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Modern Marriage: Till Chores Do Us Part

It’s the little things, day after stressful day, that can eat away at a relationship and have real consequences. Why we’re all one norovirus/science fair/toddler tantrum away from total burnout.

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If you’ve ever felt, as a busy working mom, that your partner, who also works full-time, doesn’t do enough around the house, then I sincerely hope he doesn’t break his leg. Because if he did, you’d find out just how close your daily life is to going completely off the rails. It might be the dead of winter. The coldest, snowiest one in years. You might have to schlep the kids to daycare and school, getting to work almost on time, and then do it again in reverse, leaving early enough to be noticed — as well as handle all the groceries, meals, playdates and housework. His biggest accomplishment on a Tuesday might entail scuttling on crutches from the kitchen to the couch with a mug of hot tea (only three spills!). While any victory for you would amount to not breaking a limb of your own as you do absolutely everything else (including mopping up sticky tea spots on the floor).

I’m not married to a bum. With tibia and fibula intact, Scott has been my perfect partner for 17 years. When we moved in together in our mid-20s, there was no negotiating over chores. Things just seemed to get done — there was a whole lot less to do back then. A decade later, everything is bigger: our careers, home, family (two kids, ages five and eight), stress levels. Chores are divided fairly evenly; I handle most of the cooking and laundry, while he plays more with the kids, does the groceries and general maintenance. He’s caring, involved and hard-working. Like the majority of parents, we’re always hustling, trying our best to get by. It’s a precarious balance, and any nudge—a kid with a cold or a husband in a cast — can throw it off, sometimes way off. Most days though, we push through, we laugh, we try our best not to slip up.

How nice and harmonious, right?

For the most part, yes. But every 40 days or so, no.

I’ve not charted it to interest rates or lunar cycles, but what I do know is that I pretty regularly break down every six weeks, and it always looks the same: I’m doing too much; you’re not doing enough; you’re not noticing everything I do; and how do you not know that we’re out of cat food or where we keep the kids’ swim towels? (They’re in the closet with the towels.) It’s always on a weeknight after the kids are in bed, always with tears (mine) and then silence (his). I wouldn’t say a whole lot changes as a result of these outbursts. I’ve come to think of them as my reset button.

It can feel lonely — all the meal planning, rushing and worrying — but I’m not alone. Pan out to my circle of lady friends, my colleagues and the 2,200-plus moms in the three Facebook parents’ groups I belong to, and you’ll find many frustrated, furious women out there. To be clear, I’m looking at this through the lens of a middle-class, heterosexual couple, in which the division of chores and parenting often seems to revert to 1950s-style stereotypes as if by default. (Same-sex couples don’t generally experience the same gendered expectations — research shows they’re better at communicating and negotiating, and more likely to divide chores based on preference and ability.)

We chose smart, sensitive, empathetic partners and rewarding careers. But once kids arrive, we find ourselves surprised by how bogged down we feel, doing way too much with too little support. Are our expectations outsize? Did our rosy dream of equality really involve near-daily loads of laundry and waking up before dawn to snag a spot in Toddler Swim? We are ragged with exhaustion. Our resentment simmers just below the surface. Why, even with our lovely partners, are we so pissed off?

You probably don’t need stats to confirm what you already feel — harried, stressed and sweaty — but there are numbers to prove it. Parents are doing more than ever. Since 1965, mothers have almost tripled the amount of paid work (their jobs) they do, as the time they spend on chores and child care has dropped, while fathers have more than doubled the amount of time spent on housework (from four hours a week to almost 10) and tripled the time they spend with their kids.

Time spent per week on household chores

Even with those huge gains, women are still doing double — double! — the amount of unpaid work. That’s according to data from 2003 to 2015 (the most recent available) from the American Time Use Survey via Pew Research Center, a Washington, D.C.-based non-profit demographic research centre. On average, dads spend more time than moms at work, while moms spend more time on child care and household chores, Pew reports in Modern Parenthood, an analysis from March 2013. However, it continues, “when their paid work is combined with the work they do at home, fathers and mothers are carrying an equal workload.” The study also shows that when both partners work, they manage to divide things more equally than couples in which only one spouse works outside the home.

