Equal chore wars

Who does what in your house? Is it fair? Does it matter? Read about one writer’s approach to division of labor within her family–and be sure to fill us in on what works (or doesn’t) for yours.

The Philosophical: Is it fair? Does it matter?

I hate washing dishes. My husband Patrick hates washing clothes. We both use dishes and clothes every day. We operated under the assumption that to make things equal, we needed to do the hated chores together. For a long time, this worked. We had a dishwasher, so we loaded it together. We had a closeby laundromat, so we went as a team. Then we moved away, and we no longer have a dishwasher, and the laundromat is further away. To complicate matters, my husband was jobless since we’d moved for my career. We were still doing the chores we’d done before but they were more work-intensive. Suddenly the scales had tipped, and one person was home a lot more. He was in grad school though and looking for a job.

Ladies and gentlemen, I ask you: Was this fair? If one partner’s outside obligations are significantly different from the other’s, should the chore scales tip?

I ask because there are some trend-patterns that we could have fallen into. Firstly, here’s how we answered the equality question for ourselves, and this is by no means a directive for other people, just what our thought process was for our situation.

We decided that even though he was home during the day, Patrick was not obligated to do extra chores that normally we did together. Grad school and job hunting were not frivolous uses of his time. I was still a member of our team, and working like I always had didn’t elevate me, in the same way his not working didn’t lower his standing in the team. Additionally, he didn’t quit his job to expressly stay home (had he, this might have changed our verdict). We had never had such a wide gap in pay before, but as we talked about it we agreed that the money we brought into the partnership was equally ours, not mine that I was sharing with him, and his lack of employment at the time didn’t obligate him to sweat it out more at home. We actively discussed what our expectations were for our new normal.

These things matter because we don’t live in a bubble. As the female breadwinner, I’m part of a trend, but counter to what I originally assumed would happen (men and women swapping traditional roles), according to the New York Times, “When the wife brings in more money, couples often revert to more stereotypical sex roles; in such cases, wives typically take on a larger share of household work and child care.” It stands to reason that if we didn’t talk openly about our expectations for housework, those chores could eventually land on me.1

It’s not a small number of women who are falling into this breadwinner role, either, as the Pew Research Center reported that “A record 40 percent of all households with children under the age of 18 include mothers who are either the sole or primary source of income for the family”. I think it’s important to be cognizant of shifts like this, particularly when we fall into those groups in some form, because we can take note of patterns and pitfalls. In the case of the New York Times report, the study’s authors noted that “analysis of the time use data suggests that gender identity considerations may lead a woman who seems threatening to her husband because she earns more than he does to engage in a larger share of home production activities, particularly household chores.” Yikes.

One could argue that this isn’t really important, and that letting the chips fall where they may can work out just fine; there’s no need to obsess over having a perfectly egalitarian marriage. Life is not a sandwich that you can slice neatly in half. The trouble I personally have with that is that it seems like historically, letting the chips fall where they may usually means they fall on the woman’s lap. The goal is certainly not to share everything so that exactly everything measures out perfectly or else somebody owes somebody else 45 minutes of cleaning–“your spouse is not your debtor, but your spouse. The goal is not to clear your ledger, but to live with each other, and love each other, day in and day out for the rest of your lives. And if that’s what you’re aiming for, who has spent which hours doing what is often not exactly irrelevant, but not the main issue, either,” cautions Noah BerLatsky in his piece Spouses Probably Shouldn’t Try to Split Household Tasks Exactly Evenly (a good read). The goal here is to have a working household in which partners don’t feel they are being put-upon to the point of constant conflict.

Getting off The Philosophy Couch to clean under it, or, getting things done IRL

So you’re ready to tackle things and realize…you have no idea what to try. I ventured out to peruse the Internet and hustle my friends for some additional advice.

The old fashioned way: Apps!

