Monday, October 3, 2011

On Equality

I've been meaning to write a post about maintaining an equal partnership with your significant other for a long time. First, I wanted to write about it because the topic comes up all the time when I'm hanging out with my friends from prenatal yoga, since all of us have new babies. Secondly, I wanted to write about this topic because some of you have been asking about it in the comments section.

Equality has been at the forefront of my mind for a long time. As an American studies major in college (with a minor in gender studies), it was a constant topic. It also infuses my daily work as an educator who thinks about the achievement gap in the United States.

As soon as Matt and I moved in together, we started putting systems in place to distribute household responsibilities equitably. We tend to cook dinner and clean up afterwards together, but we divide our chores up into even chunks. We also gave a lot of thought to combining our finances in a way that felt fair and collaborative. Regardless of who is bringing in more income, we each get the same amount of personal money to spend every month.

In our house, we have frequent conversations about equality. It's not a "tit for tat" kind of dynamic, but we often share our feelings when things feel imbalanced. Sometimes these conversations result in one person taking on something else in order to balance things out, but more often than not, they result in renewed appreciation for what the other person is already doing. Occasionally, they result in a redistribution of responsibilities in order to keep things fair.

We also place a huge value on appreciation (I learned--and am still learning--this habit from Matt). We thank each other constantly for everything that the other person does for the common good.

Of course having a baby added a whole host of new responsibilities into our household. Our conversations about equality are even more frequent. Since Henry's needs are always changing, our distribution of responsibilities is always changing, too.

Here's how we approach it:

Matt works outside of the home full-time. I stay home and take care of Henry full-time (although when he naps, I do my other work, which is running two blogs, facilitating an online course about purposeful conception, writing a book about how to plan a meaningful and memorable wedding without losing your savings or sanity, occasionally doing educational consulting, and starting a national network of public Montessori charter schools with the flagship school opening in Austin in 2014).

Taking care of Henry (and fitting in everything else I'm trying to get done) is a lot of work. I do not have time for laundry, house cleaning, or cooking within those hours (although I will do laundry or empty the dishwasher if I'm taking a break).

So even though I'm a "stay at home mom," Matt and I still split all of our domestic responsibilities evenly. We tackle them like we always tackled them--in the evenings and on weekends.

One of my friends has a husband who is a lawyer. When he gets home from work, she continues to do most of the baby care because he argues that his job is stressful and he needs a break. That argument would never fly in our house. Taking care of Henry is honestly one of the most stressful jobs I have ever had.

In fact, some days I've had such a stressful day that Matt volunteers to take on my share of Henry duty in the evening. I do the same thing for him, although I seem to have to take advantage of his generosity more than he has to take advantage of mine.

Another thing that I've seen happening among my friends is that the woman spends more time with the baby, so she becomes better at soothing the baby. When the husband comes home, he plays with the baby until the baby gets fussy. Then he hands the baby back to mom so she can take care of it.

Matt and I each try to develop strategies that soothe Henry. I find myself nagging Matt a lot more about how I would do it if I were him, but I'm trying to rein that tendency in.

On weekends, we try to honor each other's needs to connect with the world beyond our little family. We take turns going off by ourselves or with friends, and then we spend time together as a family.

It's definitely a work in process for us. Like I mentioned earlier, we have constant conversations about equally distributing responsibilities. Sometimes these conversations start out like fights, but we try to de-escalate it back down to a conversation. The important thing is that we are both committed to equality, and we're open to each other's perspectives.

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andee said...

I needed this today Sara. We have been married for exactly a month today and we are still working to figure out the equality and joint chores and responsibilities. It is much harder than I ever anticipated, but this is encouraging that we will figure it out.

Kelly said...

@Sara - Thank you for this post! I truly appreciate how open you are in sharing your life with your lucky readers!

@Andee - Congratulations! I was tempted to say something like, "I've been married for six years and it's still hard to figure that stuff out!" But then I reflected on it and realized that while systems and processes are always being updated, it's so much easier now than it was in the first year. So what I want to say instead is Hang In There! It does get easier. And I like to think that the hard work I invest in my marriage early on will pay off for decades. :)

Urban Environmentalist said...

Thanks for this post! Before getting married we had to take a marriage prep course in order to get married in the church. We learned that the #1 thing that gets in-between couples is the division of household tasks! It is so interesting because every relationship is different with regard to who performs which tasks in the home. Nice to hear how other couples do it!

Anna said...