I get this. When one kid wakes up puking, there’s a thick silence between Scott and I as we strip the bed and wait for the other to utter the words, “I’ll stay home with him.” On many workdays around 4 p.m., texts fly between us as we jockey for freedom from school pickup. We’re both busy and yet the subtext is always I am busier. My meeting is more important; I’m the one who’s closer to the edge. Fine, it’s not a competition. But if it’s not, then why do I short-circuit and berate my husband 9.13 times a year? Am I winning? Or losing?

You’d be forgiven for struggling to define the problem, because it’s invisible. Those Pew numbers don’t tell the whole story; statistics can’t capture this stuff. Lisa Wade, a professor of sociology at the Occidental College in Los Angeles, says it’s the thinking, worrying, organizing and delegating — the mental-emotional burden — that’s dragging women down. “Both parents are working more hours than they used to, but it’s pretty much equal, which is why it’s so interesting that women are consistently more dissatisfied with the division of labour in their partnerships,” Wade says. In a study from the Journal of Marriage and Family, only 11 percent of women married to men say the division of labour in their households is fair, whereas 45 percent of men married to women say so. “The numbers look fair, but a substantial number of men recognize it’s not, and the vast majority of women believe it’s not.”

Daily Time Spent on Unpaid Chores

Not all work is equally valued, however. Despite the men who have stepped up since 1965, chores and child care are still branded as feminine and, as such, are assigned less importance — unless a man is doing them. Dads are praised, even fetishized, for many of the ordinary tasks mothers are always busy with: babywearing (I totally look twice at a bearded dude with a baby in an Ergo); bathing the kids; flipping his famous Saturday pancakes (maybe the one meal he’s made all week). The workplace bears this out too, as men are paid more for the very same jobs women do. So when you look at those numbers that show we’re balancing the home stuff pretty evenly, but you still feel a kind of sour inequity hanging in the air, this is why. “Women understand deeply that their work is not considered as valuable as the work their husbands do,” Wade says. She’s talking literal worth — there’s no bonus when you nab all the city rec spots on your spreadsheet, no tax breaks for managing your kid’s haircut stress — and metaphorical value. “It’s a bigger problem with gender, that everything seen as feminine is somehow less valued than things seen as masculine.” Cue the resentment.

Meanwhile, my brain fizzes with the minutiae that makes each day run smoothly(ish): What meals can I make on the weekend that will maximize leftovers for lunches and dinners? I have to refill the mini-shampoo bottle we bring to the pool, and launder suits and towels tonight so they’re ready for tomorrow. The bread is mouldy. We only have one bag of milk left. Have to confirm the dentist, pay the tutor, cancel piano. And ugh, the library books are overdue. All of this. Every day. I often feel it consumes me. It definitely exhausts me. It’s not that this thinking work and emotional work is strictly uterus-specific — men do it too, but they tend to be the minority. And in most of the couples I know, this arrangement arises when the dad works at home or works fewer paid hours overall. The one with the bigger career (more responsibility, more money) typically steps back from chores and child care, Wade says. And most employers still assume their male workers have someone else handling the domestic stuff, so they expect men to log more hours. Women, on the other hand, are generally paid less and lose earning power and influence when they take mat leave. So when a couple negotiates who will pick up the slack at home, income matters more than gender, Wade says. And there comes that backward slide.

Jancee Dunn, an author, wife, and mom to a seven-year-old girl, was as much motivated to write her new book, How Not to Hate Your Husband After Kids, by the sadness and despair she observed in her community of “park moms” as by the molten rage she felt toward her otherwise lovely husband, Tom. “It’s amazing how angry you can be,” she says. “It’s not a betrayal exactly, but I definitely felt I’d been sold a bill of goods. I felt insulted he thought the donkey work was my domain. Even after having written about it, I wrestle with the fact he’s not a bad guy. He means well. So why am I so angry?”

Dunn’s “donkey work” is all the stuff (tangible and invisible) that makes a home run. She, like me, was shocked to find she’d become the default parent — the thinker, the worrier, the dishwasher unloader. It shouldn’t come as that much of a surprise though, says Melissa Milkie, a sociology professor at the University of Toronto who specializes in gender and family. “Culturally, mothers are pulled more to the ideology of the perfect mom as the one who’s always there and primary. So if the kid is sick or there’s some need, she feels like she needs to be there more often than the father does.”

