My partner and I both work full-time and we have two little ones at home. People sometimes ask how we manage everything (especially without family nearby). My answer is usually to laugh and say something dismissive about how we have barely slept in the past 7 years. My honest answer is that it does feel really hard and I sometimes wonder if we even are managing everything. I worry about what we seem to be behind on, what my kids are missing out on, and what might be slipping through the cracks without us even realizing it. My real answer, though, is that I think the reason we are close to managing is because we are both pulling our weight at home. There are tips and tricks and organizational systems and routines that I could talk about that we’ve figured out to make life easier, but those are really just our tools. The method is that we are equally sharing the responsibility to financially provide for our family and equally sharing the responsibilities of caring for our children and our home. We have prioritized both of our careers equally and we have aimed to share parenting and household responsibilities equally too. Neither of us is the primary breadwinner or the primary caregiver.
There are a million different families and a countless ways to make things work. What’s right for us doesn’t have to be right for you. The right thing for your family is what works for your family. For us, though, I’m pretty sure this approach has been the key to keeping this whole thing working.
We have pretty much had this dynamic since the beginning of our relationship. We were both in graduate school when we met. We didn’t work together, but our work expectations and obligations were practically the same. We were both living on our own at that point too, so we were also already used to taking care of ourselves and our household tasks. If I wanted clean clothes, I did my laundry. If he wanted to eat, he bought groceries and made dinner. We continued to share household tasks once we started living together. No one came home to a prepared dinner because we came home together and then prepared dinner. We grocery shopped together. We cleaned together. We took turns doing laundry. By the time we had our children, we had finished school and moved into our careers, but this equal partnership had already been well established and we intentionally extended it to our parenting. Nursing dominated a lot of my time in the early days, but we shared almost everything else that was involved with taking care of our baby. We both changed diapers. We took turns wearing our baby in the carrier. We took turns getting up during the night. He rocked her to sleep after I nursed. He played with her while I went for a run. I played with her while he ran errands. He dropped her off at daycare and I picked her up. Taking care of our baby was not my job. It was our job. A new baby adds tasks and takes away time, so we couldn’t really do household tasks (cooking, cleaning, groceries, etc.) together anymore. We had to get more efficient, so these tasks got split up. We don’t divide every single task evenly, but we do aim to have the effort of household and childcare work be even overall. (Side note: my husband is not “helping me” with any of these things either – these are all his jobs as much as they are mine!)
There are several points along our path that we could have fallen into a different dynamic. Things could have changed when we moved in together, when we graduated and started jobs, or when we became parents. We were conscious of this and worked to maintain our balance, but it’s common for couples to fall into an uneven balance or a different dynamic without really meaning too. About half of all families have two parents that work outside the home, but women still do more chores at home than their male partners. And, women find that their careers take a backseat to their partners, even when they didn’t plan for that to be the case. This imbalance impacts people at the individual level and also has implications for society overall as it is one of the potential contributors to the gender wage gap. (While these stats are specific for heterosexual couples, the balance and dynamics can be skewed no matter the gender of those in the relationship.)
Like I said, there is no right or wrong balance. Finding ways to move towards a more equal balance is important, though, if you’re finding yourself with a dynamic that’s not working anymore. Reestablishing this may take some work, but the payoff is likely well worth the effort.
Here are some of our tips:
One of the first steps is to have an honest conversation with your partner. This could be a potentially loaded topic and conversations about these types of things are almost always more effective when everyone is calm. Don’t bring this topic up in the middle of a frustrating moment. Instead, be intentional about having this conversation and aim to frame it as a problem that you’d like to work together to solve. Think, “I’m feeling overwhelmed and would like to work together to shuffle some of our household tasks.” instead of “Why don’t you ever do anything around here!” You’re a team. Do also recognize that your partner may be caught off-guard and feel defensive. By the time you bring this up, you have had time to think about it and formulate your thoughts and opinions. Your partner is likely processing and reacting at the same time. They may need some time to catch up and feel ready to discuss. Try to be honest, respectful, and patient. This is likely going to be an ongoing conversation rather than a single chat.
Once everyone agrees that that there is something to address, it turns into a logistics issue to resolve together. Come up with all the things that need to be done and figure out how to split the work.
- Make lists! Write down the things that you each do and those that sometimes get neglected. Make sure that you include the active tasks (like getting groceries) and also the thinking and planning tasks (like meal planning so you know what groceries to get). You may find that your partner is taking care of things that you aren’t even aware of or vice-versa. Having these lists will help clarify your current division and help show what needs to change.
- Prioritize, work on efficiency, and consider outsourcing. Decide together on what really needs to get done to keep your family functioning. Are there some tasks that you can let go of completely or do less often? Are there more efficient ways that you can accomplish the things that need to be done? If it’s in your budget, are there tasks that you can outsource?
- Next, go through the tasks and figure out how to divide things. How you actually split tasks up is going to be unique to every family, but the crucial thing is that you’re aiming for it to be pretty even (or improved). You might divide some things evenly. For example, maybe you take turns and each read bedtime stories every other night. There might be other things that one of you does that gets balanced by the other doing something else. You don’t need to each cook half of the meals, for example, but the time and energy required for one person to cook meals should be matched by the other spending roughly the same amount of time and energy taking care of something else. Maybe the cleaning? Individual tasks don’t necessarily have to be even, but the overall energy should be even.
- Don’t neglect the thinking/planning tasks here. This is invisible work that can take a lot of energy. It might make sense to group the thinking and planning tasks with their associated actions. For example, meal planning might go with grocery shopping and cooking. You might put keeping track of and shopping for cleaning supplies with cleaning the house. Tracking and scheduling car maintenance might go with taking care of all the trips to the shop. Maybe one of you covers scheduling and attending well-child visits to the doctor and the other takes care of scheduling teeth cleaning and trips to the dentist.
Commit to your new tasks and let go of your partner’s tasks. Once you have agreed on what needs to get done and how to divide the work, let the owner own it. You should agree to the frequency or budget together and then let go of the task once it’s been handed over. It may not be done the way you would do it, but let the owner of the task do it their way unless there is a safety concern or legitimate issue with their approach. (It’s good to know what is being done and how in case you need to do it someday, but don’t micromanage it.)
Make sure that you maintain your balance as circumstances change. Be willing to revisit the task lists. Once you are in a routine, you might realize certain things take longer than you thought they would and you need some reshuffling. As circumstances change, tasks will need to be shuffled too. Changing diapers turns into packing lunches, which turns into helping with homework and so on. Make sure to maintain your balance as the things your balancing shift.