How to Talk About Chores

Small yellow bathroom

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A friend asked that I write more about the process of choosing which chores are important, and which ones can be overlooked. She also asked about how to negotiate the standards of cleanliness and the sharing of chores so that in partnership, particularly marriage, they might be fair.

Tall order, dear friend.

I think that it’s obvious and perhaps over stated (at least on this blog, I have mentioned it at least two times before) that men and women are socialized to different awarenesses of the work involved in housework, and if men have had the opportunity to care for themselves, different standards for what might be considered clean. The same might be said for what makes up a healthy diet, among other things I associate with adulthood.

I would not attempt these steps unless you have a partner who believes in equality, and is open to dividing the work that goes into the home equitably. (This means hours of paid and unpaid labor should be treated equally.) If you don’t have a such a partner, you have other work to do.

Step One: Shine a bright light on the work that needs to be done to keep your household moving. I found the housework equality scale from EquallySharedParenting.com invaluable for this — it lists chores that happen less often, like post office visits and taxes, so you don’t forget anything.

Tim and I actually looked at this scale twice over about a period of a year and a half. The first time was really tense — Tim didn’t seem to think that a lot of stuff on the list happened in our home. Truth was, I did it, and he didn’t notice. Even though it was a tense conversation, it was important because it opened his eyes. A year later, he was very aware of the work that needed doing, and who was doing it. Since I am currently a stay-at-home wife and mother, the split was about 70% me, 30% him. I asked him if he thought this was fair, and to his credit, he did not think so. Which lead to…

Step Two: Figure out what chores are actually getting done in your home. Chores are done in my house for three reasons, as far as I can see: for our safety, like washing cutting boards and knives with hot and soapy water to prevent food-borne illness; for our sanity, like clearing off flat surfaces of clutter; and for our vanity, like my husband’s recent desire to wash marks off the wall. This list has the benefit of showing you what’s really important to you, and thus the “standards” already exist. I made a list of chores that needed to be done on a daily, weekly, monthly, and basis — focusing on safety and sanity, and telling vanity to take a hike.

Vanity is beating myself up for not scrubbing the bathroom once a week, whether or not anyone besides ourselves sees it. But if the bathroom is done once a month, the germs are kept at bay (Safety!), and I have the satisfaction of knowing exactly how clean it is. And knowing how clean it is, I can figure out if I need to clean real quick before guests come over.

Step Three: Present the list of chores that must get done to your partner and ask what they think. Ask them if they think that any chore is missing; ask them if they think any of the chores can be taken off the list.

Tim wanted to add vacuuming and dusting to the list. Me? I could care less that things are dusted, and I hate vacuuming. Tim doesn’t necessarily see the need to fold clothes.

Step Four: Divide and Conquer. Once you have a list of the chores that you need to do to keep your household moving, chores that are for your safety and sanity (and not necessarily your vanity), and both partners have weighed in on what chores should be on the list, take turns claiming chores. If there are certain chores that only you can do, or that you’re an expert at, or you really like to do, claim those first — it wasn’t on the list, but since only I can breast feed our daughter, I would have claimed that first. I did claim making dinner first, because after a day of childcare, making dinner makes me feel human again.

Dusting and vacuuming got added to the “monthly chore” list, which Tim is in charge of. I picked up folding laundry. But more on that next.

Step Five: Make a schedule. Schedules make sure that there are time to do all the chores. I suggest spacing the chores through the week so you’re not doing more than half an hour of chores each night. The nice thing about a schedule is that even if none of the chores get done one week, you can do it the next week and start to come out from under a lack-of-chore pile. At least theoretically.

So far, all the chores are getting done in our home, because Tim and I both feel ownership of our tasks — and we do them. They don’t always get done right on time; laundry folding happened on Saturday instead of Tuesday, but at least it happened.

Step Six: If it’s not your chore, it’s not your standard. There are downsides to sharing household responsibilities. Because your partner is an adult who has hopefully lived on their own for a time before coming to live with you, chances are, your partner has some idea how to do the tasks that they named, agreed to, and claimed as their own. (Look how much consensus we built up until this point!) If your partner asks for input on how to do the task, feel free to give it. Otherwise, let them get on with it — you have your own chores to do.

Tim is the one that cleans the kitchen and the bathroom. He also does the laundry. He checks in with me sometimes, but the majority of the time he applies his own standards to the task. And for me, that’s fine — but it’s a serious ego muncher for some women.  Remember, equality is about sharing power. If you claim all the power and responsibility of the household standards, you’re only hurting yourself.

Step Seven: Rinse, Repeat. The same chore list isn’t going to always work for you. Be flexible, and keep the lines of communication that you’ve created here open over time!

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5 thoughts on “How to Talk About Chores

  1. Pingback: Marriage Speed Bumps: Cleaning the House | 20 and Engaged

  2. Pingback: After the Storm « After the Ecstasy, the Laundry . . .

  3. Sometimes I am intimidated by how systematic you are about everything! But this is all really smart. I think you’re right that many couples have particular problems with #6 (and it’s not always the women who are doing the nitpicking!)

  4. Pingback: [Internet MPP] On Equity «

  5. Pingback: - The Modern Homemakers

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