Sunday, January 20, 2008

The Division of Labor

My friend Scot recently responded to my allegations that, like a good old-fashioned patriarch, he unfairly benefits from the domestic labor of his husband; he did so by making a list of the household chores for which he and his husband are each responsible. That, together with a post on MoHoHawaii's blog, has got me thinking about how Foxy and I divide the labor. Here's my version, but, considering that most of these things we haven't actually put in writing or even discussed, her interpretation may well differ:

Mr. Fob's Jobs
  • Part-time winner of bread (though full-time for a year after the birth of each child; future status to be determined)
  • Preparer of breakfast for children--because Foxy's not a morning person
  • Primary caregiver while Foxy is at school, work, or otherwise occupied (currently about twenty to twenty-five hours a week)
  • Preparer of dinner on nights when Foxy is gone (currently four nights a week)
  • Part-time dishwasher
  • Primary bedtime story reader
  • Primary bath giver
  • Payer of housing and utility bills--a role we shared in the past but I have taken over completely since we established separate bank accounts last year
FoxyJ's Jobs
  • Part-time winner of bread (with a one-year break after the birth of each child; future status to be determined)
  • Chief meal planner and preparer--because she likes to cook
  • Primary caregiver while Mr. Fob is at school, work, or otherwise occupied (currently about twenty-five to thirty hours a week)
  • Part-time dishwasher
  • Primary naptime story reader
  • Buyer of groceries
  • Planner of vacations
  • Scheduler of doctor's (and other such) appointments
  • Primary laundry doer
  • Knower of all things
Careful inspection of these two lists will reveal that there are some hundred or so hours of the week in which neither of us is the primary caregiver. This is not because we share the giving of care when we are both home; rather, our children are given no care when we are both home. Typically, one of us sits on the couch reading a book while the other sits at the computer, each of us hoping the other will do something about that screaming child. It's a game of Chicken, basically: which of us will be overwhelmed by the screaming and give in to the child's demands first?

There are a lot of jobs that we share fairly equally: doing the dishes, taking out the trash, cleaning the house. Foxy may contest that she does a greater share of the latter; I concede only that she more often notices that something needs to be cleaned, and then it is just a question of whether I will get off my butt and clean it before she gets tired of waiting and does it herself.

I would like to think that we divide the labor fairly evenly because that is how I think it should be, but truthfully I have to admit that Foxy does more than her share. I would also like to think that this inequality is based solely on our differing personalities, but when the imbalance in our roles lines up so closely with imbalanced male-female relationships going back hundreds of years, it's hard not to recognize that to some extent we have allowed ourselves to fall into stereotypical gender roles. Some (people related to me, mostly) have argued that I do more than most husbands, but really I don't take much satisfaction in knowing that I do well when measured against a crappy standard known for its unfairness to women (and honestly I think I'm more or less on par with other husbands of my generation). I wish at least one sentence in this paragraph were not made of two clauses conjoined by a "but," but alas it isn't going to happen.

Moral of the story: I'll forever be in Foxy's debt, but that's no excuse to stop trying to catch up.

Scot posits that it "may be kind of different how labor becomes divided in a home with two men or two women," and that he and his husband "split it up by who’s good at what." I'd say this is a good way for anyone to do it. I'm curious to know how other couples, gay and straight, divide the labor, so I'm now officially making this post a meme. If you are in a cohabiting relationship of any sort, consider yourself tagged. How do you and your significant other split up the tasks of life?


FoxyJ said...

You forgot to mention that you are the official hairstylist. I know it's a gay stereotype, but you do most of the hair styling and cutting. Oh, and most of the holiday decorating as well.

B.G. Christensen said...

You're right, I did forget that. I guess that makes us even so I can now live guilt-free.

Anonymous said...

Eleanor's daddy happens to be a beauty school drop out, so that task is on his side of the ledger as well.

As a bourgeois gay couple, it's nice to enjoy the economic and psychological luxury of having a fulltime stay-at-home parent. (Ironically gay men, like mormons and other fundamentalists -- but hopefully with less baggage -- can avoid the feminist baggage that prevents some women from staying home).

The division is never effortless of course. I suspect that Adam Smith would warn that some of the tension is inherent in any bilateral transaction -- each of us thinks we came out ahead based on our individual preferences or we wouldn't have done it; but part of each is also vaguely anxious that he's been ripped off or is missing out....

Janci said...

I have been married for three weeks, so this is more of a question than an experience.

My husband and I are a little bit non-traditional. (Okay, that's an understatement.) I have a hard time with little kids. He has no desire to be the primary breadwinner. We're both artists (I'm a writer; he paints D&D miniatures) and we're both working our way toward self-employment so we can both work from home.

Assuming we are successful at that (and it appears we will be), we both want to divide things at home very equally. He wants to be as involved with childcare as I am. (And goodness knows I want to give half of that task away. The thought of having kids terrifies me.) We're already splitting the housework. I'm a better organizer and he's better at sticking with tasks, so we do different tasks, but we both want to make sure it's at least mostly equal, so we can both pursue our professional goals as well.

Here is my question: is this idealistic and impossible? Yesterday I went to church and listened to our Stake President tell husbands to "help out" with housework and childcare. Now, I understand that if the husband is working and the wife isn't, it makes sense for her to do most of the other tasks, because she has more time at home. But out? It's their home, and their children...isn't it just part of their lives to do some of the work?

So really, am I being naive?

B.G. Christensen said...

Eleanor's Papa: I think the Adam Smith theory makes sense. Maybe my guilt has less to do with gender roles than I think--last night when Foxy read my post she laughed and said that she feels like she doesn't do enough. Really I think the best way for hetero couples to have a stay-at-home parent without the feminist baggage is for the husband to stay home. Now I just need to convince Foxy of that...

Janci: First, congratulations on your marriage! I think non-traditional is good, as is working from home--I'd like to be in a place where that's possible, someday. In answer to your question, I'd say your goal is idealistic but (hopefully) not impossible. I believe it takes a lot of conscious effort on both your parts and a lot of questioning your motives: Are you doing X because it makes most sense for you to do it or just because you're the woman and by default X is what women do? For that matter, are you not doing X because that's the arrangement that makes most sense for your relationship, or just because you don't want to fit the stereotype? Ultimately the most important thing is that both of you feel like you're being respected and treated fairly. Oh, and I cringe whenever someone compliments me for "helping out" with the children. Seriously, folks.

The Big O said...


Crap. I shouldn't have read that last paragraph.

B.G. Christensen said...

Big O: I didn't realize you were in a cohabiting relationship. Or, for that matter, writing poetry. (The trick, my friend, is different browsers for different identities. Why else does Internet Explorer exist?)