Last week, James finished a box of chocolate-covered salted caramels I’d slipped into his Christmas stocking. I fished the small cardboard box from the recycling basket we keep by the front door and, after pressing my forefinger into the remaining chocolate crumbs and letting them melt on my tongue, I slipped both sides of it into this top dresser drawer.
The drawer is a behind-the-scenes spot in our house that’s in regular need of decluttering. The box, I knew, would be the perfect foil for lip balms and pocket change and whatever else would otherwise have continued rattling around in there. The small addition makes a tiny but noticeable improvement in a spot that can get unruly, cozied right next to James’s socks.
This week, James made a French yogurt loaf, which meant needing to empty the loaf pan where we stash our tiniest kitchen supplies. I took the opportunity to reorganize the supplies and to finally find a proper place for tucking a roll of masking tape and a marker that we use daily to add the date to Silas’s school lunch. It’s a daycare requirement and daily practice shared by me and James. (Faye eats the lunch provided by public Pre-k, for anyone wondering if she’s being neglected by her parents.)
Yes, I’ve been watching Tidying up with Marie Kondo and yes, it’s January, and yes, I come by this kind of tidying honestly. The first chapter of my book is called Decluttering after all. The second, Organizing. I like to organize things. I crave clean and orderly spaces. For me, paring belongings down to the essentials and keeping them organized is the best way I know how to appreciate and enjoy and properly care for the things I own (to say nothing of the planet). But it’s also the best tool I have for making sure that the labor that goes into running our home is shared by everyone living in it.
One of the most common questions I get from readers is how I’ve gotten James to get on board with our so-called lifestyle. My initial impulse is to say that he’s not terribly dissimilar to me and that our lifestyle, such that it is, evolved naturally and together. That’s true. He’s relatively organized. His possessions, like mine, are relatively few. We started our home together pretty much from scratch after he bought a mattress and I showed up with a suitcase. Later, when we moved for school and work it didn’t take convincing or cajoling to get him to move into a small space or keep it tidy. I’ve been the one to write about it, but behind the scenes we’ve been in it together.
Still, some of that narrative erases the work we’ve embarked on in the past decade of cohabitation. The more interesting truth is that it’s taken a committed, concerted effort to make sure that we’re each taking on an equal share of our household load. It’s taken deliberately shaking certain habits and acknowledging learned or inherited gender roles and setting out to dismantle them. It’s meant developing systems and working out strategies together so that one of us doesn’t feel responsible for everything. We started out on footing that felt pretty equal, but the thing about equal footing is that it either is or it isn’t.
One of the biggest fights that James and I have ever had was about our linen closet. We were working on sorting and putting away laundry together when he asked me, for what felt like the millionth time, where something went in the linen closet. Or how it should be folded. I don’t actually remember the specifics, but I do remember boiling over.
On the night of the great linen closet reckoning, I was furious. Furious at the assumption that I should be the keeper of that knowledge. Furious that James absolved himself both of organizing the closet and remembering how it had been organized by me. Furious that even after countless nights of repeating this same ritual he still relied on me to tell him what to do while we were in the thick of it. The fight was ugly and long and ended in tears, from both of us, over pillowcases. But it also ended in finding a new way of organizing the closet, together. And today, we both know where everything goes.
In watching Marie Kondo’s Netflix series, I couldn’t help notice that in a roundabout sort of way, the show posits the idea that the work of maintaining a tidy home is something that needs to be shared by everyone living it. The very premise of the show is that couples and families embark on joint efforts at tidying. The KonMari method has folks do the hard work of organizing in one intensive go, paring down and reorganizing so that presumably in a perfect future there’s nothing left to do or struggle over.
Among the hetero couples featured on the show, plenty of tired gender stereotypes get trotted out. There’s the husband of one family who’s angered by the number of pillows his wife has on the bed and the husband of another family who repeats the phrase “happy wife, happy life” as though his tidying efforts are only to please an insistent partner. There’s the mother of a young family who chastises herself for not setting her family up for success via organization, as if that should be her responsibility alone. There’s the painful-to-watch dismissiveness of a white husband who can’t understand his Pakistani wife’s wish to keep scarves that connect her with her culture. Still, subtly, the show—and Marie Kondo herself—seems to say that it’s not fair, and also not sensical, for everyday household management to fall only to one person. In not-so-many-words, she asks the show’s participants, and the folks at home, to take a hard look at the labor involved in making a house a home and asks them to share in that work.
For me and James, that’s required a decade of hard, ongoing work. I won’t suggest that couples embrace daily scorekeeping of who’s done what (though it can be an illuminating exercise), but I do think reckoning with the labor required to run a household and how it’s shared is necessary work. Who is doing what? Who’s thinking about what needs to get done? Who’s ordering new shampoo? Or noticing that the sponge needs to get replaced or that the coat closet’s gotten messy? Who’s seeing that the slipcover is loose and sagging and tucking it back into place? Who’s wiping down the bathroom mirror? Who’s sweeping dust bunnies and changing the sheets and swapping out toothbrushes? Who’s finding a new place for the masking tape and marker and who’s remembering to put it back in that spot so that both parents know where to reach when packing school lunch?
And that’s the crux of it, isn’t it? A tidy home feels like a personal breath of fresh air to me, but more importantly, I think it allows the space for shared responsibility. When James and I, and our children, all know where everything is kept, and how it’s stored, then we all become responsible for those things. There’s not one keeper of the knowledge or one nag.
In our family, keeping an organized home requires ongoing teamwork, even as folks with a natural propensity toward tidyness. I don’t personally need to dump my clothes on my bed to know what’s there or to pull books from the shelves. Our apartment is tidy nearly all of the time. But like finding a new spot to keep a roll of tape and a marker, there are constant tiny improvements that can be made, or need to be made, as family needs shift and change. I think the show helps demonstrate that it’s best when that’s done together.
