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In grad school I remember attending a talk where the speaker said:

1. When asked what percentage of the household work one does, BOTH members of a couple tend to say they do about 60%.
2. Marriages in which partners don’t keep score tend to be more successful.

Over the years, I’ve reminded myself of these two things when feeling aggrieved. They have helped me to maintain perspective. They help me remember that my husband does lots of things I don’t see, and that I’m probably overestimating my workload, and that anyway, constantly monitoring our relative contributions is more likely to lead to resentment than harmony.

But then I started thinking, where did these claims come from? Am I even recalling them correctly? And are these happy marriages also egalitarian marriages, and marriages where both partners have careers?

I tried to track down the original claims, but failed, mainly because the world of research on division of household labor is just so FREAKY. It’s incredibly easy to get distracted. By things, for example, like this web article on the amount of housework male and female scientists do, which sports the following alarming figure.

Good thing I’m a social scientist. I’m sure our stats look NOTHING like that.

The literature is all about hetero married people, which happens to fit my situation, and one generalization keeps emerging. Men tend to overestimate their contributions. Partly because men are more likely to do things like car stuff and yard stuff, both of which take far less time (because they’re occasional as opposed to constant time sucks). Women don’t. We tend to be nice and accurate about how much work we do.

While I was home with Bun Bun, I did the daily housework, because it seemed fair. Mr Bunny and I still did our monthly complete house cleaning together, and I’d wait till he got home and took Bun Bun before making dinner, but I did the laundry and the dishes and the tidying and whatever else.

My brief stint in this role taught me two things.

One: I am not capable of doing everything. I know there are women who manage it–care for the baby, deal with the house, probably manage to look purty at the end of the day… I gots mad respect, because I can’t fucking imagine it. I feel like I would have died if I’d had to squeeze vacuuming and dusting and baking an apple pie into Bun Bun’s nap slots. And she even naps. Not all babies are so generous. And then there’s the awesomeness of nobody, not even your partner, appreciating how much work it is. I got a tiny taste of that… It was a little peep into what mothers in those TV ads are complaining about–the ones where they are constantly vacuuming even as their troupe of asshole kids track mud all over…

Two: If I don’t keep score, I’m begging to do more than my share. I’ll probably end up doing more than my share regardless, but I think being a resentful nag is going to work out better than being all la di dah. Because Mr. Bunny tended not to notice as my share crept every higher. He’s a helpful, egalitarian, thoughtful guy, but I think my share could get pretty close to 90% before he’d notice.

16 Comments Post a comment
  1. Misfit Mrs. #

    I’m reading the book “thinking fast and slow” which I think hit upon this as an availability heuristic topic. (And I am in marketing, so I am sure that I am remembering this wrong or thecwrong topic, apologies, anyhow…) When confronted with the thought of how much work a partner does, he might only remember what he does or what he sees you do, hence vastly underestimating your contribution and overestimating his. Bringing home bacon, is not considered housework at last check.

    I tend to just coerce my man into chores that I do all day long when he starts to whine about picking up my shoes from the entry way. Suddenly, when the poo splash toilet needs cleaning, one gets mad respect. I wish I had awesome advice on this, but really, I have to work on it all the time. That you have a cooperative MONTHLY cleaning routine is envy inducing. I am inspired.

    March 17, 2012
  2. people used to ask me to analyze sugar’s and my household task breakdown according to who was “the butch one and who was the femme one.” i told them that sugar was both and i was the lazy one.

    (things have shifted a lot since then, but even though i am home with the baby most days, i do not feel that makes me responsible for making dinner. make that “even though” into “especially because.”)

    March 17, 2012
  3. SRB #

    Before HGB, I am sure we both would have claimed a 60% division of labour with each of us some how carrying more weight. Although in this house it isn’t so much a matter of what gets done, but WHEN. I will do eventually, but BJB needs it done NOW. It’s his…tone.

    Then. Baby. I felt an enormous amount of pressure to do 100% of the work so that I would be a totally awesome wife convince him to ‘let me’ be a SAHM after my maternity leave ended. Because apparently having a baby made it 1952 in my head? WTF? I don’t know.

    What I DO know is that I could not possibly manage even my former “60%” and instead of asking for help I just added a TON of guilt and anxiety/hysteria to my workload as well. Bad move. Lots and lots of crying, culminating in an epic rage freakout when he gently suggests better time management due to “being home all day.” Bad move #2. Now, we are close to an 80-40 split (heh) and I get complemented on putting pants on that day…if I cry.

    March 18, 2012
  4. Jen #

    Sigh. This does seem to be one the most divisive things that happens to partners after having a baby. I got the “well you’re home all day” thing one too many times and We. Had. It. Out. Was my unwashed hair not evidence enough? Was the assprint on the couch from where I had to sit perfectly still for 2 hours to keep a finicky baby asleep in my arms not proof?

