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 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!


Making SMARTER goals starting Grad School

I start school in just over a month, hurrah! I’m really nervous about it, because I think that work-life balance is really illusive. I want Tim and Sylvie and I to have time for ourselves, each other, our jobs, and not live in squalor, and I wonder if that is too much to ask.

But in hopes of accomplishing this, I am going after some SMARTER goals to prep myself and my family for this transition.

The first goal is to make chores and family obligations explicit and a habit by the time school starts.

I’m going to start by consulting the website on equally shared parenting. I’m going to download their equality scales and have Tim and I take them seperately. We may disagree about how equally we are sharing parenting, housework, etc., so it will be important to use my interpersonal communication skills to talk through the lists and the expectations with Tim.

Then, I will do a walk through of our home, thinking about the chores that need to be done on a daily, weekly, and monthly basis. I will use my judgement and critical thinking skills to come up with this list. The list will reflect my values of meaningful work because the list will be about the work I do for my family, which also reflects my value of relationship, because my family is important to me.

I will then talk through the list with Tim. I anticipate that the list may seem overwhelming. I will keep an open mind as we talk through the list with Tim to prioritize what is truly important, and so we can work together to get these things done in partnership. Together we will turn each chore into a reasonable list of steps.

After that, I will make us a chore chart. We will then use the chore chart to build our daily and weekly routines and habits around taking care of our home. Sometimes things will be forgotten because of circumstances or for no reason. In those cases we will learn from our mistakes and learn to schedule in chore time, or we will forgive ourselves and try again the next day,  week, or month.

The most important thing to remember is how good it will feel to have our chores explicit. It will make keeping our house clean an easy thing to talk about, hopefully minimalizing fights and frustrations over expecting something to be done a certain way, or expecting someone else to do something.

It will feel good to work together with Tim, being fair in our relationship. It will feel good for our home to be a sanctuary, and when it gets dirty, have an easy plan to fix it.

The purpose of parenthood

Cover of "Misconceptions: Truth, Lies, an...

Cover via Amazon

We’ve lost the art of democratic debate, says Michael Sandel. He gives a wonderful talk during TED about moral philosophy and justice — and how to reintroduce them into our politics. He paraphrases Aristole’s theory of justice: “Justice means giving people what they deserve.” He says the real questions begin when we consider who deserves what and why, that we have to reason about the purpose of the thing or the activity, to fully provide justice to all.

So, this of course has me thinking. I have thought about the Mommy Myth, which demystified the current state of motherhood, deconstructing the societal forces which prompt women to give everything they have to motherhood, and devote their entire being to supporting their children.

I’ve been thinking about Misconceptions, by Naomi Wolf, which describes a very hetero-normative, upper class view of childbirth and the immediate postpartum experience — but it also talks about that which is concealed from women, in (from her view) a very strange vow of social silence. (And, I might argue, if choices are limited for the rich people — it’s got to be much worse for those in poverty.)

I’ve been thinking about a book I read in college, which I no longer own but was thinking about retrieving via the library system called “The Failed Century of the Child” — a book about the policies that were put into place during the 20th century which attempted, and failed, to remove children from poverty, and to make education a democratic thing.

I’m reading Raising America, by Ann Hulbert, who explores this question in her book: “As children — and just as important, their mothers — prepare to meet the pressures and the allures of an increasingly materialistic and meritocratic mass society, is it more discipline or more bonding that they need at home? the answers to the question have in turn reflected the long-running debate over whether nature or nurture counts most in shaping children’s destinies, which parenting experts across the spectrum and the decades have presumed are decisively cast in early childhood (7).”

So, to go back to the beginning of this post: What is the essential role of motherhood? What is the role of the mother to a child as an infant, a baby, a toddler, a preschooler, etc.? What is the role of the mother to herself during those same time periods? To her partner? To her family, and friends? The “common sense” wisdom seems to be that of primary care giver, and more than that, to be romantically (like “Leaves of Grass” romantic) obsessed with your child, watching their every coo and gurgle.

And, the flip question. What is the role of a father? I think that one is much more cut and dry to the “common sense” — the role of the father seems to be that of helper and bread-winner, and possibly the laughably un-knowledgeable one, as offered to us by sitcoms and commercials.

But is this really the purpose of mothers and fathers? What do you all think?

What is New Momism?

A little note on culture

We walk through our lives performing actions that have meaning to  ourselves, meaning to others, as we are self-directed by the meaning  that we have internalized — which we then act out, in a constant cycle  of action and interpretation and reinterpretation and reaction. This  cycle is one theory about how culture functions in our lives. Culture is  what provides meaning to those actions and reactions.