Here’s to the life-changing magic of tidying up, but more importantly, to the life-changing magic of sharing responsibility for our homes with the people who live in them.
I really love the honesty and reflection of this post. Thank you for letting us into this little detail of your marriage. I love how this show has sparked (ha!) so many interesting conversations.
As the mother of two (now) adult sons, I say yes, yes, and yes again to all of this. In the kitchen, at least, both partner with their partners when it comes to cooking and cleaning up. I don’t live with them so I don’t know what happens the rest of the time. My point is that they both grew up in a house where the Dad wasn’t afraid to clean the bathroom or pull out the vacuum cleaner. They also had the advantage of seeing their Dad take care of me when I was going through cancer treatments while they were ages 8 and 10, while keeping life fairly normal for each of them. I think both of their partners are benefitting from their having a nurturing man as their role model. I don’t remember having the come-to-Jesus moment over housework that you had with James, but there was definitely a conversation at one point about being co-managers for the household. Today, 35 years into the marriage, it’s just the two of us and while we do resort to gender roles when it comes to some things, there’s flexibility and we easily ask for and give the other help. Bravo to you and James for figuring this out right from the start.
I’m struggling with this lately. My partner is NOT naturally tidy and organized like I am, and while I actually like doing a lot of the cleaning and home upkeep, I’m feeling some gender-based resentment about how much of it automatically falls on me. Our big fight – about two months after we moved into our first home together, he remarked that the microwave had stayed remarkably clean during all that time, all on its own! It’s tricky, isn’t it, to feel out where the line is between gendered expectation (both internal and external) and personal preference.
Yeah. I mean, I think when it comes to this stuff A WHOLE LOT of what we call personal preference/quirks/personality is actually pretty entrenched gendered expectations/learned behavior etc. Surely some people are not bothered by clutter or mess or what have you, and we all have free will, etc, but we also live in a culture where men and boys are largely acculturated not to notice or participate or create the systems set up to maintain order and girls and women are taught from a very young age that this is their work. Acknowledging that—and frankly, getting James to acknowledge that—was really crucial for us. Sure, there’s personal preference, but there’s also a huge, powerful cultural mechanism that reinforces gender roles in our homes and unless we interrogate it, it self-perpetuates. You know?
Thank you so much for this post and this comment especially. I am in a similar situation – I am very tidy and my husband is…the opposite – but I am having such trouble getting him to acknowledge that nearly 100% of the emotional labor falls on me. The remembering, the noticing, the tidying, cleaning, replacing, cooking, shopping, planning, etc. How did you get through to your husband? Since I am a SAHM it feels like it all falls on my shoulders.
We talk about it a lot. We look really hard at the tasks that we each do and whether our share is even. James is an extremely active participant in our household labor and always has been, but we’ve still had to work at it. I don’t think that being a SAHM means that household responsibilities should all fall on you and I think it’s totally valid to work out a system that’s equitable.
Jennifer, might I recommend sharing this article with your husband? https://www.harpersbazaar.com/culture/features/a12063822/emotional-labor-gender-equality/
I think it articulates so much of what you’re getting at here and I’ve used this article with folks in my own life and it has been immensely helpful! Of course I also think this very post written by Erin would be an excellent resource as well. 🙂
That article and this cartoon:
One thing I’ve done is to simply stop doing the work. By some unspoken rule, I was the one who had to buy toilet paper when I noticed we were running out. I got tired of it, so I stopped doing it. Now, when we run out of toilet paper, I use my secretly stashed roll. Inevitably my husband has a crisis moment when he realizes we’re out, and very quickly he goes out and buys some. Seems we’re always well stocked these days.
Yes, thank you! This exactly. I am 26 and my partner and I have been living together for 2.5 years now. Overall he’s actually naturally much tidier than me: less likely to leave papers on the kitchen table, etc. But he’s decidedly less focused on real cleaning. I was really busy with school and work in the last few months and sometimes fell behind with some of the housework that I realized I normally do – like cleaning the bathroom. I would start to feel stressed that the bathroom wasn’t clean or that the floors needed to be swept and brought up to him that I felt that he wasn’t sharing his equal part of the labour in these activities. His response was that he just doesn’t notice they’re not clean. He says after living with messy guys in university, his standards for cleanliness are just lower than mine and that the crumbs on the floor or the grimier-by-the-day bathroom sink just wouldn’t even enter into his consciousness as needing cleaning until they would be much worse than the stage at which I become aware of them as being dirty! I sortof grudgingly accepted that I didn’t know how to change his level of awareness of these things but it wasn’t until I read Erin’s comment that I realized that of course *this* is the system. It’s not just him naturally being him – it’s the culture and society maddyand my acceptance is only going to perpetuate the problem.
Thanks so much for this blog post overall Erin. I started reading your blog when I was 21, and it has influenced my entry into adulthood greatly. But sometimes I have thought to myself that it seems like you just got lucky with James and happened to have a partner who felt the exact same way about all these things and it would seem like you never argue and he’s never bothered by your household changes. It’s inspiring to know that you work through this too and that you don’t have to have a naturally minimalist partner to choose to make a simpler life your own. You just need some patience and care.
Yes! And, I dunno, sometimes some shouts and cries, too!
Haha yes definitely those too!
We too struggled with this for a long time, and the only solution that worked was to entirely divide tasks. So instead of trying to both participate in cleaning, tidying, cooking etc, we each now have very separate domains, and rule those domains entirely. My husband does the cooking (although I do the shopping after he has created the list), and I do all the cleaning and laundry etc. I really do not like cooking, and I don’t even care if I do more hours of housework now that my least favourite task is never my problem.