I am really glad you included the part about soothing the baby. The first month I transitioned back to work, my husband and I took turns staying at home with our baby. He had to learn how to feed, soothe, and entertain the baby all on his own. The bonding that happened between the two of them as a result? Tremendous! It really promoted a sense of equality within our parenting philosophy.

Anonymous said...

Thought you might find this article from the NYtimes interesting: "When Mom and Dad Share It All"

Anonymous said...

This is an interesting concept, but I just have to ask: how is it that you don't have time to do laundry or clean or cook with a baby? That's amazing: IIRC,: my mom's generation, and mine, did just that. We kept the house clean, did the shopping, did laundry and cooked, all with multiple kids.

I don't get the idea that child care is all encompassing. Part of raising kids is teaching them how to do all this stuff, even when tiny, by teaching them that it needs to get done. said...

I've thought a lot about how we'll approach this one day b/c we also have a pretty equal split of household responsibilities and I know we are both happy knowing we pull our weight and our partner does the same. I like what you said about each learning to soothe the baby. That seems like it would be really key.

@Andee - yes, there is totally a transition period after you move in together/get married! We definitely went through that. It just takes time so don't let it worry you, totally normal.

Sara E. Cotner said...

Hi, Anonymous: I don't have time for doing all the laundry, cleaning, or cooking because I'm not just a stay-at-home mom. I'm also working (see my list in the post). When Henry naps, I do my work. When he's awake, I feed him, dance with him, read to him, take him outside, take him to the library, go to friends' houses for play dates, etc. If he's playing independently, I will do some cleaning, cooking, or laundry, but it's highly unlikely that I will get everything done. I hope that makes sense.

Shawn said...

Well said in your comment response, Sara! If you hadn't jumped in, I was going to do it for you. I was exhausted just reading about all that you do! I agree that women of generations past worked incredibly hard, but I think today women have so much we are trying to balance. It's great that as women we have so much opportunity and choice open to us, but I think that men have been left out of the discussion in large part. We don't have a successful women's movement unless men and women talk and men understand that their traditional role might need to change, too. It's really encouraging to hear about how you and Matt have those conversations. Keep up the good work and thanks, as always, for sharing!

Anonymous said...

What I have trouble with most is not the big tasks like cooking, cleaning, etc. The thing for me that leads to resentment and anger are the little in between tasks: clearing the dinner table of both of our stuff, changing the toilet paper, running out to get more toothpaste, wiping the counter down etc. My husband might clean the kitchen, but leave a few crumbs on the counter no matter how much I tell him not to. TO some extent we each have our standards, and IN GENERAL I think (based on my conversations with friends) men's attention to detail is not as "high" as women's. Hence all the little "fixes" I find myself doing daily. I am not really interested in delegating these small tasks because I feel it would make our lives too contrived and scripted. I like to leave room for natural interactions and surprises. Like once I decided to scrub the kitchen cabinets and my hubby saw me working hard and jumped in, scrubbing corners with a toothbrush! It was such a great moment. I'd hate for us to think, "well the cabinets are so and so's job so I won't interfere." Or maybe a better example is when one of us just takes care of something without discussing--it feels so good. I'm not sure I'm expressing myself well, but I'd be interested in people's thoughts/experiences on the little stuff, and how NOT to resent your partner for not paying attention to the little stuff. I know the usual advice--talking, etc. I just mean more real life tactics and strategies. I think we both do chores equally, I guess in a way, I just feel like I'm the one who keeps the house "running" more than he does, because I notice things he does not (does that make sense?) I also feel that I have to remind him of things more. If I do it calmly/respectfully, he is happy to do it. Problems arise when I snap or imply that he is not good enough...Let me know if you need clarification on anything! (: Thanks for the post and any other thoughts!

Anonymous said...

p.s. I hope this doesn't sound weird, but why does Matt always have his mouth open that way in EVERY photo?! (: Must be his trademark or something!

Anonymous said...

I'm glad you figured out something that works for you, but this sounds odd to me.

I could understand this post with three, maybe even two kids. But I don't understand why you have no time with just one. It doesn't get any easier, for sure.

I'm also surprised at the complete lack of empathy for the lawyer. There are men who work grueling 80-hr weeks for their families, like lawyers, and hire maids for this garbage. Does that make them worse dads than your equal chores partner?

Sara E. Cotner said...

Hi, Anonymous: Not sure how to explain Matt's mouth. But have you noticed that Henry often has his mouth open like that, too?