Some people take this cycle completely for granted. They live an  unexamined life, they take the meaning that is demonstrated to them and  perpetuate it. They continue to use these symbols and meanings until  something stops them, until the meaning that they’ve been using isn’t  enough to explain a situation or a symbol — in other words, sometimes common sense  isn’t enough. Some people walk through life examining the meaning of  everything, or they become cynical to every meaning — both of these  stances, which might be categorized as being “unsettled” — are both  rather exhausting.

Culture defines the world so that we can act with confidence within  it. Cultural systems both teach and express orientations to the world —  they teach moods and motivations. We each have our own cultural repertoire, a mental catalog of symbols, rules, and rituals. Only, the  meanings of these don’t work for all people at all times in the same  way.

Take this one for example:

First comes love, then comes marriage, then comes the  baby carriage!

What is this rhyme but a set of instructions — or a rule — for how  to conduct your adult romantic life? Of course, the rhyme says nothing  about boy-meets-girl or pregnancy and delivery, but because our society  assumes hetero-normativity and because the law prohibits (for the most  part) legal union between same-gender couples… you can see how this  common sense rhyme might not be a culture took that is comfortable for  everyone.

It isn’t a cultural rule that I’m completely comfortable with myself.  Maybe if it were first comes education and career, then comes love,  then comes legal recognition of a relationship, and then comes a  community possibly including a younger generation.

But that’s not nearly as snappy.

Somehow, the cultural rules about motherhood didn’t seem all that  contradictory to the reality I knew from caring for other people’s  children. The two were never side by side in my mind. I don’t think I  realized how insidious these “rules” of motherhood were until I read the  definition of New Momism that Douglas and Michaels propose:

[It Is] the insistence that no woman is truly complete or  fulfilled unless she has kids, that women remain the best primary  caretakers of children, and that to be a remotely decent mother, a woman  has to devote her entire physical, psychological, emotional, and  intellectual being, 24/7, to her children. The new momism is a highly  romanticized and yet demanding view of motherhood in which the standards  for success are impossible to meet (4). The ‘new momism’ is a set of  ideals, norms, and practices, most frequently and powerfully represented  in the media,  that seem on the surface to celebrate motherhood, but  which in reality promulgate standards of perfection that are beyond your  reach (5).

But I have a choice, right? I can choose not to have children. Or I  can choose to parent differently. Not so fast, says The Mommy Myth:

Central to the new momism, in fact, is the feminist  insistence that woman have choices, that they are active agents in  control of their own destiny, that they have autonomy. But here’s where  the distortion of feminism occurs. The only truly enlightened choice to  make as a woman, the one that proves, first, that you are a ‘real’  woman, and second, that you are a decent, worthy one, is to become a  ‘mom’ and to bring to child rearing a combination of selflessness and  professionalism that would involve the cross cloning of Mother Teresa  with Donna Shalala. Thus the new momism is deeply contradictory: It both  draws from and repudiates feminism (5).

And the nail on the coffin: “The new momism involves more than just  impossible ideals about child rearing. It redefines all women, first and  foremost, through their relationships to children (22).” Continue reading

The dominant culture of “New Momism”


Praise mothers in rhetoric, revile them in public policy, and make them pay to prove their love.

The Book

The Mommy Myth, by Susan J. Douglas and Meredith W. Michaels, outlines the trajectory of the rhetoric surrounding mothers in the mass media, the revulsion that mothers are subjected to in public policy, and finally, how mothers and children have become a market. From this rich framework, they have this thesis:  While we have come far from the Feminine Mystique, the problem has a new name (New Momism) that is couched in the rhetoric of feminism itself (i.e. choice).

Douglas and Michaels call this problem the New Momism, for reasons that they astutely and accurately outline in the introduction to their book. I suggest you read it — here, let me link you to a pdf version — because the introduction is quick, to the point, and almost stands alone from the rest of the book.

But what I find really interesting about the book is that it outlines, very precisely, the cultural “rules” surrounding motherhood. Of course, they’re critiquing it, and they’re using it as a call to activism, but the rules that they put together for being a celebrity mother (the pinnacle of motherhood in the media, they argue) are not all that different what I’d imagine a list of rules for being a good mother would be — or at least what makes a good mother on television, in the movies, in advertisements, and in our heads.