But indeed the gender stereotyped tasks are hard to recognize, not just inside the household. For years my husband was responsible for yard work (I still escapes me how either us could have thought that was a good idea). Now that I’m doing all the mowing, pruning, weeding etc he is happier, I’m happier, and the garden looks much better!
Thanks for the timely post about decluttering, I’m going through the KonMari method for my house (which I share with my husband), focusing on my own personal items only. I totally agree that for shared items, all homeowners need to know where things belong. However, I would also say that things like untucked slipcovers and wiping the bathroom mirror don’t necessarily need fixing. In my house we have a tidy person (my husband) and a messy person (me), and I wonder why the expectation is that the messy person becomes tidy, and not the other way around. Perhaps the people who are anal about crumbs on the counter or shoes being lined up need to relax a bit. After many discussions, our house is in-between. We don’t have many objects, and most people comment on how tidy our house is, but there are almost always a few dirty dishes, clothes crumpled by the bed, and papers on the dining table. Instead of worrying about housekeeping, we spend more time doing things we enjoy (like relaxing).
There’s probably nothing I like less than to be told to relax, to be honest, but I think your point that families and couples need to find their own personal sweet spot is a good one.
Sorry if my comment came out wrong… I was actually trying to insinuate that my husband should relax about housecleaning, not you! It’s all about the individuals in the household, as you say.
Oh no, totally understood!
Yes to this. I am the tidy one and my husband is the slightly messier day to day but willing to take on bigger projects one. We have been living in an RV (less than 100 square feet!) for four and a half years and about a year ago the dishes became a huge point of contention. After several fights that ended in teary resentment our solution was that he needed to care a bit more AND I needed to care a bit less. It’s been over a year since we last fought about dishes. Further, I think this approach on something so practical has bled (positively) into other aspects of our life together. It isn’t about demanding a sea change from your partner but thinking of things like a mutual shift done not because you “want” to but because you love the other person.
Dan Savage (though Savage Love is pretty different than RMTL, ha!) calls this the price of admission in relationships. I’m all for chucking gender stereotypes and disparity in housework in hetero partnerships is most definitely more likely to result from those vs. personal preference but not always. I am the cook in our house and I prefer a clean kitchen at the end of the day whereas my husband, the dishwasher, prefers to get up early with our pre-dawn rising toddler and wash dishes with her. I still think my way is better but unless I want to wash the dishes myself they’re getting done in the morning. My husband also just prefers chaos in most things (he’s a chaos muppet for sure http://www.slate.com/articles/life/low_concept/2012/06/what_kind_of_muppet_are_you_chaos_or_order_.html) and that’s my price of admission for all the other benefits of being married to and parenting with him.
I can’t remember where I read this but I remember reading that both parties need to feel they are doing more than their fair share. Because there are so many little things that go unnoticed by the other. If you feeling like you are doing half the work you are probably not doing enough. Now how to convince a 2 year old to clean up after themselves.
Ha! Oh man! Two-year olds make the best cleaners! (Also the best mess makers, so…)
I second this! My two year old naturally wants to be involved in cleaning (unless she isn’t already preoccupied in some other play). I think having less toys and less other things to get into really make it easier for a two year old to help clean up (and also limits how much mess they can make to begin with). For me the biggest challenge is the expectation over what ways and how quickly my two year old is contributing to the cleaning up process. When I acknowledge and get over hang-ups I personally have related to this, I find my two year old is quite a helper!
This is lovely and so important! Thank you.
Oooh, the husbands on Tidying Up, so annoying! I nearly turned off some of the episodes.
I ‘m going to give the show another try. I like Kondo, but disliked the reality TV vibe I was getting from the episode I watched.
I was really fortunate to marry a man who fully takes responsibility for himself, his belongings, and our home, and finds it perplexing that anyone should ever congratulate him for that (you know, because we live in a culture where men are sometimes fawned over when they act like contributing household members). I do a little more than half the housework and kidwork than he does at this stage in our lives, because I’ve chosen to be a SAHM, but he still does a good share. I find, though, that I struggle with unexpected guilt! Guilt that I’m not doing all the house stuff, which I NEVER expected I would feel! Maybe it’s because he brings in a financial income and I feel like I need to make up for that somehow. In any case, he always meets my guilt with, “we all live here, I SHOULD be contributing to our home and I have never expected not to.” I’m glad my daughters are growing up knowing that making a home and a family is a shared effort that matters, not a silly thing we do to appease a woman.
I stay at home with our two young kids. We’ve had to move twice in the last two years and each time it was my responsibility to pack and unpack everything (even while being soo pregnant at the time). My husband is constantly asking were “we” keep things. The second time we moved we got into an argument because I wanted him to help unpack and decide together where to put everything so he doesn’t have to ask each time. He said he works so it’s “my job” to unpack everything. So ridiculous.
Ugh, that sounds painful.
I would go on strike from my “job,” but I’m petty like that
!hahaha! You made me laugh out loud, Joanna!!! So honest!!! So much love to everyone struggling through and finding solutions to this quagmire! So brave are we all, in these partnerships!
This is my husband as well. I have recently informed him that as he is fully sighted and we live in a small one bedroom apartment with one closet, HE needs to look with his eyes where he would expect to find things first. If there not their he can ask along the lines of “I checked the — but I couldn’t find x, can you remind me where it is kept?”
I was unemployed when we moved and I did the unpacking without help because he had to work and was “to tired” to help when he was home. We’ve been here over a year. Things haven’t moved around much in that time. There are no excuses.” He’s generally a great guy, but the basic refusal to take on domestic memory and responsibilities drives me up the wall.
I was wondering where you got your little table lamp on your dresser from 🙂
It’s the Ion Lamp from Schoolhouse Electric!
