“Everything downstairs is done,” my husband says as he sprawls onto our bed most evenings.
He’s correct that all of “his” chores are done. He did the dishes, made the coffee for tomorrow morning, and gave the kids their vitamins. He took food out of the freezer to defrost for tomorrow’s dinner, and he set the kids up with their pre-bed snack — all things he does every night. But the list of things that are not done, the unseen tasks, the mental load — that list is still hanging over my head. There are still school forms to be filled out, homework to be checked, school uniforms to be laid out.
My husband does a lot around the house. He’s a very involved parent to our four kids. But all of the “extras” fall to me, and, indeed, fall to most women in a heterosexual household. The moms are the ones wrapping birthday gifts. The moms are buying the kids’ Valentines and making sure there’s enough for the entire class. They’re coordinating soccer schedules and checking that everyone has winter coats and boots that will fit this season.
It’s a subject that comes up a lot in my moms’ group. “My husband is great,” the posts often start. “He mows the lawn. He takes care of the car maintenance. He cooks. But he’s never packed the kids’ lunches. He isn’t the one scrambling to rearrange his work schedule when the kids have an early dismissal.”
The mom will note that she tried to sit her husband down for a talk about the division of labor, and her husband will reply he had no idea his partner was overwhelmed. “Why didn’t you ask for help?” he’ll say.
But why should we have to ask?
My husband and I live in the same house. We are both parents. If I need to ask my husband to put away an overflowing basket of clean clothes that’s been sitting on the floor for two days, that implies it’s my job. My husband is not “helping” me by responding to a teacher’s email or making the kids’ doctors’ appointments; he’s parenting. It’s 2023, not 1950.
My husband and I have had this talk many times, and he too used to answer: “I’ll do anything you need, just ask me.” But making him a list is yet another chore for me.
Finally, after nine years of marriage (and many unwinnable fights about who does more), two things have helped me feel like I’m not swimming upstream against a tidal wave of chores.
First, my husband has taken on more of the daily household tasks, freeing me up for the unseen things. He cooks, almost every day. He does the dishes. He puts away laundry. He takes out the trash and feeds the cat. He doesn’t have to ask if he should do those things, he just does them.
While he’s doing those things, I’m making sure their gym clothes are clean. I’m sewing up holes in cherished stuffies. I’m signing the kids up for karate and paying the tuition fees.
Even more important: my husband has gotten into the habit of asking if there’s any task I would like him to do, either in that moment when I seem overwhelmed or long-term. It’s like a “honey-do list,” but it’s not one person writing down a list of chores or feeling like they’re nagging and another person begrudgingly completing tasks. Instead, it’s a conversation about how the bathroom really needs a deep clean this weekend or deciding who should stop at the grocery store tomorrow because our preschooler has snack day this week.
Chances are, no matter when he asks, there is something that needs to be done that he may not have noticed. The cat needs his water bowl refilled. We’re out of soap in the bathroom. Our 6-year-old has been asking for a snack and I just haven’t gotten to it.
Some of these have been things I was reluctant to let go of. I know a lot of women think it’s just easier to do most chores themselves so that they’re done the “right” way, but I’ve learned my husband is capable of putting away the kids’ laundry, even if their socks sometimes end up in the wrong drawer. He can fill out the school forms; even if he needs me to provide a phone number for our emergency contact, having him take on that task with my minimal help is still better than doing it all myself.
Division of labor is a win-win for both parents. If things get done more quickly, when dad sprawls out on the bed, mom can join him. And a little joint R&R can go a long way.
Lauren Davidson is a Pittsburgh-based writer and editor focusing on parenting, arts and culture, and weddings. She has worked at newspapers and magazines in New England and western Pennsylvania and is a graduate of the University of Pittsburgh with degrees in English and French. She lives with her editor husband, four energetic kids, and one affectionate cat. Follow her on Twitter @laurenmylo.