Home Ec., Pt. 2: A Balancing Act for Us All

Hoo, boy, I opened a can of worms with my post last week, Home Ec.: What is Your Housework Worth? The subject definitely struck a nerve in a lot of readers, who scorned me, commiserated with me, and offered sage advice on how they manage things at home. The topic of housework spun off into such an interesting debate that I thought it worthwhile to follow up.

First, though, you might be wondering: Why is this on a design blog? As those of you who regularly follow Apartment Therapy know, we cover a lot more than just design. We offer tips on cleaning and organizing, as well as advice for simplifying and enhancing your life at home. After all, no matter how beautifully your space is decorated, if it is not cared for with love and respect, it will lose its luster. The same goes for relationships.

I wrote about housework using my own life as an example not to solicit specific-to-me relationship advice, which was most readily offered. I went with a personal narrative because I am a modern, open-minded woman who's grappling with age-old issues for the first time.

Some of the comments on my original post made me feel like I failed Feminism 101 — like if someone were to mention The Feminine Mystique, I'd assume it was a perfume I should wear to smell pretty for my man when he brings home the bacon. In fact, I know exactly what the pioneering women before me sacrificed and achieved. And for the record, my husband-to-be is not a caveman and I am neither a sucker nor a servant.

If you, unlike me, have found the perfect balance in managing your home, money, and primary relationship, congratulations! But here's the thing: That's simply not the case for many people. How do I know that? Aside from anecdotal evidence collected from friends, family and readers, there's a whole lot of research about this stuff out there.

For example, this excellent feature from the New York Times, recommended by a reader, discusses just how difficult it is to truly establish a 50/50 balance at home, especially when kids are in the picture. The story, published in 2008, also includes some startling statistics about the lopsided division of household labor that persists across class lines.

"The most recent figures from the University of Wisconsin's National Survey of Families and Households show that the average wife does 31 hours of housework a week while the average husband does 14 — a ratio of slightly more than two to one. If you break out couples in which wives stay home and husbands are the sole earners, the number of hours goes up for women, to 38 hours of housework a week, and down a bit for men, to 12, a ratio of more than three to one. That makes sense, because the couple have defined home as one partner's work (emphasis added).

"But then break out the couples in which both husband and wife have full-time paying jobs. There, the wife does 28 hours of housework and the husband, 16. Just shy of two to one, which makes no sense at all."

Puzzling, right? Among the many reasons for this imbalance — cited both in the Times and by several Apartment Therapy readers — is that one partner, often the woman, has higher standards of cleanliness and is unyieldingly set in his or her ways of doing housework. That's something we can all work on, both by reevaluating our own standards and by reaching a compromise with our partners about just how precisely things get done around the house. Not everybody thinks cleaning grout weekly with a toothbrush is a worthwhile endeavor.

Also contributing to the imbalance is traditional gender roles, a topic way too tricky to get into here. The issue can be succinctly illustrated with this comment from a reader: "When my brother was about six he asked my mother if she'd teach him to iron. She said he wouldn't need to learn as he'd have a wife to do that."

That sounds like a line straight out of the '50s, but the attitude is still somewhat prevalent today. I love this advice from one of our readers: "Mostly we need to make sure we are teaching our sons and daughters the basics of taking care of themselves, their dwelling, their money, etc. so they will not be dependent on the willingness of others." Amen to that! Just as important, in my mind, is treating all chores equally, instead of labeling them "boy" and "girl" chores, which seemed to be the standard when I was a kid. (I'm talking to you, Grandma!)

In actuality, the domestic arrangement I described has less to do with gender than trying to work out a system that feels fair to both of us. I do more housework because he works way more hours at his job than I do. I agree with the many readers who said marriage shouldn't require itemizing to measure value, but doesn't it still necessitate negotiation from time to time? My guy happens to respond to numbers.

As for figuring out how to divide housework at home, what I gleaned from our readers is that assigning chores based on interest, ability and free time seems to work pretty well. If you hate vacuuming and your husband doesn't mind, that's his chore. If he's a terrible cook but you can whip up a satisfying soup without so much as a recipe, that's your chore. If your partner's excuse is that he or she always "forgets" to do chores, by all means put a checklist on the fridge, or — gasp — nag away. No, you shouldn't have to, but such is life. Whatever works for both partners is the way to go. And, if you can afford it, pay someone else to help clean. That's what I'm learning.

Another part of my original post that caused a huge outcry was the mention of how finances play into the distribution of housework (specifically, my fiancé pointed out that he "pays for more," which outraged several readers). Did anyone else see the episode of How I Met Your Mother in which a fight about dirty dishes escalates because of a similar comment regarding making more money? Clearly, my guy isn't the only one to have stepped right into that minefield.

In his defense, he wasn't insinuating that he has the upper hand because of it; only that per our agreement, I would do most of the housework and we would consider our contributions to the mortgage and bills equal. Our setup generally doesn't seem unfair to me, except when I complain about too much housework and he complains about paying for more.

Quite a few readers commented that they wouldn't feel like they were in an equal partnership if "mine" and "yours" hadn't become "ours" after marriage, including income and assets. That's not the only way families manage money, however. I'm not even sure it's the norm. Some couples keep their finances entirely separate (according to this article, it's the American way) and some do a mix of sharing and separate. One size doesn't fit all.

Finances, to me, are the trickiest part of being in a long-term relationship and owning a home together. My fiancé and I have very different life experiences with money, which adds to the difficulty of finding a common ground when it comes to sharing and spending. However, he and I are aware that we have issues and have planned all along to attend a premarital workshop to help sort a lot of this stuff out. Conversations about money can be uncomfortable, but not as uncomfortable (or expensive!) as divorce.

I'm writing this not to air my dirty laundry — speaking of which, my man always does his own — but because it's reasonable to assume that some of you out there might be dealing with similar issues. Those of you who have it all figured out should spread your wisdom far and wide because even the "experts" don't always agree. Most come at you with "communication, communication, communication." In Why Marriages Succeed or Fail: And How You Can Make Yours Last, on the other hand, bestselling author John Gottman says communication isn't the answer. Now I'm confused!

Thank you to those of you who shared your thoughts and advice on what a good marriage feels like, including the reader who summed up her home life as such: "I think we both are appreciative of each other and what we both bring to the table, both a nice home and a nice income, there is no score sheet, it just works if that makes sense." Yep, that makes perfect sense. That's exactly where we hope to end up. We just need the know-how to get there.

There were also a few comments that questioned the integrity of my relationship. Some folks came across as judgmental — it's easy to be opinionated when you're anonymous — but I imagine most probably meant well, even if I finally resorted to frustration and sarcasm after one too many suggestions that I rethink getting married. This was the first time in my career that I've become so engaged — no pun intended — after writing something. Obviously, it's an important subject.

My takeaway from the emotional aftermath of my original post is that many of us struggle with this balancing act of love and marriage and all its day-to-day realities. There's no point in faking a fairy tale because we can all learn from each other and gain insight beyond our own experiences and expectations. I deeply value people who are open and honest about their home life and who admit that there is no definitively "right" way to do things. If only it were that easy!

Interestingly, the point of that original post was simply to illustrate the monetary value of housework if it were outsourced. Had I written something impersonal and just linked to the finance article, we probably never would've gotten into this conversation. Don't you think it's one worth having?

(Image: Shutterstock)

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