Beautiful piece. The balance between preferences and gendered expectations is something I really struggle to find with my partner. Intellectually he gets it, but it doesn’t always get carried out in practice and somehow I’m always the one in charge of remembering to buy the cat food (and all the other miscellany that keeps a home running).
We both come from families where our parents have and taught more feminist values, but that chose to divide up household duties in very “traditional,” gendered ways (father breadwinner/ mother homemaker, father yard chores/mother house chores, etc.). It feels like the groove my partner and I fall into is the same as our parents. And man, carving a new groove is hard work.
I relate to this post on so many levels, from using boxes to corral things in a drawer, to trying to balance the amount of housework amongst family members. My husband is pretty good at sharing the work and often does the things that I don’t like to do. And I am trying to teach my children that they are responsible for their personal spaces and to help where they can (i.e. if they take a blanket out on the sofa, to put it back when they are finished), and without prompting. I do often feel like a nag and I hope to get to the point where everyone does their part without a nudge. Part of the reason that I pared down our belongings a few years ago was to fix these problems and it has helped, but I think this is a reminder that there is still work to be done.
Love this post. I have an excellent spouse who is truly my partner in managing our shared household. However, one gendered quirk that I am working to eliminate is asking, “can you do me a favour?” in relation to some household task that is part of day-to-day life. E.g., “could you do me a favour and pick up lightbulbs on your way home?” or “could you do me a favour and wash our bedding today?” When he asks me to do the same thing, it’s not “a favour,” it’s simply, “would you pick up lightbulbs on your way home?” which makes perfect sense, since they’re not favours! Even though he doesn’t treat it like he’s doing me a favour when we share the mental and physical household work, somewhere deep down, I have internalized that I should specially request his help. It was weird when I eventually noticed I was doing this–I pride myself on viewing my relationship through (and the world) through a critical lens. But, alas, social construction is such a force. Great post, Erin.
Brilliant article. I have realised how deeply embedded in our culture, societal and our own family, that mum is the household manager. The mental burden of knowing what goes where and when jobs need to be done have fallen to me. This article has given me the motivation to have a family meeting to define what shared ownership of managing the house looks like with my 3 teenagers. Here’s to raising considerate team-players who take initiative and responsibility! Thanks Erin – your blog is a gift.
Alice, you raise a great point about talking to kids about their roles/responsibilities to the family/home. My kids are 6 and 9 now but I’d LOVE to hear from you and/or other parents of teens about how you go about having these conversations and what works/doesn’t work. Erin, maybe a topic for a guest post?
Amen sister. Romantic/household partnerships should always be about being on the same team but ever so more true when you become parents 😉
Yes! While our family was young, most household tasks were mine since I stayed home with the kids and my husband traveled a great deal. Flash 30 years later and we’re still in a 5 bedroom home, with just two of us and I have health conditions that make it impossible for me to keep up. He does most of the cleaning now and we’re trying to get ready to put the house on the market at some point, which is a challenge. He’s always helped, but now he does it all and says, you did it the first 30 years, I’ve got it now. I help where I can, but I love his attitude!
Your husband sounds wonderful, Carolyn. Wishing you both the best.
“The more interesting truth”…possibly an alternate title for this post? Loved reading it.
Beautiful look into how you split and most importantly really *see* each other’s labor. This part especially resonated; “I won’t suggest that couples embrace daily scorekeeping of who’s done what (though it can be an illuminating exercise), but I do think reckoning with the labor required to run a household and how it’s shared is necessary work. Who is doing what? Who’s thinking about what needs to get done? Who’s ordering new shampoo? Or noticing that the sponge needs to get replaced or that the coat closet’s gotten messy? Who’s seeing that the slipcover is loose and sagging and tucking it back into place? Who’s wiping down the bathroom mirror? Who’s sweeping dust bunnies and changing the sheets and swapping out toothbrushes? Who’s finding a new place for the masking tape and marker and who’s remembering to put it back in that spot so that both parents know where to reach when packing school lunch?“
I actually DO suggest people keep track via a scorecard ( I built billthepatriarchy.com so…) but now I’m working on a journal to help people actually do it. Would love to share with you and your community to get feedback on this, like how to use tracking labor as a starting point for discussion and growth around invisible labor with in a home.
Yes! I remember that! Would love to see and share your journal! Shoot me a note [email protected]!
Patti, I really like your idea. I work from home, run a small preschool, so obviously I do a ton of stuff in our home that my husband doesn’t even know I do. He simply wouldn’t notice if I mop every day. But I think it would be good for him to see a list of everything I’ve done each day, in addition to my teaching and nurturing take. I think it would also help my own sense of having accomplished something each day. I like a to do list. This will be an *already done* list ☺️
In our relationship we do some things together but split a lot of tasks, mostly based on what I will or won’t do. I won’t pay bills, shop, do anything car related, insurance related, comparison related, budgeting. I know what he’s better at and what stresses me, this works so well for us. We do try to keep things an equal load, but it’s a little tricky with this system so we talk about it a lot. Do you have too much? How can I help? And we both clean up dog poop.
Whew, this article was a doozy for me. I think about this a lot, and I agonize over whether my preferences for cleanliness are reasonable or not.
The complicating issue for me is that my husband and I have different cleanliness strengths, and so I struggle to know if I’m in a position to ask for more. I’m messy but clean, and he’s tidy but not a cleaner. What I mean is, I leave half-finished projects laying around everywhere and really struggle with paperwork clutter, but when I do the dishes, I also wipe the counters and scrub the sink, and I do a lot of deep cleaning projects. Husband doesn’t leave clutter anywhere, and his half of the closet is immaculate, but I don’t know if he’s ever dusted or really deep cleaned anything but the bathroom. I’m often frustrated by the state of the house and don’t feel like he contributes enough to the cleaning effort, but also feel like I can’t ask for more until I can get myself to be tidier.