The rules are (From pages 126-130):

  1. The mom is gorgeous, in clear control of her destiny, and her husband loves her even more once she becomes pregnant and the baby is born.
  2. They are always radiantly happy when they are with their kids.
  3. They always look and feel fabulous — better than ever — while pregnant, because they are nutrition experts and eat exactly what they should and have the discipline to exercise regularly.
  4. Whatever your schedule, whatever institutional constraints you confront that keep you away from or less involved with your kids, it must be clear that they are your number-one priority, no matter what.

And, to be honest, this is how I have imagined motherhood. I have imagined that Tim and I would conceive, which is a word that is imbued with strange magic, that he and I would be joyous and in love, that there would be no ambiguity as we prepared for the birth of our child. I would be a joyful and attentive mother, and Tim would be a doting and remarkable father, and we’d all live happily ever after, at least until the kids became teenagers.

I’m cringing as I’m writing this, realizing how hopelessly naive I probably sound to someone who is a parent. And I think I knew it was hopelessly naive — I was 9 when my little brother was born, I helped take care of him as an infant. I spent my middle school and high school careers babysitting. I know how much attention and care infants need, how their older siblings get jealous, I know about toys being flung across rooms, and trying to stop children from hitting each other and making them go to bed. I know how big of a mess they make, and how boring it can be to play games about a bajillion developmental stages below yours.

So, mothers out there, and aspiring mothers out there… have you ever bought into this ideal?

There’s much, much more to this review, but I’m trying to keep it bite sized. So, for now, the common conception of what a good mother is in popular culture.

Motherhood and Feminism: What I know and What I want to know

How it all began

I keep fairly extensive journals. I can actually pinpoint with some accuracy when this particular unfinished business of feminism was brought to my attention. I read an article in the New York Times entitled Many Women at Elite Colleges Set Career Path to Motherhood in September 2005, and I was simultaneously outraged and complicit.

I was outraged that the young woman profiled had worked so hard to get into Yale, but was going to give it all up for her future theoretical children, because she saw that it was her mom staying at home that had enriched her enough in order to go to Yale. It was, after all, her achievement. Why would she give it up for her children? Why wouldn’t she use her education to give back to the society she lived in, to help “save the world”?

I was complicit because she expressed something that I, perhaps, believed: that you cannot be both a good career woman and a good mother at the same time. Because, after all, I had been raised by a Stay-at-Home Mother, too, and my mother’s influence was key in making sure my homework was done, and that I excelled in school, that I was able to do after school activities. I didn’t even know how childcare worked – and a lot of my friends were the same way.

It lead me to a personal moral dilemma — what would I owe society? Should I give back to society through working a career, a career I was prepared for by the public schools and public universities? Or should I give back to society to raise the next generation of children — to put them through schools so they could raise the next generation of children? Were they even equivalent? How can you make this kind of judgment? How do you know what’s fair? Continue reading

Seek Out an Egalitarian Man

I used to read lots and lots of self-help, self-improvement blogs. I quit them all cold turkey, in order to free up my mind for focusing on today, instead of focusing on how-things-could-be-better. One the blogs for relationship and marital advice is Project Happily Ever After. Unfortunately, there was this quote:

It doesn’t matter if you are a feminist who sought out an egalitarian man to marry. Chances are you will eventually come to the conclusion that you do most of the housework. For a while this will anger you. Eventually you’ll either reach a place of acceptance or you’ll have the means to hire a cleaning lady.

Unpacking the Quote

First of all, there’s a lot of assumptions here. The first one that’s easy to articulate is that, actually, unfortunately, not everyone will have the means to hire a cleaning lady. That’s a lot of class privilege there, thinking that you should hire someone (usually poorer and less privileged than you) to do chores, and that “everyone” has the means to do so. I’m sure anyone you hire goes home and cleans their own home.

Second assumption seems to be that somehow a professed belief in egalitarianism transmutes into enacting egalitarian ideas and ways of living. Or, that someone who professes these beliefs and yet does not act upon them are somehow still egalitarian.

Third, there’s a huge hetero-normative aspect to this, but I find that with almost all marriage literature, even stuff on the internets. (I’m not condoning the hetero-normative aspect to this, nor am I saying that the unequal distribution of housework is simply a man/woman dyad phenom. But I’m not the right person to do this analysis — I’m telling this story from the perspective of a cis woman in a heterosexual relationship.)

So, why did this really bother you, Kate?

I was really annoyed by this quote because I resembled it. I am a feminist, and I sought out an egalitarian man to marry, and I was finding myself saddled with the majority of the housework. I don’t have the means to hire someone, and I don’t think that I would want to.