    I’ve tried pointing out to him that KB’s “60%” includes a lot of periodic/seasonal things like mowing the grass twice a week for only half the year or snow-blowing three times per winter. And that laundry for me is about every other day, and keeping the house picked up is every day. Somehow that doesn’t compute. He’s very hands on with the kiddo, but we both still have trouble cashing out the household stuff correctly. We’re at a sort of truce right now, and I’ve learned that I have to very specifically and pointedly ask him to do something “extra” if I need help, and that he will usually do it. And then I have to somehow ignore his deep sighs over being asked to do it. It’s a delicate peace agreement.

    March 18, 2012
  5. Oh man… Ugliness ensues in my household if I try to get hubs to pitch in more! Way before little Alex came around, we decided that hiring a maid to come in once a week is much cheaper than marital counseling, or the bitter divorce that would inevitably occur. Since Alex was born, things have been so much worse in the marital happiness world. Before three weeks of Daddy Daycare, I was ready to shoot him. I went back to work, and he pretty much figured that I could work and take care of Alex and the house and him, and he would play his fucking computer game. But we had Daddy Daycare, and I hate to admit, but he made a better SAHM than I would. And he figured out that a lot goes into taking care of stuff around here. So now that we’re both at work, he’s better. He takes on a lot more responsibilities. But we have bad days – today is one of those when we’re not talking to each other – so much fun. But most of the time it’s ok, but only if I keep reminding myself that It’s better to be happy and loving than fair. It’s my new motto. I grew up in an unhappy household, where my mother was a raging bitter woman. And it was awful! I don’t want to do that to Alex, so I would rather have a happy and loving household than one that is fair. And I can get by with this most of the time. Except today… 🙂

    March 18, 2012
    • You’re so right about there being more important things than fairness. My mother was also harassed and stressed (as single mothers usually are…) and I fear turning into the perpetual nag, so I’ll certainly think about your motto.

      March 20, 2012
    • Ana #

      Ooh yes yes yes. Better to be happy than fair. I think that has helped me quite a bit…though sometimes the unfairness makes me terribly unhappy….how to get off THAT merry-go-round???

      March 20, 2012
  6. Oh man. I have years of anecdotal evidence that suggests that the disparity between male and female scientists may be even worse than those numbers suggest. AND THEY DON’T EVEN INCLUDE CHILDCARE!! I still vividly remember a time in an undergrad biochem class when the prof was trying to promote the career of researcher and he opened the floor up to related questions. A young female student asked him about the challenges of being a scientist and raising children (he had 2 children, about middle-school aged at the time). His answer? Oh, you would need to ask my wife (also a scientist) about that – OUCH!!

    Or how about my PhD supervisor? His patience with female grad students and post-docs who were also mothers was very close to zero. This used to get me kind of angry so I sometimes pointed out that not everyone had the fortunate circumstances of having a wife who put off her career to first raise their children. His answer? You are being unfair! When I was a post-doc I used to pick up both boys from daycare every single day – hence 60%!!! Um, the guy had never cooked a meal, cleaned a diaper, cleaned house, etc. in his entire life!

    OK. I could go on but I won’t. I just want to say that I do believe that social scientists are more evolved in these matters, which is still unlikely to make for perfection. I hope that you will find a way to achieve a higher level of fairness – and then please please teach the rest of us.

    March 19, 2012
  7. My husband always exaggerates that I complain that he does nothing. Which is not true. He does some things, but then he also does not think who does the rest. If he starts the dishwasher, the little wrapper the detergent comes in is left on the kitchen counter. What does he think, that it will grow little legs and go by itself to the bin?! When he eats, he puts stuff away, but not ALL of it. There are always at leat two crumbs (which if I can see, so can he, but apparently it is only I endowed with crumb-vision) laying on the table, the knife is not where it was supposed to be, you know, small stuff, but heck, it bothers me. And let’s not forget about the dirty socks. Which somehow never make it all the way to dirty laundry basket. And when I point this out, he either jokes or gets deffensive and bugs the shit out of me, I have been telling you for six years, man, put the darned socks away, don’t leave them for the freaking maid (a.k.a. Me) to do it for you. SHE does not appreciate it.
    I really truly love my husband, and he does a whole lot of things, including some mean cooking, yum, but there will always be some things he will never understand, like cleaning the bathroom does not mean just picking up your pyjamas left there on the floor, you also need to vacuum and clean the tub and the toilet and the sink. And the water splashed during your personal hygiene routine does not count as cleaning. And rinsing the sink after you shave means there are NO hairs left all over the place. You know, this kind of things.
    After six years I learned to shut up more and just do it myself if I don’t like how he does it (or doesn’t), because it saves time and energy. And ask for things to be done, because apparently he will never see what needs to be done if it is inside the house – outside, his vision is perfect, thank God.
    I guess that men just have no idea what it means to keep up with housework. That the chores are periodic, and tidying up is done by the other human living in the house, not tiny house elves (we’re very much muggles and have no access to house elves just yet). I am a bit compulsive about cleaning, and I know that no one can do it my way, just the way I like it, so I am still trying to meet him half way. But I am also aware that I might just as well wait for George to grow up and teach him the proper way to keep a house clean and have him pitch in.
    Thanks for letting me vent and not give you any appropriate answer. 🙂 I didn’t know I needed to vent about this, huh…