It’s so hard and complicated!
Yes, love this. I’ve been so interested to notice (and slowly unlearn) the behaviors and ideas I’ve internalized about the labor that I should be responsible for. So grateful for folks like you raising up these conversations! And reassuring to hear that everyone – even a badass simple living blogger! 🙂 – has to work at this with their partners. Hopefully we’re building a different kind of world for the next generation of girls and women.
Yes and boys and men, too!
This, times a million. Sitting at my desk in my home office reading this hearing my husband making our two year old daughter dinner in the other room and actively forcing myself to stop thinking “you shouldn’t be reading a blog, you should be in there!”. We both work from home, but I am the breadwinner for the household. We take our daughter to a caregiver and my husband is point person on when that happens and making that scheduling work. I often think that if I wasn’t “the one making the money” I would have a hard time asking for what I need just for the sake of being human. And that is definitely on me/my deeply ingrained gendered feelings of what I am “responsible for” and not on my husband, who meets me where I need to be met. Even though I am completely pleased with our division of labor, I still get some feeling like “am I asking too much?”, whereas I think my husband is free from even that level of emotional labor with it. It’s like it’s on a cellular level. Like, when I’m working and he has chosen to have our daughter at home and I can hear her say “mama!” through the door to my office I feel a lightning bolt of something. Guilt? Or it’s something deeper than that, like some bizarre bodily need to be out there… whereas I bet were I to have her and he hears her say “Papa!” he’d just be like “Yep, that’s me!”.
I’ve struggled so much with the concept of guilt and parenting. Mostly, I deeply resent the expression “mom guilt.” I feel like it’s a phrase that gets used against mothers, or as a method of keeping women’s priorities and passions in check. Particularly in the sense that if you’re *not* feeling a sense of guilt or obligation (likewise exhaustion, weariness, overwhelm) than something might be wrong with you, or you might not love your children very much, or you might just be a bad mom. If you’re not guilty ARE YOU EVEN A MOTHER? The whole thing makes me kind of irate, *especially* because there’s no equivalence for fathers. There’s zero cultural expectation that a father might feel guilty for needing to go to work, or make a sandwich or pee without a child attached to his hip, but this is the kind of thing we hear from mothers all the time. And, maybe like you, I can see that in James. He’s never afraid of anyone thinking he’s an abentee dad (in part because he truly, truly is not) and in part because the bar is SO LOW. Because of all of this, for a really long time I denied feeling any sense of guilt of all. And I stand by by what I said in this interview: http://www.mothermag.com/erin-boyle-reading-my-tea-leaves/ But that said, a whole bunch of therapy has helped me to parse through unexpected feelings of guilt that have weaseled their way into my thoughts IN SPITE OF MYSELF. It’s really pervasive. It’s *not* super common to have an equitable partnership and in my case I think sometimes the shared labor can start to feel codependence. Like, what would I even DO without James? Could I do it on my own? I’m sure I could, but it’s definitely not what I signed up for. And I think that’s where some of the guilt comes in. Thinking about all of the mothers who are shouldering far too much of the burden. Our situation is somewhat similar in that I’m also the primary income earner in our family and I also work largely from home. I frankly think that I’m so pissed at the patriarchy that even if I wasn’t the primary income earner I wouldn’t feel too bad about making sure the emotion load was shared, but…gah. It’s all complicated. Forgive my rambling, this just got me thinking!
Oh, Erin, thank you… This, like any identity politics (can I even call it that? it’s sure as hell my identity right now), is so multifaceted and complicated and entrenched (and different for everyone) it’s such a gift to have a place where one can have these sorts of deep existential ramblings. I think of it as “having a new idea for the first time in front of someone”. It’s not pretty or cohesive, but it’s necessary to try and name this stuff which feels so gigantic and intangible. So THANK YOU. And now I ramble back because this has gotten into my brain!
YES to ALL of this. I intellectually despise and get cartoon-levels-of-angry at the existence of “Mom Guilt” (and fully acknowledge the BS competitive trap of comparison of “busier than you…more tired than you…better mom than you!”) yet… I still feel some sort of way when I’m not out there with the babe doing whatever it is my cortex has internalized I “should” be doing. Or I move into a petty glass house of, like, “oh, you’re busy…do you even WORK, other holier-than-thou score-keeping mother?” How you gonna keep ’em down on the farm? (by having them keep score over nothing in order to have a feeling of control over anything instead of banding together and asking for full paid leaveeeeee).
After I posted originally I was thinking about that feeling of “should” as I went to sleep. Is this feeling biology? Like hormones are real/mom>babe link is real if ineffable/deeply mysterious and is that why I feel it differently than my partner? Or is it patriarchy? OR Is biology patriarchy?! AND/OR does patriarchy leverage biology to lend itself credence ?!? (mind explodes/sleep delayed ad infinitum).
“How bad other mothers have it” is definite component of my “Mom Guilt” (I’ll call it that for lack of anything truer…for now). Like, I make my own schedule, I am in control of my own destiny, I have a “good” baby, I have a supportive partner, I am white, educated, employed, safe, fed, warm, sheltered… what business do I have having “a problem” with any of this? But then I’m like…I have every business having a problem if it’s a problem. period. HA! Not period. (if there even is a problem? gaslighting myself=great + fun + productive thing to do at night in bed).
And when you say this about James: “He’s never afraid of anyone thinking he’s an absentee dad (in part because he truly, truly is not) and in part because the bar is SO LOW.” it REALLY resonates with me… that is true AND not only is James/my husband probably never “afraid of anyone thinking he’s an absentee dad”, I would imagine the thought never crosses his mind that that’s something anyone MIGHT ever think, whereas “what other people think about my parenting” is like a constant low-grade hum whether I want it to be or not (which I do not). The weight of that reckoning on mothers is real.
