A practical guide for working parents to divide household responsibilities
Even when both parents work, the majority of household chores are still completed by women. Here’s how to make home life more equitable.
Whose job is it to pack the bags for nursery, fill out the forms and attend the 1 year development review, make sure that there are enough age appropriate snacks and nutritious meals in the fridge, and organise outdoor playdates in new playgrounds each day?
In many households, even in this age of egalitarian marriages and dual-income households, much of this minutiae of parenting falls to mothers.
And it’s burning women out. What’s causing this gulf in responsibility, and what’s a modern couple to do? The first important step is to acknowledge that there’s a problem.
INEQUALITY STARTS WITH PARENTAL LEAVE
Many couples happily tick along as equals before they have their first child, dividing jobs at home, charging ahead at the office, and dreaming of the family they’ll create together. Today, millennial women are more highly educated than their male counterparts; millenial men say that they want to be much more involved as parents than previous generations of fathers.
But the reality of pregnancy and the disparity in maternity and paternity leave policies, means that women take on the brunt of work with a newborn. As they develop competence in caring for their children, the divide in parental confidence between men and women begins. Within weeks, a new mother knows how to tell the difference between baby’s hunger cries and sleep cries, dad, with fewer hours on the job, looks to his partner to guide him.
START CREDITING THE THINKING WORK
Many women do much of the mental work of taking care of children, which can often go unnoticed. This “psychic burden” of motherhood, making sure that all the small things get done can be draining for women, especially when it doesn’t have tangible results. Being a master arranger of a toddler’s play dates doesn’t seem to resonate on LinkedIn.
Couples can start to address this “thinking” divide by making a list of all the work and responsibilities that go into your family life. Start by going through this household responsibilities worksheet.
Bringing the tasks and challenges to a calm, objective conversation can help reduce tension at home. Aim to get everyone on the same page and create a plan for how to make changes.
DIVIDE RESPONSIBILITIES NOT TASKS
One way to rethink household duties is by dividing them by responsibility rather than task. This allows each person to bucket tasks that encompass the thinking work, and to allow partners to gain confidence to manage it on their own.
For example, perhaps one person can manage all the food for the week. That means one party is responsible for planning meals, ordering the food shop, batch cooking, budgeting and making packed lunches. Ensuring that entire categories of responsibility are “owned” by a single person helps prevent mission creep.
Plus, when you own a whole area of responsibility, you develop expertise in it. This allows each person to develop a greater sense of appreciation for how much thought and effort goes into managing a particular project, and makes it more efficient and less of a source of friction.
Once the household responsibilities are divided, couples should also occasionally take turns trading jobs so each person understands how much work goes into it. Cooking dinner for the family involves a lot of prep time, psychological warfare (yes, you must eat your peas). But if your partner is the one doing it every night, you might not appreciate how much thought and energy goes into it, until it’s your turn to try to get the kids to eat a single meal not made of ham and cream cheese sandwiches
Trading places can build a sense of empathy and understanding for your partner, all good things to invest in at home.
LET IT GO
If women are often responsible for managing household minutiae, then they might need to find ways to let it go.
You might need to let go a need to coach your partner through tasks but first you may need to impart that expertise over. And once you hand responsibility over, you might just need to let control go, too.
Sheryl Sandberg recommends that women:
“Let [their husbands] put the diaper on the baby anyway he wants to as long as he’s doing it himself. And if he gets up to deal with the diaper before being asked, she should smile even if he puts that diaper on the baby’s head.”
Another option for couples looking to divide household responsibilities is to figure out which tasks they can give up to a professional. Investing in a weekly cleaner to manage the laundry can free up hours each week for families. Getting some extra childcare help on weekends can help couples to complete tasks quickly while kids are being entertained, opening more hours up for quality family time.
What works in terms of dividing household responsibilities during maternity leave might not work after you go back to work. Couples should continue to evaluate household responsibilities together as life responsibilities change. Checking in at the birth of a baby, after maternity leave, when a new child arrives, or when job roles change, are all great opportunities to reevaluate who does what at home and work
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