    March 19, 2012
  8. It’s fascinating, because even though my husband does agree that I do about 60% of stuff (and frankly, it’s more like 75%, but that’s because there is that mystery 15% that he doesn’t even notice), he then very cleverly does a weighting so that he doesn’t have to do any more. Example — Saturdays he does early morning and I sleep in. Sundays vice versa. On Saturday he gave me the “hassle adjusted” distribution of our labor as 80-20, because he started early. When I tried the same thing yesterday, he told me I didn’t get the same weighting because “I need less sleep.”

    He also has things he simply never learns to do. Like how to put the infant car seat into taxis or rental cars. Or how to properly use the straps to get the diaper bag onto the stroller (yeah, this one was a good 15 minute argument yesterday). It doesn’t occur to him that someone has to do it after he has chosen not to. And if it does occur to him? Doesn’t appear to bother him one bit.

    THat all said (am I really writing this much about housework?), he does do a lot and a lot of it without being asked. But he feels like because he does some, I shouldn’t ask him to do anything else. It’s somewhat infuriating, and I am too stubborn to let go and keep trying to show him how he is wrong, which gets us nowhere good.

    March 19, 2012
  9. Hey, do you think it might be time to pay someone to clean your house? It was recommended to me a few months ago and I’m seriously considering it (although note that I have not taken the plunge yet). It’s just such a point of friction in our marriage, even if Mr. A is also helpful, egalitarian and thoughtful.

    March 19, 2012
  10. Trinity #

    I about had a absolute meltdown this afternoon after N came home and told me that he touched base with our landlord about our upcoming move, and that the landlord is going to list our rental again, and that potential new renters will soon be popping in to see the place. Because that means I have to keep the house motherfucking spotless all day long every goddamn day. Yay!

    I have always been particularly sensitive about the division of household chores, and I have generally thanked my lucky stars that I happen to have e a partner who never had an issue with doing laundry or the dishes without being asked or prodded. I would describe our pre-baby division of labor as fluid, but mostly floating around 50/50. And I absolutely wouldn’t do chores if he wasn’t doing some in another part of the house.

    And then after baby? And then once I started staying home? I became hyper-sensitive about it all. It has taken some fine-tuning, but I think we’re getting closer to a more livable post-baby distribution. There are things he never thinks to do–like clean the sippy cups from the day, or scrub down the high chair–but they’re small things. I can deal with that. I still think he has NO clue what it’s like to solo-wrangle a kid all day and frequently underestimates the energy and organization it requires, but as long as he’s doing a good share of shit around the house I can live with that.

    March 20, 2012
  11. I also reccommend looking into getting someone to clean the house. Roo and I started doing that a little while after Tadpole was born, and it has made a huge difference. I have all sorts of complicated feelings about having someone clean up my dirt, but it has been aweseome for our relationship to remove one of the main things we used to argue about.
    Also, could you sit down together and make a list of the chores that need to be done and divide them up? It seems like this would accomplish two things. 1. give you a chance to negotiate about what you can and can’t do and 2. give Mr. Bunny some awareness of what some of the housekeeping things are that mystically happen around him and make his life more pleasant.

    March 20, 2012
    • I know a lot of people who say it’s saved their partnership to have a cleaning service, so I totally get it. But it’s not for me, for a variety of reasons. We’ve had various strategies over the years for divvying up work, until it became clear we always wanted to do the same things so now we have our allotted tasks, and on the whole, it’s a good balance. My situation sounds a lot like Mina’s–the stuff that irks me is TINY, like the socks that go near the laundry hamper, not in it, or the fact that he always does a shitty job washing Bun Bun’s little seat after a meal… Because I’m a horrible shrew! Um, anyway, the sitting down and making a list IS a brilliant idea, because before we did that, I’d been doing 90% of it!

      March 20, 2012
  12. Oak #

    I have the compounded issue of the fact I WORK from home. So while I’m working during the day (and blogging, etc) I’m at home which makes The Boy think it should be SO MUCH easier to keep the house clean. I nearly draw blood when I bite my tongue about being the breadwinner AND the house cleaner.

    March 20, 2012
  13. two thoughts on here: I am too tired to keep score, that would take effort. but without actually thinking what the score might be, I know I do more. boys are lazy.

    March 27, 2012

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