And I do think that the moral arc is moving us/our partners closer to more clearly realizing this disparity…like we can now all see that the guy who thinks that the microwave simply becomes magically clean isn’t engaging with his partner’s emotional load (whereas “before” one might have not even noticed that even that was an issue, ‘she cleans the microwave because that’s her job, duh’), but we aren’t *quite* to the point where even the most supportive of partners organically recognizes the freedom and lightness in never even having to consider thoughts of what they should and should not be doing. AND the only way to change that is to talk about it (related/unrelated to when I decided to speak my internal monologue about how I have been conditioned to consider my own safety as a woman…like in the grocery store parking lot, I’ll say “if I was by myself I would never park next to this big truck because there’s no streetlight here and it will be dark when we get out and the view of me getting into my car from the entrance of the store is blocked by the panel and something bad could happen to me without anyone noticing it” my husband is like WUT!? He never has to consider that he might be in physical danger. Or, for myself, considering my whiteness, like, if I get pulled over by the police, I never have to consider that I might be killed)… maybe that’s another component of the “guilt”. Striving towards wokeness about something like “emotional load of birthday party invites sent only to mothers”, when the stakes are comparatively so low feels like SUCH a privilege. But maybe just because it isn’t life and death doesn’t make this particular truth any less real. Like, I’m not trying to put a hierarchy on suffering, I want everything to be better!?
OK Now I REALLY went on a ramble! “Having new ideas in front of someone for the first time” is hard. I hope I was graceful. I’ll sign off now before I write any more insane paragraphs! Love to you and cheers to being gentle with all of our truths in the endless search for balance.
Chiming in to say ‘yes!’ and to add that division of labour doesn’t stop at keeping the house tidy. Family management in my case also includes: registering for preschool, finding out kindergarten dates, swimming or soccer lessons?, skiing or gymnastics?, planning birthday parties, remembering all the birthdays/anniversaries, booking family vacations, groceries, toilet paper, getting the mail, etc, etc…it’s a constant mental to-do list that I have constructed without sharing and then get exhausted.
My take-away is communication is key. I know this. Must practice it 🙂
Oh, no doubt. Don’t get me started on the birthday invitations sent to the mothers only.
I think modeling this behavior for our children is so key. I feel so fortunate that I was raised by two working parents and a step father who did and does his fair share of household chores because he loves my mother and wants to unburden her and be helpful. Growing up he did a lot of the cooking, would clean the bathroom on this hands and knees, dust furniture etc. (this was in stark contrast to what I saw in my grandparents household which was extremely gendered). My expectations of what a relationship and partnership should be is shaped by what I saw modeled and I’m lucky that my partner shares the same values of equality and shared responsibility. He does almost all the cooking, I usually wash the dishes, his does his laundry and I do mine, etc. and we share equally in raising and parenting our daughter. We each have the “stuff” we do, but most importantly he’ll wash the dishes, vacuum, whatever, if it needs to get done and he’ll do it unprompted because we’re in it together. We’re not perfect. Sometimes things fall into disarray and the lion share falls on me, especially with a small child but we’re at a place where I can simply say “I’m feeling overwhelmed and I need your help” and it doesn’t turn into a fight about toilet paper.
Did anyone else get anxiety watching Marie Kondo’s show???? Oh episode two!!!!! Seriously!
I’m not sure what your anxiety stemmed from but honestly I just cannot watch it! The trailer is enough to overwhelm me and honestly the whole thing just feels annoyingly stereotypical as well as directed towards middle america. I love the idea of simplifying etc but when it comes down to it ,many people, including me, don’t have a whole lot to give away. I feel a bit of a curmudgeon writing this and know there’s alot of people out there watching for different reasons and with different means. I honor that. I just cannot spend any free time watching something like this!
The answer to all of your questions is me. I’m the one who notices everything and eventually takes care of it. My husband honestly doesn’t see the bathroom mirror needing to be wiped, or the marker and tape out of place. I’m the keeper of all the knowledge of where things are. I’ve tried different ways to approach this to let him take responsibility, but nothing has stuck. And these things can’t be left undone forever, so it often ends up in me cleaning. Not to say he doesn’t help; he does! But I often have to ask or point it out. I’m still figuring it out.
Linen closet example was painfully true. I went through the same thing while postnatal hormones were raging.
We live in a tiny apartment with our newborn (how I discovered this blog, by the way…that, and searching for maternity wardrobe ideas while surviving on three secondhand dresses from ’90s and a clothing budget of -$10); a pine wood-stained-cherry chest of drawers serves as the linen closet. I think the issue was the use of bath sheets as a rag to wipe up spilled milk.
“How was I supposed to know which ones are the rags?”
I threw everything out onto the floor and told him to organize it all. (He did.)
Two hours later…
Communication: since he organized the closet, he knows where everything goes. I’m gifted with extreme organizational skills, so I could detect his system easily, so therefore
Recognition: and appreciation of the diverse and unique gifts of one another (me: organization, detail oriented, neat freak; him: keeping calm, amazing cleaner, physical strength.) Switching up roles, even temporarily, has given me a newfound appreciation for him (and for my wonderful father).
Forgiveness: Me – for him using a special towel as a rag. Him – for me flying off the handle about linens.
Patience: because we’re both human. Imperfect. And still working towards total gift of self to one another.
As always, what a lovely and thoughtfull read! I think many women will be able to relate to this article and all the questions you pose for the balance of household duties. Not everyone will be good at all the same tasks and it may not be an even split, but finding a balance with open conversations makes for a much healthier dynamic. I love that you say this has taken work and is constantly evolving. So appreciate your honestly and courage when sharing your life stories. Blaze ahead!
Thank you, Erin!
