Not just manual labor

A few years ago my partner and I were having a conversation about household chores. It was one of many we’ve had over the years as we’ve negotiated the daily process of living together and having children. The gist of the discussion was this:

Me: “I’m frustrated with the division of tasks we have.”
Him: “I don’t understand. I try to do at least half. I always do whatever you want me to do.”
Me: “Yes, you do a lot – plenty! But the point is not what you do, it’s that I don’t want to have to tell you what to do. I want you to know what there is to do around the house without me having to tell you.”**

(I will note here that this conversation happened quite a while ago (15 years?), and it’s been a really long time since I had to tell him anything, usually it’s the other way around now (for example, I forgot to feed the dog or put my daughter’s lunch into her backpack this morning). I note it as a moment of realization.)

I read an article about a husband and wife’s cooking issues this morning that really described a lot of what I was feeling at that moment my partner and I had that discussion. What I was trying to communicate to him is something all people raised female already know, but which few men are ever taught: household labor is about a lot more than the labor itself. Anybody can wield a vacuum cleaner downstairs for half an hour, but actually keeping the floors of a house clean on an ongoing basis looks more like this …

Anybody can wield a vacuum cleaner downstairs for half an hour, but actually keeping the floors of a house clean on an ongoing basis looks more like this …

  1. Who buys the vacuum cleaner? Who buys the filters?
  2. Who keeps track of the floor cleaning schedule – when and which floors were last vacuumed, mopped or otherwise cleaned?
  3. Who determines the standards for clean floors, and who checks to make sure it’s done well?
  4. Who cleans out the vacuum cleaner when it’s full of dust?
  5. Who determines when the floors need mopping or steam cleaning in addition to vacuuming?
  6. Who hires the carpet cleaners and schedules it and pays for it?
  7. If it’s a child’s task, who gets the kid to do it and makes sure they do a good job?

In our house, it’s safe to say, the majority of that is my partner’s task. Over the years he’s figured out all the things that go into it, so at this point, really the only part I have in it is discussing periodic steam cleaning and paying for it. I don’t even think about our floors, in general, as I know it’s covered. We’ve figured out most of this at this point, and each have our specialties.

So many modern cisgender women still don’t have the luxury of dropping household tasks off their mental lists. Even if a spouse does some of the manual execution, the fact is that the greater part of household labor is still the wife’s – the purchasing, tracking, and planning of that labor. That extra portion of household emotional and mental labor is what cisgender women are trained from little girls to do without thought, and to believe it’s their job. It’s justified through females being told they’re more naturally adept at it, more tidy, more hospitable, more giving, and more care-taking (all of which is socialized behavior rather than attributable to our actual gender DNA). Even if a spouse does half of the labor (still rare), many cisgender women and men still believe that keeping track of it all is the wife/woman’s job alone, regardless of whether they both work out of the house or not.

I’m sure some of the inequality is intentional – household labor amounts to a lot of remembering, planning, saving, thinking and stressing. I still know of men who “do a bad job” cleaning the bathroom so that their spouses will “just do it themselves” with the argument that “women are just better at it” or “men are just sloppy.” (I don’t buy any of that, and think he ought to get busy with the scrub brush and not be a slob.) That dude has a long way to go toward achieving equality with his spouse. However, many cisgender men do want more equality and make a lot of effort, and yet still these issues of inequality remain.

It was easier, for me, during my first major live-in relationship when I learned to negotiate household chores with another woman. She already had the same domestic training that I did, meaning I never had to explain all that extra STUFF – when we talked about “you do the floors and dusting and I’ll do the bathrooms” we automatically assumed that we’d take on the hidden extra labor as well. I never really had to think about it, so I didn’t realize at the time why our division of labor was so easily equal. Since I’ve been in a relationship with a cisgender man, however, even though we want to be equal, it’s a lot harder. Achieving equality has been a long process of finding and uncovering and negotiating gender stereotypes and our own childhood programming to achieve a more equal space. I can’t imagine how the process would go if one of us was resistant to exploring and correcting those thing due to ideas about gendered tasks and roles.

Speaking of resistance, we’ve discovered along the way that both of us have unexpected resistance points to a more equal division of labor. I found that I was resistant to sharing the cooking duties – but that’s not a gendered thing I learned. I learned from my dad, who loves cooking and loves going to grocery stores and trying recipes. However, I had to give in on the cooking front when I realized I wasn’t doing a good job because I was attempting to make a gourmet experience out of every meal. I was exhausting myself and getting cranky and resentful, and it was self-imposed. I learned a lot from my more pragmatic just-get-it-on-the-table partner, particularly after children came along.

At this point we have a weekly calendar discussion which is the venue for most of our task negotiation. Who gets what child, when, and what are we eating, and who’s getting groceries, and what appointments are there, who has field trips, and what partner has what extra work to do that will take extra mental energy? I’ve found that our weekly planning and commitment to equality has produced an ongoing negotiation that over time has strengthened and reinforced with us both that we really are in a relationship of trust, equality and mutual respect.

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