There’s an app for everything, and chores are no different. There are a lot of apps out there for family chores specifically geared towards rewarding kids. This list has some good ones for family chores, but I was searching for something a little more adult, preferably without “mom” in the title. I discovered the “Unfilth Your Habitat” iPad app ($1.99), and while it’s definitely not an app to use with the kids, it’s a great option for those not looking for allowance-based rewards systems and who don’t mind the profanity that usually accompanies my IRL cleaning. Lists include “My To-Unfuck List”, “Random Unfucking Motivation”, etc. You can challenge yourself to five, 10, or 20-minute challenge, such as the five-minute challenge that consists of “All rooms: Collect all dishes and put in dishwasher or sink. Bonus: Wash them.” I bought it immediately.

Assuming all responsibility

One friend I queried responded with this solution that works for their partnership:

“We found the best way is to be ready to assume 100% responsibility for chores around the house, but to appreciate any time your partner helps out and shares the load. Everything gets done, and we can each fall back on one another if we need.”

“Do you find that evens out?” I asked.

“I’d think it’s about even overall, yeah. Maybe a little more [for my partner] because I have to travel for work sometimes.”


Sometimes the simple solution can be the easiest. In the words of Sue Forsee: “Go with your strengths and enjoy having a partner. Of course rotating chores on a weekly or monthly basis works too.”

The Cookie Jar

A while back, I ran across the idea from a friend to use a cookie jar as a chore distributor. You can truly make things randomized and take the equations out of the equations by writing down weekly chores and selecting them by pulling them blindly from the jar. Bonus points if you use this cookie jar. Remember, do or do not do the chores, there is no try.

His/Hers, And Then Some

Pamela Richey described her setup this way, explaining that they divide their laundry his/hers style, and other items by work schedules:

“Ben and I were engaged and had been living together almost two years when I had this conversation with my Mom as she was watching me load the washing machine:

Mom: What about Ben’s laundry?
Me: He washes his own clothes. I wash my own clothes plus the sheets, towels, bath mats, etc.
Mom: What about when you get married? Will you do his laundry?
Me: No
Mom: Does Ben know that???
Me (as calmly as possible): Yes, Mom. Ben knows that I’m not suddenly going to start doing every single chore in the house because I have a second ring on my finger.
Mom: And he’s OK with that???
Me (hitting palm to head): Yes, I don’t think he would want to marry me if I wasn’t a woman who wanted a marriage where we’re both equal and split the chores. We divide things up by practicality, skills, and work schedules, NOT by gender.”

Your milage may vary if a kid’s laundry is in the mix here.

When the system breaks, fix it

Eventually Patrick and I came to a tipping point: nothing was getting done when we were really stressed out, but the stress was mounting and so were the dishes. Something had to change.

“If you do all the dishes from now on, I will do all the laundry,” I volunteered. And it was as if the clouds parted and birds sang, because suddenly, the dishes and the laundry started actually being done without woe and misery for 50% of the team.

So that’s where we’re at. Doing laundry isn’t torture to me; washing each individual fork isn’t torture to him, for some unknown reason. We don’t do these chores together anymore; we just do them whenever within a week’s time, and it turns out that we’re much less grumbly when we can do them on our own. Nobody feels guilty about using items and not having a hand in washing them. No matter who the bigger earner is at a particular time, we know it can fluctuate, and that the earning potential of a person is not what increases or decreases the value of their time.2 And now with the “Unfilth Your Habitat” app, maybe we’ll even challenge ourselves a little more to change.

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So what works for you? What hasn’t work for you? Those with kids can probably speak to the way having them changes previous egalitarian arrangements–please share in the comments!

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  1. This is not a diss on my husband. He’s awesome and was raised to do chores. But from a purely statistical standpoint, I don’t think we’re extra special and immune to following patterns. 
  2. This is not to say that work in the home should carry no monetary value or that it’s worthless, but that’s a different commentary for a different day! 

Photo by: lorenzaccio*

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Hayley DeRoche

Hayley DeRoche is a librarian with a penchant for cardigans and corduroys. Luckily, her professional life revolves more around technology & information than fashion.

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