My husban and I are very similar to you and James. We also have two young children. The process is organic, ongoing and more often than not, full of revelations.
Yes! I love the message of “teamwork” of the show. I actually made my kids watch some episodes with me (truthfully: they got bored). But! I’ve been on a mission for a few years to instill the idea that we are all responsible for the care and upkeep of our home and this show re-energized me on this topic. The show also made me feel glad to live in a relatively small home with my family – less opportunity to accumulate mountains of stuff. Thanks for this thoughtful post.
Such a great and thoughtful piece and also love all the comments.
It made me think of something that happened recently that got under my skin: a mutual (female) friend of my partner and me was aghast that he was doing our laundry (You’re doing HER laundry??!! I would NEVER!!!)
My partner was puzzled and replied that since I gather/sort and fill the cart and I do all the folding, he thought he got off kinda easy. (I love folding and hate going to the basement, he hates folding and doesn’t mind the basement. Perfect.)
Your piece reminded me that people have strong feelings about housekeeping that go well beyond the task(s).
For me, the hardest part of partnership has been how to navigate a distinctly, necessarily unequal “home management” burden. My husband earns more than I do, and works far longer hours. When we had children, we decided that it made most sense for me to scale back my career to part-time (to keep me relevant in my industry and save on childcare), for our primary “professional focus” to be his career (which had far greater earning potential in the near and distant futures), and our primary “domestic focus” be my efforts.
If we could strive for equality, it would at least feel like a good starting point. Splitting things up, when “equal” isn’t an option – sometimes it can feel like, just defining what’s fair and possible is simply one more thing to do. He gets home at 10pm many nights; quite fairly, the bulk of the laundry and dishes and daily tidying falls to me. But not everything that ever has to happen, obviously. So…how much? I struggle most with the fluctuations of this answer, which vary with all the minute tremors and major seasons our days, weeks, months, years: illnesses, school closings, busy periods at work, all of it. And what about when it’s all just too much – when no one could reasonably be expected to fold the stupid pillow cases, after a week like [this]? And yet someone has to do it anyway?
And what of the emotional rewards and struggles of all these tasks and their various states of completion? My husband finds cleaning (though not tidying) therapeutic. I find it all hateful, and so I simply do it in order of priority: what MUST happen for us to function tomorrow? If the clothing needs to be folded, but he feels calmer wiping down the sink faucets and so he does that to decompress after a long day, I get enraged sometimes – I want to scream, “The point of chores isn’t to make you feel good while doing them! If it feels good that’s a bonus! The point is, these things just have to be done!” It feels like a cop-out – like because he does more cleaning than I do, I’m the messy one, the scattered one – but really I’m just the one doing the stuff that ABSOLUTELY HAS to happen, and a lot of what falls under “cleaning” that he does, doesn’t absolutely have to happen on any given day. Dusting, polishing, etc – the stuff he loves doing. I appreciate that he does these things, because life is a lot nicer that way, but sometimes it feels a bit like re-arranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. Meanwhile if something needs doing, I don’t do it halfway: if I’m hunting down toys and putting them away after an endless shut-in slushy snow day, they’re all going where they’re meant to go – whereas my husband, if he puts toys away, just cares that they’re “away,” out of sight, and not whether they are where the kids know to look for them in the morning: Playmobil guys in the block bin, dollhouse dolls in the Magnatiles. I get insulted by this, as it requires more work down the road from me; I feel like he’s prioritizing his “zen now” urges over my “don’t make more work for ourselves” desperation.
I do count myself as lucky, that my husband is definitely the cleaner AND tidier of the two of us. I know that’s an unusual dynamic. I also think, though, that there is a certain privilege in having the time and freedom to BE the “tidy” one. And that part bothers me. Because I am an at-home parent for half the workweek, it gets implicitly assumed that all the childcare is on me – by him, by the kids, by me – he will just mosey upstairs and clean off his dresser on a Saturday morning, whereas for me to do that, I’d have to specifically draw his attention to my desire for 20 minutes alone, and actively hand the kids over. That’s the part that feels really unequal to me, I guess – the time to prioritize the cleaning and tidying tasks that matter most to you.
Tough stuff, all of it.
Oh my god, Alexandra, my heart aches for you. My dynamic with my husband has some echos of this, though enormously less complicated and intense because we don’t have kids. But ducking out to organize his dresser (HIS space, not OUR space) feels familiar. Why, when he is so obsessive about the order that his shirts hang in, does he just shove the glassware into the cabinet any old way, and he never puts the towels into any sort of order? These super minor infractions make me feel like I’m a controlling, critical jerk when I consider that he does all of the laundry and is so much tidier than me, but it feels like the tidiness is constrained to his personal space.
I love this conversation. Most of the hardest conversations and arguments with my husband have been rooted in some part of this. I especially appreciate your point, Erin, about the slippery slope of preferences and entrenched gender expectations. A book rec: Tiffany Dufu’s Drop the Ball. She addressed this idea by making a literal list of every. single. task. it takes to keep things running smoothly. (Planning trips, changing lightbulbs, doing laundry, making meals, setting up new technology, getting the mail, etc.) Ideally, you do this with your partner, then label who does each thing most of the time. It was valuable for both me and my husband because it was so clear. It legitimized my feelings of working so hard. It opened my partner’s eyes to all the little and big things that seemed to happen magically. And this was despite both of us mostly feeling pretty good about our efforts to avoid traditional gender expectations. They are just that deep.
After the list and a good long talk, we re-assigned tasks. The key here is not to fall into the “I know how to do it, so I’ll just keep doing it” mindset. Dufu points out that this will usually lead to another uneven distribution of work. We did that, and stuck pretty tightly to it for a few months as a kind of re-orienting of work. It was so helpful. Freeing, even. It did take some release of control. It’s not my job to do laundry, so that means I can’t micromanage the laundry. We’re due to revisit this list again, because old habits (GENDER EXPECTATIONS) die hard.
