How my husband and I finally achieved equality at home
Despite their best intentions to share the domestic workload equally, Brigid Schulte ended up with the lion’s share – while her husband, Tom, acted like the Lion King. It took outside help to redress the balance
Once, when my husband was working as a journalist in Afghanistan for a month, he emailed a photo of himself in the dusty nowhere of Forward Operating Base Ramrod outside Kandahar. He was sitting in filthy clothes, holding a cup of watery instant coffee and a laptop outside his “bunk”, a giant metal box like those stacked on container ships. My reaction shocked me: I was jealous.
Of course, I missed him and worried about his safety. But in my world of crashing work deadlines, teacher phone calls, late Girl Scouts forms, forgotten water bills, kids’ stomach aches, and empty cupboards, all I could think was this: Man, all he has to do every day is going to work.
How did it get this bad?
When I met Tom, I had one stipulation before we even thought about getting serious: we would be equal in all things or no dice. I love my parents, but their traditional marriage – he worked, she stayed at home with the kids, he had a public life, she had a private one – was the last thing I wanted when I was growing up in the freewheeling 1960s, and 70s, and 80s. The world was opening up for women and I wanted both worlds, not just bits of one or the other. And Tom wanted the same.
At first, it was easy. Tom and I supported each other in our work, shared the domestic drudgery equally, and always seemed to have time for each other and for fun. Life was not only good, it felt fair.
Then we had a son. And then a daughter. Like that frog in the science experiment who has the sense to jump out of a pot of boiling water but, plopped into tepid water, he doesn’t notice it gradually heating to boiling point until he is cooked, our division of labor through the years steadily grew laughably, ridiculously, irrationally, frustratingly unfair.
Forget about having it all, it felt like I was doing it all.
“You are not the Lion King!” I would occasionally yell, usually after finding myself scrubbing an oven hood so clogged with grease that the smoke alarms wouldn’t stop screeching while he watched TV. “You don’t get to laze around while I do all the work!”
He’d shoot back that my standards were too high. “You’re just like Marge Simpson. When her house was burning down, she found dirty dishes in the sink and stood there washing them,” he’d say.
When it came to the kids, I took them to all their medical appointments. Tom didn’t even know where the dentist’s office was. Without question, I was the one who stayed at home or rearranged my work schedule when they were sick. While Tom slept soundly or was off at work, I was the one still up at 2 am baking cupcakes for the school or wrapping Christmas presents.
It had reached the point where I didn’t want to feel so hostile and resentful all the time, so I made a weird, lopsided bargain: I would do most of the child, house and garden work, taxes, and drudge stuff. All I asked for in return, I told Tom, was this: “I just want you to notice – and say thank you.”
Our wildly out of whack division of labor is a big reason why my life felt as if it had splintered into unsatisfying, distracted, and fragmented scraps that I called time confetti.
Grousing about how little husbands do at home is a regular and tiresomely predictable social exchange. And though the sociologist Arlie Hochschild first wrote in the 1980s about how women come home from a full day of work to a “second shift” of housework and childcare, the same is true in the 21st century. Even though time studies show men are doing more around the house and with the kids, women are still doing twice as much. Sociologists call it the “stalled gender revolution”.
A host of surveys have found that arguing over housework is one of the main sources of conflict in relationships. One survey in the UK found that women spend as much as three hours a week redoing chores that they think their partners have done badly. Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi‘s time studies found that men, unlike women, tend to have a choice whether to be involved in domestic duties. But for women, home, no matter how filled with love, is just another workplace. What he called the “mental labor” of keeping track of all that stuff to do crashing around in a brain that can only hold seven pieces of information in its working memory, winds up making women’s time feel “contaminated”.
There is a reason for that gaping domestic divide. It’s not because women will wash dishes in a burning house and men are Lion King slobs. But it took me more than a year of soul searching to begin to see past my rage to understand why and then work out what to do about it.
And that didn’t happen until I met Jessica DeGroot.
DeGroot runs ThirdPath Institute and for more than a decade, has worked to help families create something entirely new: not the traditional 1950s “first path” families, like my parents. Not the “neotraditional” “second path” families of dual earners with one breadwinner, usually the man, and one flexi- or part-time working spouse, usually the woman, who also tends to be in charge of all the child care and domestic chores – like mine. The third path, DeGroot explains, is for couples who want to share their work and home lives as full partners, each one with time for work, love, and play.
I’d asked DeGroot to work with Tom and me because I had run out of ideas.
Traveling the third path requires challenging powerful and well-worn cultural expectations of how we think men and women are supposed to act: the work-devoted ideal worker/distant father who devotes body and soul to the job 24/7, and the self-sacrificing ideal mother who selflessly dotes on her children’s every whim.
