Sharing the Burden: Tips for Dividing Household Responsibilities With Your Spouse

Greater numbers of men are getting involved as parents — and wanting to. Men help with chores and child care. In dual-income families, men are doing 45 percent of the chores, though that percentage does not necessarily increase once a child comes along. A 1991 study by researcher Marjorie Starrels found that the first child adds 91 percent to a woman's domestic workload — and hardly any to the father's. However, one in four men now do most of the grocery shopping.

Men and women also tend to stick to gender-typed chores. He replaces the light bulbs. She does the laundry. He takes out the garbage. She cooks dinner. He takes his son to baseball games. She soothes the scrapes on the child's knee.


One reason for the persistence of inequities at home may be women themselves. Even in relationships in which the couple aims to share the burdens, many women keep their partners from traditional tasks and child-care responsibilities, or set impossible standards. He doesn't load the dishwasher correctly. When he cooks he doesn't clean up as he goes along; he leaves the dishes for later.

This isn't just a man talking. In 1993, psychologists at Boston University followed 100 parents for five years. Often, women sabotaged any possibility for true equality. They saw themselves better at certain tasks, and more natural nurturers.

More recently, researcher Alan Hawkins at Brigham Young University in Utah put a number on it: 21 percent of working mothers are such "gatekeepers." Concludes Hawkins: "There are issues of ownership and identity that women bring with them, even New Age women who are involved in a career and have husbands who are trying to be involved. The same woman who complains about her husband sometimes gatekeeps."

While men are helping with chores and children more than ever, research also shows that women are still doing most of the work, putting in most of the time — and sometimes preventing their partners from increasing their role.

At the same time, men can feel neglected. They may clamor for attention until it seems, in the words of Harvard psychologist Alice Domar, as if "he becomes just one more kid you've got to take care of."


How to Achieve More Balance

To achieve a more balanced life, what's a woman to do? Talk it over with him. Talk it over with yourself. Negotiate. Lower your standards. Be direct. Give up a little. Get a little.

Here are some suggestions from the top experts:


  • Accept less. Maybe you're both doing too much. Perhaps not every endeavor needs doing. Have a discussion. What corners can be cut? What obligations can be deferred?
  • Accept poorer workmanship. So what if the dishes aren't stacked perfectly, or put away after every meal, or the ponytail is crooked? Does it matter if the dinner is not so elaborate, or the kitchen isn't Mr. Clean-sterile? If he's willing to do the task you've been doing, and do it at least adequately — that's one less burden for you!
  • Resign as CEO. Stop controlling and withhold criticism, suggests Ursinus College psychologist Catherine Chambliss. "The error a lot of women make is they want the husband to help with house and children but don't want to give up the managerial role or critiquing the spouse. That doesn't work as well as delegating and praising." And letting him learn from his own mistakes!
  • Discuss and negotiate. Brainstorm about what you can do as a team. Researcher Alan Hawkins of Brigham Young University advises that you draft a list of the tasks each of you do now and go down the list together discussing possible changes. Make sure he gets a chance at new tasks, not just what he already does best. Rotate who does the jobs you both hate. Try to lessen the load — not everything needs to be done. And don't forget: The children can help, too.
  • Be direct — or ... train him to listen! The biggest obstacle in many relationships, according to Deborah Tannen, Georgetown University linguistics professor and author of You Just Don't Understand: Women and Men in Conversation, is a matter of perception. A woman's expectation is that a loving partner perceives needs without a direct request. But it's only true if he gets it! Be direct — or train him to read you.
  • Be clear about priorities. Discuss with your partner what you want out of life — and what he does, too. Then work together to be strategic and efficient about how to achieve the goals. Chambliss gives the example of the soccer mom who bemoans spending so much time at games. "If the goal is the Olympics or a scholarship, that's one thing," she says. "But if it's exercise, maybe it's unnecessary and the family can cut some corners." Similarly, she urges parents to think twice before buying huge houses and dogs. "Simplify the household if other things are more important," she says.
  • Explain how you feel. Avoid high drama or bickering, but tell him how the burdens are affecting you. How you feel worn down. Tell him how if he helps you'll have more time for him — and thus a stronger relationship.
  • Persuade — and bring up sex. What do husbands most miss and sacrificing mothers most frequently give up? Sex. Social psychologist Carin Rubenstein suggests telling him about studies showing that husbands who share the household load are happier — for obvious reasons. There's more time for other things!
  • Consider alternatives. In a national survey by the AFL-CIO, half of mothers with a partner say they've opted for working different shifts from their significant others — mirroring research by University of Maryland demographer Harriet Presser. Working odd shifts has advantages — more focused time on the children, and avoiding daycare — but split-shift parents also are exhausted. The point: Other options exist.
  • Get regular free time. Build in a block of time just for yourself — and for your partner — which neither of you has to account for. Whether a few days a month or an hour a week, this can go a long way to assure you of having some time for you!

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