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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The purpose of parenthood

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

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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?