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How Can Working Parents Split Tasks Fairly?

How can parents who work full time fairly divvy up household tasks? originally appeared on Quora - the knowledge sharing network where compelling questions are answered by people with unique insights.

Answer by Brigid Schulte, author of Overwhelmed: How to Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time, on Quora.

Dividing housework fairly, something that researchers call "the gendered division of labor," is not something to be taken lightly. Women initiate the majority of divorces in this country, and one of the biggest reasons is housework.

Time diary research shows that men have increased the amount of time they spend on housework and child care--especially on child care--but the amount of time they put in pales in comparison to women, even though the time women spend on housework has fallen in the past few decades. Women are still doing about twice the amount of housework and child care as men. And men, one recent study found, are still doing the kind of "fun parent" chores with kids, and women the harder, time-sensitive, and drudgery chores.

I found myself in that same position, even though my husband and I promised to be equal partners when we first started out. I write about that in one chapter in my book called "The Stalled Gender Revolution."

After one particularly unfair Thanksgiving (think me doing everything for 18 people and him drinking beer on the back porch at a friend's house!), we began taking long walks to figure out where things went so wrong, and if we could actually find our way back to that original promise of fairness. We discovered we'd been pretty good at dividing up chores before we had kids. But once our son arrived, I had the long maternity leave. He had nothing. I felt so guilty about being a working mother that I felt I had to do everything. I had to take him to the doctor. I had to find the dentist. I had the arduous task of finding child care. What I didn't realize is that in my haze of guilt, I was actually shutting my husband out. I was part of the reason why things became so unfair. (Researchers call this "maternal gatekeeping.")

So this is what we did: we took long walks to remember why we loved each other and wanted to be together. We talked long and hard about what we wanted and how we wanted our partnership to work; what it would feel like. We both agreed that things didn't have to be 50-50, that they could shift with the demands of our work or our kids or our lives, but it always had to feel fair.

We created a list of all the work that it took to run the family. Then we began to divide it fairly--not based on gender, but on who was good at what. Tom, my husband, likes adventures and being on the go. So he does the grocery shopping. I'm more of a homebody and an organization freak. I do the laundry. Tom pays the mortgage. I rake leaves and trim the bamboo hedge. He cooks. I do dishes. We (try) to get our kids involved.

Then we had to agree on common standards. A pitfall in the past for us had been that he'd always accuse me of having standards that were too high, so I should just do stuff anyway. We had to agree: making the bed means the pillows go on the bed. Doing the dishes means scrubbing the pots--they don't scrub themselves.

We automated it, so we wouldn't have to nag or continually negotiate. And we kept each other accountable. I empty the dishwasher in the morning. He loads. And if he doesn't load, I no longer do it for him. I take a photo and text him. "Really?" (One marketing study in the U.K. found that women spend three-to-five hours a week redoing chores they think their partners have done badly.)

I can't tell you how powerful these changes have been. I have more mental space to think and be creative, because I only have half the tasks and household logistics to keep track of. A friend summed it up best when she told me the best response when he asks, "What do you want for dinner?" is, "To not have to think about it."

I no longer feel resentful that I'm doing more than my fair share. The house runs better. We both have more time--for each other, and for what's important.

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