As for your dilemma, I'm not sure that I have any great advice. You said you didn't want advice along the lines of "talking," but I'm afraid I don't know what else to suggest. What if you sat down to talk about "things each of us need in our lives from the other person to feel satisfied" and then you could share what you'd like to see happen (while also hearing about how to better meet his needs)? Just a thought. Wishing you all the best!

@ Earlier Anonymous: That NYTimes article is awesome! Thank you so much for sharing. I'm going to write about it over at 2000 Dollar Wedding. Thanks!

Carol said...

I'm afraid I'm going to have to agree with Anonymous at 5:30pm here. Actually, the reason why I'm agreeing is a sad story: a friend of mine got married a few years ago to a man who works 80+ hours and earns twice her salary. (She works a normal 9-5). They both love their professional fields, and love what they do, but because she gets home at a reasonable hour, she finds herself getting stuck with all the chores -- not that he thinks she should, but because his field requires him to spend so much more time out of the house. Is it fair? Absolutely not! Is there a huge strain on the relationship? definitely! But he doesn't really have a choice about how many hours he puts in - a big part of his life dream is excelling in this field, and those are the hours that are required.

Interestingly, to add an extra twist to the story, he suggested that they solve the chores/equity problem by hiring extra help. She was offended (she's from a background where that's not done, and is uncomfortable spending $$ that way). But, all he was trying to say was "I only have 2 waking hours at home with you every day, and I'd rather spend them with *you* than scrubbing the toilet." That negotiating is still in progress.

I don't think I really have a point, other than to encourage some empathy for households and couples who are not able to solve this problem the same way you have. Because I think we all struggle with it - just with different parameters.

Sara E. Cotner said...

Hi, Carol! Please don't think I'm suggesting that everyone needs to "solve this problem the same way" Matt and I have. There are definitely different ways to achieve equality--although I do think equality and fairness (which is not the same as exact sameness) are the goal. If one partner works 80 hours a week and the other partner works 40 hours a week, it might be fair for the 40-hour-per-week partner to do all the household stuff, while the 80-hour-per-week partner is still working. It just depends on what feels right to the people involved.

I mentioned the lawyer who comes home and wants to de-stress while his wife continues to take care of the baby because for Matt and me that situation would be unfair. For me, taking care of Henry is a lot of stress. It's different from the stress that a lawyer or doctor feels, but it's still stress. If I were married to a lawyer or doctor, I would still expect him to split responsibilities with me when he got home.

Then again, I could never be married to someone who worked 80-hour weeks because I value family time too much. But that's just me! My point is everyone needs to collaborate with their partners to figure out an arrangement that feels fair and equal for everyone involved.

Anonymous said...

I respectfully disagree that he "has no choice." Of course he does. You yourself said that he is following his dream and that is a choice. He has made this choice at the expense (some would argue) of a more balanced family life, or at the expense of the happiness of his wife in terms of what she feels is fair and manageable. I think the whole point of all of this is that we all have--and make--choices. Marriage is difficult because your choices affect your partners.

And I totally get why Sara cannot do all the chores. She is trying to accomplish HER dreams in the few hours a day she has to herself. Maybe women did all the housework in the past, but maybe women today are just not willing to sacrifice their health and sanity or time just to keep a ship shape home. Maybe it would be different if Henry was 4, 5, 6 etc but he is an infant still, and Sara is a new mom. When I work from home, there is no way I can do that AND clean, cook, etc. without running myself ragged.

Anyway, Sara's schedule/structure does not work for me personally because I like things to be less rigid and I'm not sure I could follow that chore plan or would want to. But it works for her. I need to find a good way with my hubby, and we are definitely close. Perhaps there is just no way to always feel everything is perfectly fair and I think this discussion is good precisely because it has as much to do with expectations of each person (and whether they are realistic) and goals. I agree with Sara's goals 110%, and I doubt it is easy to navigate life the way they have so I applaud her for that even though it is too rigid for the way I want to live my life. I also like some things to be my own--like I may complain that my husband doesn't cook as much as I do, but I also really take pride in providing a good healthy meal for us in a way that he doesn't. He takes pride in keeping our car in perfect condition and safe, whereas as long as the thing moves, I'm happy. It is all a balance and a struggle. I don't know any couple that doesn't struggle with it, especially as things in our lives change--people get sick, parents die, we get pets, etc.

I'm really enjoying this dialogue...

And feel free to call me Anon #5 just for clarity. Thanks!

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