The "Balanced Free Time" System My Partner & I Made Up for Sharing Housework

The "Balanced Free Time" System My Partner & I Made Up for Sharing Housework

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Tess Wilson
Sep 30, 2016
(Image credit: Esteban Cortez)

When I wrote recently about How Much Time I Actually Spend Doing Housework, I mentioned offhand that my partner and I operate under the made-up Same Amount Of Free Time System for Division of Labor & Harmonious Living. It's just one way that we balance our very different schedules along with the demands of taking care of a home. A few commenters asked me to explain how this works—and how it could work for them.

Here's how I first explained it to one curious commenter who wanted to know how I approached this system:

You know, we never really talked about it. He feels guilty that I do things like fold his laundry/do almost all of the housework, but to me it just makes sense. If I work 30 hours a week and do 20 hours of housework, and he works 48 hours a week and does 2 hours of housework, that seems fair and efficient to me! I often end up doing more work in the evenings/weekends while he relaxes after work, but that's because I swim during his workday (and sleep later than he starts work) so it evens out. And if it's time for dinner/X-Files and I'm still working on something, he'll help out so that we can relax at the same time, or vice versa.

I'm lucky in that this system works for me and I have a partner who would never attempt to game the system. Which brings me to my first tip...

Look Out For Each Other

The only way this system works is if you each have each other's best interests at heart and if you're both concerned about your partner having enough free time. If you're in a couple in which one or both of you is trying to get out of work, do a bad job on something in order to be free of that responsibility in the future, actively trying to make sure your partner does all or most of the work, or pretending to work while actually relaxing, I recommend a different division of labor system. And therapy.

However, if you are genuinely looking out for each other, if you truly want your partner to have enough time to pursue their other interests, and if you really enjoy knowing that your partner is relaxed and not overworked, this could be the system for you!

Agree Upon What Counts As Work

Get together with your partner and make a list of everything that you both consider work. This should include both paid and unpaid labor, and beyond that, you'll have to agree upon what counts: commuting, classes, studying, bill paying, communication with family, etc. For myself, I consider all the housework and necessary errands I do to be work, but if I want to spend an hour making pretty labels for my spice jars or organizing my dresses by color, those are more like just-for-me activities. Be prepared for debates; for example, I didn't include the time I spend ordering family gifts or updating the calendar with the 10-year-old's baseball schedule when I came up with my housework time totals, but I think I probably should have. Make compromises, and don't belittle each other's efforts.

Balance Each Other Out

The great thing about this system is that it seems—at least to me—relatively foolproof. You and your partner probably know what time each of you start and finish work each day, and how you spend most of the rest of your time. If you work 8-6 and he works 8-2, he'll do four hours of housework to even things out, or he'll do 6 and you'll do 2, if there's a lot that needs to be done. Pay attention to how much time you're each actually working and how much time you're each actually relaxing, and try to keep it fair.

Be Aware Of Gender Bias

If you're in a heterosexual couple, there's a good chance that your estimates of your own and your partner's housework contributions are way off. In a May 2015 op-ed, the Los Angeles Times reported on a study by the Council on Contemporary Families: "Men and women both — no doubt trying to feel good about their relationships — overestimate how much housework men actually do." And in November of 2015, The New York Times reported:

Men today are much more committed to equality at home... But even in families in which both parents work outside the home, the division of labor at home remains unequal. Men tend to disagree. They say they do as much housework and child care as their wives — even though data show that they don't.

This disconnect shows up in surveys, like a recent one of two-income families by Pew Research Center in which fathers said they shared home and child responsibilities equally, while mothers said they did more. But the mothers' perceptions are supported by plentiful research, including more rigorous data collection in which people keep diaries of the ways they spend their time.

Be Efficient—Or Don't

I love efficiency, and would therefore hate it if my partner took 4 hours to do a weekly task that I can easily do in 2, and I wouldn't want to feel obligated to do two extra hours of housework each week just because someone else does something slowly! In these cases, you'll have to decide what works best for the two of you. Does the slower person keep doing the task they're slow at, with the assumption that they'll get faster? Do you each do the jobs that you're most efficient at, thereby maximizing both of your free time? I can't answer this for you, unfortunately, but I might be tempted to do a bit of spice jar labeling while the World's Slowest Laundry is being done.

Be Aware of How Incidental Work Adds Up

When I'm waiting for the kettle to boil and my tea to steep, I empty and reload the dishwasher, straighten the living room, and/or get a load of laundry going. I might not consider this work time, as it takes place during the general Breakfast Eating Time, but 5 minute blasts of super-efficient work throughout the day add up quickly. If you and your partner both have the same sorts of waits/downtimes, but one of you works during them and the other plays on their phone, one of you is getting more free time.

Allow Yourself to Relax

If you're anything like me, you have a serious guilt complex about relaxing while anyone else in the vicinity is working. Do your best to get over it! If your partner has more housework to do in the evening because they went out for coffee with a friend in the morning, don't feel obligated to help them. They had their relaxation time then; you're having yours now.

Enjoy Your Free Time!

Remember that free time can be spent sleeping, texting, weightlifting, thrifting, crafting, training, or chatting, and that everyone's free time looks different. Enjoy yours, encourage your partner to enjoy theirs, and be excellent to each other!

Do you have a similar division of labor system? What does—and doesn't—work for you?

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