But, as we explored two weeks ago, I was socialized to care more about housework than I imagine Tim ever was. And so I cared about things: I cared that there were hand towels in the guest bathroom when there are guests, I cared that the dishes were done each night and that we eat at the dinner table — and thus that the dinner table is cleaned off. I had expectations about the way our home should look.

And, surprisingly, Tim and I actually shared a lot of expectations — Tim, too, thinks that the dishes should be done each night, and that it’s usually pretty nice to eat at the table. And he actually likes straightening the apartment — and thinks it’s silly that some things (like my knitting and his DS) don’t seem to have homes. But we never talked about these expectations. And since we never talked about them, we never talked about who was responsible, or how to share the responsibility.

Crazy, eh?

But things still weren’t quite fair, or equally shared. More soon. 😀

Deconstructing Housework Priorities

One of the hardest things about living with other people, especially other people whom you are romantically involved, is negotiating differing standards of cleanliness, different understandings about the priorities involved with keeping house, and managing your home together. This is harder when you’re the type of person, like I am, who is aware of the symbolism of everyday acts, how things like cooking and cleaning and doing laundry, beyond their basic utility, are imbued with the expectations of society.

There is nothing remarkable about the fact that I do the majority of the meal planning and grocery list making, and cooking in my household. However, there seems to be something remarkable and praiseworthy of the fact that Tim volunteered to do all of those chores in November 2009, so that I could concentrate on writing a novel. The voluntarism shown by Tim in this example is an exception — when I don’t complete the menu related chores, and I don’t specifically ask Tim to do it, it doesn’t get done.

It isn’t that Tim doesn’t realize that the act of planning a menu is something that keeps our lives low-stress. And it isn’t that he can’t do it, and it isn’t that he thinks it’s unimportant. It is just that chores like menu planning are just something he doesn’t think about.

Why don’t they care? Why do we?

I’ve spoken with a number of other twenty-something women who are in long term and committed heterosexual relationships, and they all express similar frustrations: they care about the state of their homes, and think about home management, but their partner doesn’t think about it nearly as much as they do, doesn’t seem to care.

I can’t deconstruct why men don’t care about housework, but I can deconstruct why women care about housework — or at least why I care about housework. (After all, I am a white, cis gendered, heterosexual, upper-middle class woman. I can’t speak to the experiences of women growing up in poverty, or women of color. I want to recognize that there could be other intersections of oppression that could change this perception of the world.)

I grew up as the oldest child and oldest girl in a family with a stay-at-home mom and a bread-winning dad. I have two younger siblings, a sister and a brother. My mom subscribed to Good Housekeeping and Parenting, and at a young precocious age indeterminate, I began flipping through them and reading them too.

My little brother was born when I was 9. I was, of course, Mama’s little helper — carrying and fetching, and also picking up little chores, like folding laundry. By the time I was 10, I was responsible for doing the dishes as my family chore. I have distinct memories of cooking dinner, with some supervision — an adult put dinner in and out of the oven. One summer, when I was in high school, and my mom’s business was in full swing (out of our dining room), she paid me in books to keep the house clean, including wiping down the kitchen every day.

My mom was one who cleaned up everything — including vacuuming the draperies and washing the windows — when there would be an extended family party. There, I was pressed into service too, and when I complained, it was explained to me that while our normal state of cleanliness was okay for our immediate family, extended families and guests would judge us (and more importantly my mother) for the state of our home.

I grew up thinking that housework, that caring for a family, that cooking and cleaning — all of these things were part of what it meant to be a grown-up woman. Somewhere along the line, I came to expect that I should be embarrassed by clutter. At some point, I came to expect that I would be caring for others — at least a husband, probably kids — as an adult. And I was taught through the example of my mothers and my aunts, through the media that I consumed that all of this was to be woman, and that a woman’s self-worth and identity are somehow tied into housework.

I am not saying that my entire identity is housework, and I’m not saying that even that any woman’s identity is entirely formed around housework. I’m saying that on some level, housework factors into the calculus of my self-esteem and self-worth.

This is also not to say that I don’t have a choice in the matter. I’m exploring what got me to this crossroads of thought.

I think this the first in a series. Next week, I want to look at the current state of things in our apartment, and how Tim and I share the work of having a home. Until then, my tiny parcel of readers — how do you view housework? It is something you feel guilty about? Is it something that you see as a necessary evil, or something just evil? Or do you enjoy it?