Mothers are, in many ways, idealized, Milkie continues, and that ideal has a very high standard. The modern practice (or sport?) of intensive mothering is a product of this ideal, in which middle-class moms pour every resource they have — time, mental effort, money, everything — into their kids. It’s not sustainable and it never seems to be enough, a message reinforced through advertising, entertainment and our social feeds, she says. We somehow feel that we are ultimately responsible for our children’s happiness, academic success and overall bright future. “All of this keeps mothers in isolation, in a way,” Milkie says. “It’s all on them.”

I’m certainly guilty of this intensive mothering, but I’ve always believed it’s a choice I make. I know I don’t have to cook as many meals from scratch as I do and I shouldn’t feel so much pressure to stuff every weekend with activities designed to etch precious memories into my kids’ brains. I am constantly torn: I do have an idea, right or wrong, of what a mom looks like in this day and age — balancing work and family with grace, fresh flowers and the right Instagram filter — but I also think that all the time and effort I put in is bullsh*t. I’m the one in the kitchen on Sunday making a triple batch of soup and a pot of rice, roasting vegetables and seeding pomegranates while texting a friend about a playdate and reading over a viral list of 66 positive things I can say to my child, as Scott sprawls on the carpet, casually strumming his ukulele and helping the kids build a Lego helicopter. I’d be lying if I said that a few too many Sundays like this don’t add fuel to my freak-outs.

Here’s a good lie I’ve bought into: I’m really suited to all the scheduling and organizing and I’m super good at worrying. Aren’t those just things women are made for? Wade scoffs at this. “Well, people do tend to get good at the things they do all the time. Our brains are beautiful like that,” she says. “It’s all about context: Women are better at sewing because they have such nimble fingers and they’re so patient — but if it’s a surgeon, it should be a dude. Come on! These stereotypes break down when you shift the context. Our brains don’t do that many different things — they pay attention and they make our bodies work, and the skills we need are the same across the wide span of workplaces and the wide span of the home. We just decided that when it comes to the home, women must be better.”

Some men will argue that they do their fair share of thinking work too, but in a piece she wrote for Time magazine, entitled “The Modern Marriage Trap,” Wade argues the stuff they handle is culturally masculine — like negotiating a better rate on car insurance or changing the furnace filter — and that these chores “are weekly at best and often monthly, seasonal and even annual,” she writes. “They aren’t comparable in frequency to the chores that many women feel responsible for: dinner, laundry, carpooling, practices, lessons. So women’s minds tend to be more relentlessly and unceasingly occupied than men’s.”

Men enjoy freedom of mind. Women’s brains are constantly buzzing. Dunn and I have this in common: Our husbands are really good at zoning out — hers with chess on his computer, mine with his uke. “The ukulele that you want to shove up his ass,” she says, as I guffaw. “There’s a ukulele in every woman’s life. Tom has this remarkable ability to live in his own bubble and to truly not see that I am like Vishnu, doing 50 things at the same time,” she says. “He’s not an evil guy, he’s just oblivious — in his own head a lot of the time. And I would argue with him that I can’t be in my own head. Women work on a timetable.”

Watching TV and Folding Laundry

This all feels terribly consistent with the clichéd unhappy housewife: nagging her husband to take out the garbage every time he kicks his feet up. “I often cringed at the sound of my own voice and my dramatic, aggrieved tone,” Dunn says. “It can seem so silly to get upset because he leaves his dirty dishes in the sink rather than the dishwasher. But day after day, it then defaults to being my job. And when I tell him that I wish he wouldn’t do that, because I already have too much to do, and he chooses to ignore me and does it anyway, it’s demoralizing. I don’t want to be his mother — I’m already a mother. I want a partner.”

Except it’s not about the dishes. Or the pomegranates. It’s the little things, day after stressful day, that can eat away at a relationship and have real consequences. We are all one norovirus/science fair/toddler tantrum away from total burnout. “To me, the larger message he is giving me when he does this, over and over, is that my time and energy are less valuable than his. And also that even if something clearly upsets me, it doesn’t bother him enough to change his behaviour,” Dunn says. “It chips away at my goodwill.”