These norms are what get us into a state of being so intense I’d come to think of it as the Overwhelm. And spinning in the Overwhelm keeps us from having the time to imagine a way out. Talk to a father about cutting back on work hours to become more involved at home, and the ideal worker takes a tug. Both men and women instinctively know, and social science research is finding, that he would be far more punished in the workplace for flexible work than she would.
Talk to a mother about stepping aside to let the father do more with the kids and all three cultural norms yank that chain and shut her up. Aren’t women just naturally meant to be the better parent? Isn’t it selfish for a mother to want to work? “So they both end up taking the path of least resistance,” DeGroot said, slipping into traditional roles, like Tom and I did, even without meaning to. “Then they get stuck.”
To start down the third path, DeGroot asks people to fight what she calls “the good fight” just when the Overwhelm kicks into gear: when the first baby is born. That one event changes a woman’s life profoundly and, until very recently, a man’s life hardly at all. DeGroot knows that’s a tall order.
“I’m asking couples at the moment they are most exhausted to think differently,” she said. “To ignore all their neighbors, colleagues, family members, and these cultural norms. To start to imagine their own way,” she says.
To help people like Tom and I get unstuck, she asks couples to pause, to dedicate regular time to what she calls “active listening” – without judgment – to each other to sort through where they are and talk about what they really want for their life together. She asks them to imagine together how to bridge the gap. Then try little “experiments” to make it happen. Over and over. Until the vision gets clearer, and the path to it better lit.
So I took out my notebook and began asking questions. I ranted through 20 years of pent-up anger in weekly “active listening” sessions with DeGroot. I went for long walks with Tom. We both slowly realized that we never had talked about what we really wanted. When we said we wanted to be equal partners, we had only a vague notion of what that meant. We just took our assumptions and swallowed them like a bitter pill.
“Why did you never take paternity leave?” I asked Tom on one of our walks. “Did you know I was mad at you for years about that?”
“Yeah,” he said. “But where I worked at the time, it was just understood that taking paternity leave wouldn’t be a good thing to do. Only one father had and he was a ‘star’. I was wary of my position.”
So I took a long maternity leave. I became the default parent and we both assumed it was “natural” anyway. Since I was at home more, I began to take charge of everything else, too. “Let’s face it,” Tom said, “without thinking much about it, men expect women to do all the stuff with kids and home. It’s just the role they’ve always had. I’ve probably always had it in the back of my mind, too.”
And, I came to see, so had I. Never asked for help because I thought I should do it all. Always deferring to his career as more important. Always assuming that if people saw a messy house, I, the negligent housewife, would be blamed. Going overboard with the kids to assuage my poisonous working-mother guilt. Watched angrily as he went to the gym, read the newspaper, and worked in long, interrupted stretches, but both of us thought the reason I didn’t was that I just couldn’t get it together. Never realized that it would take both of us to crawl out of the overwhelmed.
“Looking back,” Tom said one day, “we should have worked this out a long time ago.”
So we started, finally, to try.
Now we take turns getting the kids to the dentist and the doctor, and driving to this lesson or picking up from that team practice. Tom puts his email on all the PTA, Cross Country team, Girl Scouts, and other email lists so we both know what’s going on, not just me. We trade checking homework.
He cooks. The kids and I clean up. The last one out of bed makes it. The kids have their own chores, so I don’t have the mental clutter of keeping track in my head. We plan holidays together, all of us sharing what’s most important, then dividing the workload required to make that all happen.
Tom and I had to agree on common standards – no doing the dishes in a burning house. No Lion King slobbery. Making the bed means not leaving the pillows on the floor. Doing the dishes means washing the pots in the sink and wiping the counters. When Tom at first kept shirking on the standards, I didn’t just do it for him, as I had for years. I took a photo on my iPhone and sent him a text instead.
We had to take time to think about what we really wanted – how finally becoming equal partners and sharing the load more fairly would free us from our usual crouch of anger and defensiveness and give us both time to do meaningful work, share moments of connection with each other and the family – and play.
For Christmas, we cut down on giving stuff and started giving each other little “gifts of time”. For our anniversary, I told Tom I didn’t want flowers. I wanted a love letter.
Tom and I now have a “cocktail minute” (who has an hour?) to check in with each other alone at the end of the day. We talk. We fight. We get it wrong. We get it right. Life changes. We adjust. We’ve learned some lessons. There will be countless more to come. But we’re finally starting to learn them together. You’ve read 5 articles in the last year article count on
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