When I’ve shared this with friends or colleagues, the general reaction is a sort of raised eyebrows, Is-that-really-necessary vibe. YES. For us, it was. For me to stop feeling like the household manager, yes it was. To make work transparent, yes it was. To stop the maddening, endless “Can you….?”.
While our conversation was sparked by my returning to work after staying home for a year and a half with our daughter, I think it is just as important (more, even?) to try this practice if one person is at home.
Yes to ALL of this. Thanks so much for the reminder about Tiffany Dufu’s book. I haven’t read it, but it’s been on my list!
Thanks so much for this, Erin. I admire you so deeply. I have a question. My husband has been in medical school/residency/fellowship for over ten years, so I’ve been the “keeper of the house.” This responsibility came about because he has been so busy, but also because I am so controlling (it took me a long time to acknowledge this piece). I’ve grown more lax as we’ve had children, but I still do the lion’s share of the household work: cooking, cleaning, changing the toothbrushes, etc. I’m the ceo/general manager. I also work part time teaching writing at a local college. I also volunteer at my children’s school and at a dog shelter. I also teach a spin class, etc. etc. etc. So, as I write this, I’m once again acquainting myself with the fact that this is all rather ridiculous. How do I re-parcel our responsibilities without dealing with the major disappointment that follows? In other words, I know that it would take him YEARS to re-create his identity in our family and in our relationship. That’s not a bad thing, it’s just so exhausting to think about what that would entail. We don’t have Marie Kondo to help us set aside 40 days to go through what many of the families experienced on the show. And, my husband is already so bloody tired all the time. Can I keep things the way they are? Am I doing harm to my children by allowing them to observe such dated, dusty gender stereotypes?
Gosh. All of this stuff is hard, isn’t it? I’ll tell you what I’ve observed here: A lot of women blaming themselves and their high standards for at least a portion of their marital strife. I think it’s a truism that marriage is hard work and I think that cohabiting with anyone requires compromise. Lord knows there are things I turn a blind eye to. But I also think that we bring to our marriages all of the baggage and expectations and habits that our culture has demonstrated for us. It’s not a fluke or an accident or random that in so many marriages the shakedown is similar. I think the question I’d ask is whether you *both* want to recreate your identity in your family. It sounds like rejiggering things would require you to take a look at your role, too. Do you want to keep things the way they are, or is there a different route that feels more equitable or freeing or valuable for *you*? I think children are remarkably resilient. I think, if you’re asking, I’d look at what harm you might be doing to yourself and start there.
Thank you, wisest lady. So appreciate all that you do. xxxx
Sorry to intrude, but I’ve been going through similar thoughts, mostly because our children are now older and I’ve had time to stop and think of my life (and our life) instead of just using all my energy to get through the days and weeks. We actually went to seek some counselling, and one of the useful things that was said was that we have gone through many changes in the past 10-15 years in terms of children, education, careers, house moves, etc. So it’s normal to need to recalibrate the relationship instead just assuming that we somehow still are on the same page because we used to be a decade ago.
I don’t think anyone is suggesting it’s easy, but I do think it’s necessary in a long term relationship (and I certainly think 40 days is a very short time to get it all in a order!). For me the hard part is also listening to my partner, and hearing his complaints since I feel _I_ have so much to complain about. But yeah, at least in our case it’s not just me who is unsatisfied with the way the house (life) is running (which actually was the case for most KonMarie families too). Definitely not easy. Hopefully worth it at the end!
I was just going to suggest Tiffany Dufu’s book! We haven’t actually ever mapped out our contributions, but after reading this post and comments, I think we ought to. Our marriage is more equitable than many (my husband was a stay-at-home parent for a while, and he does the lion’s share of the cooking and laundry), so he gets very defensive when I suggest that I’m still bearing the majority of the household management responsibilities. I don’t want to take him for granted, but I genuinely want to enlighten him on everything my mind keeps track of ALL THE TIME. I’ve pointed out lately that he asks me where things are, and I’ve tried to shrug and let him search. But that just feels passive aggressive, since I know where the damn things are. IT’S HARD.
I’ve read you every day for the last three years. I don’t comment on anything. But I wanted to comment on this post, because I think it is the best one you’ve written. Thank you.
I agree! And the comments from both readers and Erin are so good!
What kind of systems or structures have been helpful for people in navigating this? A few people talked about listing tasks and responsibilities together and dividing them. Does anyone have a rotating task chart or a way of accomplishing tasks more collaboratively?
Ugh, as much as I hate the expression “happy wife, happy life,” I do think that we can have a little grace for the attitude behind it. Not everyone cares if their house is tidy. The couple in the show mentioned, I think, that the wife wanted the house to be cleaner but the husband didn’t consider it a priority. However, he took on an equal share of the cleaning because he knew it would make her happy. I don’t know I think it matters if the husband is only taking part because he wants to please his wife, not because he actually wants to. But it’s definitely deserving of more consideration.
True enough that not everyone cares if their house is tidy but I don’t think there’s harm in pointing out that the story and its telling repeats a tired gendered cliché.
This past weekend my S.O and I moved into a new space together and this post is speaking to me on a particularly special level this week. Thank you for adding this to your newsletter this week as I somehow missed this post in January. Currently, we are in the process of unpacking and deciding where things should live (and if they should even stay with us at all) and it has been a struggle. I feel overwhelmed by the magnitude of sorting out how our life will be organized in this space and making it work best for us. One of the best concepts that I have learned from following you over the years is that nothing is permanent and that organization and storage methods can evolve and change to be better.
so glad this came to you at just the right moment! yes! here’s to evolution of all kinds!
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