Dunn told Tom that if they didn’t get therapy, their marriage might not survive — a mission that inspired her book. Scott and I are nowhere near this crisis point. We adore each other and always want to be together (some friends might say annoyingly so). It doesn’t mean I don’t get angry, that we don’t feel frustrated. Scott doesn’t want to see me this way. He isn’t happier with his wife in the kitchen (well, he is, because I’m a really good cook), and he doesn’t want me to be overwhelmed by it. He wants me down on the floor beside him, with the kids in my face and Lego all over me.

“You absolutely do too much,” he says. “Sometimes I wish you would just let it all go, even for a few minutes. But you never want to, because you just want to get it done. But there’s always another job after that and another after that.”

These aren’t make-work projects — if I didn’t pack the swim bag or cook meals ahead, we’d be more rushed and stressed than we already are. This pain is for our long-term gain. Scott insists he’d happily do more if it meant I could pull back (and be less not-so-quietly resentful). I just have to ask. Ah, yes, the “Just tell me what to do!” defence — like nails on a chalkboard to female household managers everywhere. The idea of deputing tasks or asking for help implies you’re still the one running the show. Delegating is just another bloody job.

I have a confession to make: I’m not super comfortable about giving stuff up. I like to do things a certain way; I get off on feeling indispensable; I want to own parenthood. And I’m not the only lady who balks at pulling back. “It’s really easy to put your foot down on feminist issues when you don’t have a child involved, but this isn’t like deciding not to wear makeup,” Wade says. “It’s an entirely different situation when you feel it might be your child who’s paying the price for your feminist protest. I fully understand the incredible pressure women are under to be highly involved parents and then to also feel incredible guilt that they’re failing to be good wives, good workers and good mothers all at the same time.” So what gives? It may take recalibrating your idea of what good parenting is, she tells me, as I break into a sweat. Or how clean the house is. “We could all probably get away with a lot less,” she says.

What we need more of, Milkie and Wade agree (because they’re both sociologists), are social supports: fewer work hours and better pay, tax credits, affordable child care and healthcare, education, communication and community. It’s more than one couple can accomplish, but we can nag the people in power, which, in this resist-persist climate, might just work.

In heterosexual marriage, with so much incredible change over the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s, and dads’ roles at home increasing and more women entering the workforce, the stats aren’t going to converge much more, Milkie says. It makes sense; we’re already at our limits. She cites a 1999 study — almost 20 years old but just as relevant today — called Ask the Children: What America’s Children Really Think About Working Parents, conducted by the Families and Work Institute, a New York–based non-profit that provides research on changing workplaces, families and communities. When kids were asked to make a wish list for their families, only a small group wanted more time with their parents, but around 30 percent wished their parents had less stressful lives.

It occurs to me that even though my kids sleep through my sob-racked weeknight breakdowns, they no doubt feel my crackling, impatient energy and pay the price for my exhaustion every day. Too often, I’m short-tempered and impatient. I’ve actually taken to lamenting out loud — and I cringe to share this — that “I am boring, mean mom; dad is the fun one.” I also make a point to issue random, regular reminders that women are strong — women are capable! I do this cheerfully as they munch their Cheerios, but my girl-power campaign crumbles as they watch me flagging.

“All my daughter saw was me scrubbing stuff or folding stuff,” Dunn says. “I thought: She’s getting a bad message that women don’t deserve to do anything fun for themselves. I was being too much of a stagehand instead of a participant.”

This idea of being a participant in my family life as opposed to spending most of my time conducting it — like that dead-on laugh-or-you’ll-cry Onion headline: “Mom Spends Beach Vacation Assuming All Household Duties in Closer Proximity to Ocean” — is what jolts me. I need to lie on the floor. Except that if I do, I’ll last maybe six minutes before I hop up (and freak out about being six minutes behind). So I have to flee the situation. Get out of my never-ending project of a house and leave my to-do list behind. Scott can tend to that. He’s entirely capable and not on crutches. Things won’t fall apart if I take a breather. I may not achieve ukulele-level lightness, but I can certainly try.


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