when it should really just be “people who share common areas”?
I have two brothers, so in our household chores rotated week to week. My dad’s response to questions about trading chores was:
“I don’t care, just get it done.”
Right. Focus on the goal. Cleanest house with the least amount of effort. In my parents’ view, that meant training the kids to do as much as possible. A charitable interpretation of this is that they maximized our opportunities to learn adult skills.
It’s pretty common, in a traditional monogamous hetero marriage, for the wife to take on more of the housework and childcare. We’ve workshopped this, my husband and I, with groups of other couples. A wife will explain that she does more because she feels guilty that she is earning less money.
This is where the contrarian take comes in.
Power couples look at the division of labor strategically. What can be done so that both parties maximize their earning potential and overall career success? How can everyone in the household enjoy the highest possible quality of life?
This can happen in a million bajillion different ways, arranged over various timelines. Where it doesn’t happen is in relationships where one party is motivated by guilt and feelings of being a lesser contributor. What, one of you is the CEO so the other one has to be the janitor?
(Note: facilities maintenance is an honorable profession, and plenty of people have become millionaires through offering custodial services. Trash is cash).
When one person in a relationship is motivated by guilt and/or shame, the chore wars become about something entirely different than a smoothly running household. They become about earning approval, or avoiding conflict, or demonstrating, what? Fealty? Subservience?
What we’re talking about is not the sort of relationship in which one partner radiates joy and serenity through interior design and the culinary arts, while the other channels their self-expression into career ambition. That’s totally a thing, and if it works for both of you, more power to ya.
What we’re talking about is that other kind, where both parties are dissatisfied or bored or fighting about money or feeling unappreciated. None of those feelings tend to be part of someone’s wedding vows.
To have and to ignore, to annoy and exasperate, from this day forward.
We’re smarter than this. We didn’t marry our houses and we know better than to prioritize our stuff over our relationships. Besides, we have robots now.
The truth is that we tend to magnify the amount of work that “needs” to be done to run a household in four ways:
By having larger homes than we need,
Filled with more stuff than we need,
With no systems in place,
And having power struggles about it all.
My ex-husband and I used to play poker for chores, using a points system that we designed together. He did 95% of the cooking, because arguably he was a much better cook and he preferred it that way. Yes, he earned about 50% more than I did, and that was an issue when we discussed our budget and our savings goals, but it didn’t factor into how we divided labor at home. Rather, we had a plan that he would work while I got my degree, and then I would work at my newly increased rate of pay while he finished his. It was understood that it would be several years before we divided the housework “evenly.”
We never got to that point. I can claim, though, that we kept a pretty tidy home. Out of all the things we fought about, housework wasn’t on the list. Probably because we were minimalists and spent most of our marriage in small apartments. Possibly also because we both had multiple siblings!
Now I’m remarried, and the structure is different, partly because the man is different and partly because we rely on engineering principles rather than poker. What works on the manufacturing floor that would also work at home? We have successfully harnessed professional pride, his in Agile methodology and mine in my work with chronic disorganization and hoarding.
Keep work surfaces and common areas clear. Streamline processes and eliminate unnecessary steps. Don’t tie up capital in excess inventory. Cross-train and share best practices. Continuous improvement.
We have had a LOT of discussions about housework over our ten-year marriage. This has been almost entirely driven by me, because I’m the fussy one. I’ve framed it as a way to view a smoothly running household like an engineering management problem. Rather than make this, How do I convince you to wipe down counters my way?, I’ve tried to make it, What terminology would an engineer use to describe this work process?
Also, What kind of robot could do this particular task? Could you build me one?
This is how I learned that you can clean a greasy oven in ten minutes if you use a drill, and that the question, Can I get my husband to spend three hours kneeling in front of this thing instead of me? WAS THE WRONG QUESTION ENTIRELY.
All of the questions we have about dividing household labor fairly may, likewise, be structured in an unhelpful way. If the framework involves guilt, shame, blame, resentment, grudges, anger, or crying, there are probably other ways to look at the situation.
What if almost all of those feelings were directly related to household labor that didn’t even need to be done by a human? What if we engineered those chores out of existence?
There used to be household chores like churning butter, darning socks, and carrying coal scuttles that most 21st-century households no longer do. (Well, I still darn my own socks, but hey). It’s my thesis that a lot of our 20th-century chores can be canceled, too.
Stepping forward and focusing on a more interesting, challenging, and fulfilling career almost always results in significantly more income. A higher income can do a lot more for a family, like eliminating debt and buying a $200 robotic vacuum cleaner, than anyone can do just by focusing on folding laundry more often. Eyes on the prize.
Let’s find a way to restructure our division of labor so that everyone involved is excited, having fun, laughing, talking, and generally thinking about chores as little as possible. One day it’ll all be done by nanobots anyway.
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.
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