There's More to Dividing Up Housework Than Who's 'Better' at What

If you look at how couples divvy up the household chores, or the tasks of caring for their children, you'll probably notice a few principles that tend to dictate the result.
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If you look at how couples divvy up the household chores, or the tasks of caring for their children, you'll probably notice a few principles that tend to dictate the result. Like perhaps aptitude (we each do what we're best at), or even interest level (you care so much more about a clean bathroom than I do, so you should be the one to clean it). It only makes sense, for example, that if Mom is a great cook and not so good at paying the bills, she should be the family cook; if Dad is good at finances and not so smooth in the kitchen... well, you get it.

The result of using these types of reasoning is efficiency -- in both time and money -- since it is assumed that each partner can do his or her own skill -- or interest-matched tasks more quickly and accurately than if they shared these duties. Economically speaking, there's no other way to go.

But is it the whole story?

We believe that the quest for peak efficiency that seems at the core of skill-based task division misses so much. The business principles that generate this type of reasoning focus on peak efficiency -- turning out the most number of widgets in the shortest time, and making the highest profit. But in relationships, obviously, "profit" includes more than money; more valuable than money are concepts like love, connection, partnership, meaningful contribution/significance, belonging, giving. And sometimes, we need to sacrifice a bit of efficiency to attain more of these values. Not always, but enough to make aptitude division only one of the reasons to decide how to share a given chore. Never mind the idea that, mathematically, this reasoning only works when a couple is perfectly matched in their opposing skills; two chefs with equal interest in cooking for their family but equal distaste and supposed incompetence in cleaning the toilet are out of luck.

The biggest global problem with this type of marital labor division is that it stunts evolution. It keeps things the same. That's because if Mom is good at cooking today (given her upbringing as a typical American girl who learned to cook from her mother and has internalized the idea that she should know how to cook and take primary responsibility for this task as a mother herself), she'll only get better and better with experience. And if Dad was raised as a typical American boy with little emphasis on kitchen skills, he won't be quite as good as Mom at the outset of their marriage, and their skill gap will widen over time if he's never expected to take full responsibility for this family task. The many exceptions aside, we're left with mothers cooking across the country if we simply use skill level as our guide. Dads will miss out on the joy of providing good, healthy, tasty food for their partners and children on a regular basis, digging in deep to seek out recipes, buy the ingredients, learn the chopping and sautéing, and getting the meals on the table at a reasonable time. Moms will be stuck with the never-ending job of meals, meals, meals. The same goes for many other culturally gendered tasks.

Another problem with aptitude- or interest-based chore division is that it takes the easy way out. One might argue that clearly dividing the tasks by skill assessment avoids endless arguments about whose turn it is to do what and who does a better job of folding the towels. Well, yes, that's true. But it also avoids the meat of marriage -- the communication that keeps us close and keeps us peers over time. This reasoning is a bit like saying that we ought to take separate vacations because then we won't have to fight about where to go. We'd much rather learn to work together as a team to solve these issues than find a workaround that avoids needing to talk with one another. The key, however, is in the word "team." Couples who get stuck in the chore-division wars -- focusing on who does what and what their partners aren't doing (or are doing wrong) -- will entirely miss the rewards of sharing these responsibilities.

Fans of dividing the chores by who's better at them often criticize the idea of equally shared parenting as an inefficient 50/50 split of every task between partners -- complete with scorekeeping, bickering and frustration. Of course you don't need a reminder that truly equal shared parenting has nothing at all to do with dividing any particular task -- never mind every single task -- down the middle. Or that equally shared parenting is not about "fairness" (although this is certainly a byproduct of equal sharing) but rather about equal opportunity to share the joys of all domains of life together and give both partners access to a balanced life.

If a couple can first decide together that they want equality and balance, and then get on the same side of this goal, the rest is... well, not entirely easy, but 100 percent doable and worth every discussion. In fact, the equally shared parenting couples we've interviewed for our book and met over the years almost uniformly speak tenderly about each other and about how their high level of communication is one of the things they treasure most in life. And, for us personally, the idea of separate-but-equal is sad... we want to get in close with each other on everything it takes to run our family. Even if one of us isn't as adept at a specific task.

Now we're sure no fan of skill or interest-based chore division is crazy enough to suggest that Dad can't ever cook and Mom can't touch the bills (to stick with our example). So we will put in a plug here for something we can call "attenuated comparative advantage." It's the idea that interest level and importance level can play a lovely role in deciding who does what -- just not as the only deciding factor. If Mom loves to cook and Dad doesn't really enjoy it on your average day, then it makes good sense to allow Mom more kitchen time. We do this sort of thing all the time, as do all other equally sharing couples. But we do so with a few important caveats in mind:

  • Pinch-hitting: Aiming to give both partners at least enough competence in every task so that they can cover for each other when necessary, without a lot of direction or supervision. This allows both freedom from being fully saddled with any task, and giving them mental and emotional breathing room.

  • Keeping it interesting: Switching up tasks from time to time to keep learning from each other. Even if one partner tends to do the bills, for example, changing this around every so often can keep both partners in the game -- interested in the process ("How do I sign into our online bank account, again?"), the outcome ("How much did we save towards college tuition this month?"), and the decision-making ("Should we sell this stock now?") in all areas of financial life together.
  • Watching the balance: Because equally sharing couples value balanced lives that give them plenty of access to time with their kids, caring for the home, tending their careers and for their own personal interests (and as a couple), they make sure to purposefully watch for imbalances in overall sharing within any of these four domains. Not to watchdog each other or score-keep, but because they know their best lives come when they can share each of these domains -- overall -- about equally. If current-day skill comparison leads to Mom getting 90 percent of the childraising, for example, something is wrong with the balance and the couple can address this together as a team.
  • Scrapping the stupidity: Full-on chore division by aptitude invites the use of the phrase "but you're so much better at it than me, honey" as the perfect excuse to get out of a task. There may even be some truth to this at times, but it keeps both partners trapped in role-based marriages and keeps us from fully, intimately appreciating what it takes to do any task. It also reinforces the myth that doing something better is the best idea. Who cares if the towels are perfectly folded? Maybe someone does, but maybe that someone would get to embrace a far more important life lesson in learning to let go instead -- if he/she surrendered the towel folding to the "less-capable" spouse. Every single household task is fully doable by able-bodied partners, and we'll give you the million dollar challenge to prove it: if you or your spouse is offered a million dollars tomorrow to do a "good enough" job at any task around the house, what do you think would happen?
  • Making sure efficiency is not your only goal: Efficiency is great -- we love it. Everyone does. But it isn't everything, and sometimes it is a false god. If we operated only by efficiency, why would anyone ever go fishing, plant a vegetable garden, or knit a sweater? These things take tons of time and the end result is much more expensive than the typical store-bought equivalent. Indeed, why would the less-experienced parent ever embrace spending time with the family when the more efficient spouse could accomplish so much more?
  • Economics and marriage? In many ways, discussing the two together makes a lot of sense -- and is something that too few of us tend to do. But in other ways, this can be a trap in which we forget what really matters and where we really want to go together.

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