Want a happy marriage after kids? Divide your household chores equally
7 daily chores and alternating responsibilities stood between us and a peaceful home
The List (circa 2009)
- Clean bottles and make formula.
- Wash diapers and baby linens. Dry, fold and put away.
- Prepare homemade baby wipes. (Roll your eyes. I do now.)
- Wash dishes, tidy kitchen and wipe down counters.
- Put away toys and tidy common living space; if feeling energetic or situation particularly disastrous, sweep and/or vacuum.
- Empty garbage and recycling.
- Empty litter box. Feed the cat.
This simple list helped to pull our marriage back from a dangerous trajectory after my husband and I became first-time parents.
I expect the story behind how we developed it will be most relevant to other parents, but the principles should be generally transferable to all cohabiting couples.
Parenting, drudgery and groundhog days
It’s 2009. I’m six months into my first maternity leave. I’ve just switched my child to formula.
Since the birth, I’ve transformed from purposeful communications professional to baby-minding drone. My world is dirty diapers, messy counters, stained clothes and unwashed dishes. You name it, it’s filthy.
It goes without saying, though I feel obligated to say it, that interacting with the child who innocently generated all of this mess was, and continues to be, fantastic. This is particularly true now with two inquisitive kids in our lives.
But back in 2009, nothing in my schooling, work or life experience had prepared me for the drudgery of being a first-time parent or the mountains of work generated by such a tiny person.
Over time, I felt like I did nothing but cook, make formula, clean bottles, wash dishes and do laundry over and over and over again.
Mostly because it was true.
Yet, as the parent at home, I felt like all of these tasks were my lot. Weirdly, I had days where my value became reduced to my ability to achieve these tasks, fussy baby notwithstanding. Wasn’t my husband supporting our new family by continuing to work? Hadn’t my mom and her mom and all the moms from the dawn of time done all of this and more? Possibly without plumbing?
Why was I such a wuss?
But when the baby was sleeping and I wasn’t also trying to nap, I found it hard to return to my pre-baby activities. Inevitably, my eyes would fall on some pile of clothes, a toilet bowl turning pink or last night’s calcifying stir fry pan.
And the itch to act would begin.
I’m an achievement-driven person. I like lists and executing plans.
But when housework became my temporary career, the monotony of tackling a list I could never complete was crushing.
And it started to sour our marriage.
Each night, my husband came home to a crabby, short-tempered person who was on her last nerve after being in or near the house all day. I would sometimes bolt for the door the second he came home, forcing him to switch from his career work to his home work with no real transition.
Or, you know, conversation with the person he had married.
For a couple who rarely fought before parenthood, we took to it like those to the manor born. We were in the midst of discovering the deep-seated, yet previously unexplored, beliefs we each carried about what it meant to be a parent and how best to go about it.
It was a steep learning curve.
Add in the chaos where it felt like nothing ever got properly done and there were moments amid the endless bickering when I wondered,
“Is this what the first stages of divorce are like?”
The in-law breakthrough
That summer we flew to visit my sister-in-law and her husband in Winnipeg. They also had a new baby.
Although their living and work arrangements were comparable to ours, our houses couldn’t be more different.
Ours was a shit show.
Theirs was a calm oasis: orderly, precise, restful.
Each night, one or both of my in-laws would wander around while chatting with us, banishing disorder. I never did find out if they were systematic about it, but whoever was doing the cleanup didn’t go to bed until the common living areas were clean, no matter what else was happening.
It was like landing on another planet.
Gaming the housework system, equitably
The second our baby fell asleep during the plane ride home, we started talking about what we’d seen.
We’d tried chore lists in the past, but they ended up being exhaustive, pointless affairs that were impossible to execute and not particularly good at assigning clear direction.
So how did they do it?
More importantly, how could we copy it?
That visit prompted a deep conversation about what our household really needed for us both to get through the day.
My in-laws had achieved their impressive level of cleanliness through fairly constant work and effort. I didn’t think we’d ever replicate it (and we never have). Their commitment to order and minimal clutter is amazing. From what we can tell, they also didn’t need a list: they just did everything that needed doing everyday.
Instead of trying to fool ourselves into becoming neater people than we actually are, our goal was to identify the absolute, “this-must-happen-every-day-or-I-will-lose-my-mind-and-become-an-unfit-parent-and-possibly-cause-harm-to-our-child-and/or-mildly-neglected-cat” action items.
Before we implemented our new task list (which you saw above), we divided the week.
Monday and Wednesday were, and continue to be, my nights off. On those nights, my time was my own. I didn’t have to be home for baby’s bedtime if I had an errand to run or friends to see.
Similarly, Tuesday and Thursday were my chore nights, freeing my husband to do whatever he wanted.
Friday was usually frozen pizza night, prompting minimal cleanup. On weekends, we would divide and conquer the chores together.
We drew up a schedule, added a few recurring weekly items like bathroom toilets, and put it on the fridge.
Breathing room through the smallest changes
The effect this structural chore change had on our lives has been immeasurable.
Suddenly, I didn’t feel like I was doing nothing but housework because two nights out of seven, I wasn’t.
And with that slack, I resumed some small degree of freedom and control.
I had leeway to hit the gym or get a haircut or see a movie or write or just go for a walk. I started feeling less like a 1950s housewife and more like my usual self.
Similarly, my husband didn’t have to ask if he wanted to do something after work like see his friends. We always let each other know about our plans but the permission was assumed.
And that made all the difference.
Taking our division of labor out into the light killed both irrational guilt and unspoken assumptions. We had fewer arguments about what needed to be done or who was going to do it.
We also learned to jointly tackle family challenges through a shared plan, which has proved applicable to other parts of our lives (see “daycare, budgeting for”).
That list stayed up on the fridge when I returned to work, during my second pregnancy and well after the birth of our second child. Eventually, one of the kids cannibalized it as drawing paper.
By then, we didn’t need it anymore.
The trick: Don’t do everything because you can’t
Our kids are older and the list has changed. We don’t do endless diaper laundry though there’s plenty of the other kind. The bottles are long gone.
But every night, the main living area of our house still resets from the day’s chaos. The toys also go back into their storage baskets under the coffee table as we’ve learned there is no pain quite like a die-cast car under a bare foot (okay, maybe LEGO pain).
In the morning, there’s space to make breakfast or lunches, the plastic containers aren’t inspiring anyone to cupboard rage by falling like rain on unsuspecting heads and the cat has a sanitary place to pee.
Our list wouldn’t work for everyone. The key was to find our keenest pain points and work at addressing them and only them.
There’s plenty of stuff that I would love to put on the list:
- Tidy bedrooms, particularly ours.
- Dusted surfaces.
- Putting away the paperwork that covers most conceivable surfaces under said dust.
- Spotless floors (beyond the kitchen).
- The inside of appliances (my relatives routinely joke about the state of our refrigerator and microwave).
- Car interiors. If wolves ate cheerios, their dens would look like the backseat.
- Shining exterior windows.
Does this stuff get tended to eventually? Yes, but definitely not every day or every week. Sometimes not every month. It all slides until one of us snaps and declares it an emergency. Or until company, that great motivator, comes over.
Do I love my untidy bathrooms?
Do I love that my desk hasn’t been clean since before that second pregnancy?
No. Drives me nuts.
Do I love having piles of clutter and clothes and receipts and who knows what else all over?
But we’ve learned our marriage can live with it.