My husband and I stopped dividing chores into 'his' and 'her' jobs, and now things are actually getting done

  • Melissa Petro is a freelance writer based in New York where she lives with her husband and two small children. 
  • In their marriage, Petro says she and her husband found themselves dividing household chores into stereotypically male and female responsibilities — and then struggled with what felt like unequal workloads.
  • Petro says her chores of cooking and cleaning felt like more because they're done on a regular basis, while her husband's responsibilities of mowing the lawn and taking out the trash were more infrequent.
  • During the pandemic, the couple has made an effort to divide chores more evenly using a family to-do list, which has made running their home more of a team effort.
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It's hard to break a habit. Take feeding my family, for instance: Of all the drudgery I get saddled with, I actually enjoy making dinner — and I'm good at it. Whereas my husband? Not so much, and so night after night, I'd become the one that cooks. 

My husband, on the other hand, loves any excuse to throw on a pair of headphones and drink beer in the middle of the afternoon, and so mowing the lawn landed on his list.

In the four years we'd been together, Arran and I had unconsciously divided everything into his and her to do lists. 

For the most part this arrangement worked for us — except on Friday nights, when I'd come late from work, ravenous, to a husband plaintively asking "What's for dinner?" Then there was the time Arran went out of town: The recycling didn't go out, the dog didn't get her medicine, and when it snowed, the kids and I were shut in. 

And then there were those jobs on neither of our lists: fixing the dishwasher, cleaning the basement, calling the bank about a lost check. Arran naturally assumed this stuff was my responsibility whereas I thought it was his, and so the tasks went uncompleted. 

But since March, my husband has been working from home and my family has been functioning better than ever. Part of the reason: we've taken experts' advice and made a concerted effort to do away with our "his" and "her" to do lists. The effect has been profound: My husband and I divide the labor more equally, we have more appreciation for one another's contributions, and those big projects that used to fall through the cracks? They're actually getting done.  

Gender division of labor happens in the home, just like the workplace.

The author with her husband and son.Courtesy of Melissa Petro

Before we had kids it wasn't so noticeable. Maybe I did the laundry and he did the dishes, so what? We both knew how to do both chores because we'd done them for ourselves prior to getting together. Our workload felt equal, and we both had plenty of time at the end of the day for one another as well as ourselves.  

Then Oscar was born and I became a stay at home mom, working part-time when I could in addition to managing the home and providing childcare. Old chores like laundry or dishes tripled in scale. Meanwhile, new responsibilities — arranging playdates, buying birthday presents, baking brownies to welcome a new neighbor — piled onto my plate. 

While my husband was at work, I cleaned and decorated the home. Like most moms, I shuttled the kids to and from playgroup and doctors' appointments. I kept our home stocked with everything from paper towels and diapers to paper clips and scotch tape. I replaced the kids clothes every season, made the holidays magical, and planned family vacations. 

My husband, on the other hand, did all the chores typically characterized as men's work. He mowed the lawn, raked the leaves, and shoveled snow. He ran every errand, whether it was finding a replacement pacifier in the middle of his workday, or running out for a pint of ice cream after both kids had gone to bed. He'd take out the garbage, empty the Diaper Genie, hang the curtains, kill spiders, and other "manly" jobs. He "mans" the thermostat, keeps the technology working, and does who-knows-what in the garage, along with a million other things, on top of working a strenuous full-time job. 

When straight couples allow labor to divide "naturally," women get a raw deal.

Sure, my husband had a "to-do" list. But mine felt twice as long. 

If research is any indication, I was probably correct: Of heterosexual couples with children, polls indicate it's typical for the woman to be doing more home and childcare than the man, especially the easily discounted but indispensable, under-the-radar tasks that keep home and family life afloat. Not only do women perform significantly more housework than men, but the chores we do are arguable worse. 

According to Claire Cain Miller, a New York Times correspondent who writes about gender, families and the future of work, the chores women do more of are indoors, like cleaning and cooking, whereas men do more work that is outdoors and considered recreational, like yard work. Another reason it feels uneven, she says, is because men's chores happen weekly or less often, whereas the ones women do happen daily or several times a day.

His and her to-do lists are bad for a marriage, and especially problematic when you're raising kids

Melissa's husband and young children enjoying a snack break.Photo courtesy of Melissa Petro

Gemma Hartley's book "Fed Up: Emotional Labor, Women, and the Way Forward" powerfully articulates the resentments many women feel when the work we do around the house goes unrecognized. Looking back, I realize the anger and sadness I felt in early motherhood was, in part, a consequence of traditional gender roles my husband and I had inadvertently adapted. Had I the option, I would have preferred paid employment to monotonous housewifery. In couples therapy, I learned my husband had resentments of his own, and felt equally taken for granted.  

When Arran went away on a work trip, I couldn't function independently because things like plugging in my phone, and even turning on the TV had become "his" job. I felt burnt out, but too nervous to take a much needed "momcation."

But the worst part of our predicament was a nagging suspicion that our performing traditional gender stereotypes in the home (even though it was our preference) was negatively impacting our kids. According to at least one study, my fears were founded: Data from a 31 year panel study found that sons of parents who divided housework equitably were more likely to participate in the routine household chores as adults, while the mother's employment during their daughters' early years proved to be an important predictor of the allocation of housework in her adult home. 

Trading to-do lists can shake up your family dynamic.

When the pandemic hit and Arran started working from home, my husband naturally gained a greater respect for what I did all day. Instead of shutting himself behind an office door, Arran stayed involved with family life. He saw my struggle and found time in his day to alleviate it.

These days, it's not at all unusual for Arran to take a break mid-morning to tame a tantrum or use his entire lunch break to put one or both kids down for their nap. He loads and unloads the dishwasher just as often as I do and folds most of the laundry during Zoom meetings. Now that we're in each other's space all day, I also got a better sense of what my husband does, both professionally as well as around the house. 

Sometimes the switch happens naturally. On mornings he's racing to get the recycling to the curb after wrestling Oscar into a diaper, I'm more than happy to do "his" job and walk the dogs. Other times, we have to make a conscious effort to shake it up.

Even though I'm happier cooking than forcing meal preparation on Arran, neither of us want our children to think it's only a woman's job to cook, clean, and care for the family — nor do we want Oscar to think he can't enjoy cooking and baking because he's a boy — so I'll run an errand I'd normally foist on my husband while he figures out what to feed his hungry mob.

Slowly but surely, our "family to-do list" is getting tackled.

.Some months into quarantine, we had more evenly divided the daily chores, but there was still a list of stuff that wasn't happening — one-off tasks not essential to daily life but important nonetheless. One family meeting, we investigated why neither of us had taken the initiative to clean the gutters and realized that "his" and "her" to do lists were to blame: I'd assumed Arran would find someone to hire because it was yard work, whereas he'd assumed I'd take care of it because hiring people usually fell under my jobs.

From then on, we've kept a "family to-do" list posted on the bulletin board in the kitchen, and divide the chores evenly as we find time. As opposed to my job or his, running our home has become more of a team effort. It's easier, but it's not easy.

Come to think of it, I've still never mowed the lawn. 

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