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Heavy Meddle: Help! A Lopsided Division Of Domestic Labor Is Hurting Our Marriage

I am dwelling in resentment, and that's not the wife I want to be. (Marty Portier/flickr)
I am dwelling in resentment, and that's not the wife I want to be. (Marty Portier/flickr)
This article is more than 6 years old.

Welcome Meddleheads, to the column where your crazy meets my crazy! Please send your questions via email. Right now. Not only will you immediately feel much better, you’ll also get some advice.

Hugs,
Steve

Dear Steve,

Here in the 21st century, married to a guy who knows from gender equality and a shared division of labor, I find myself fuming most mornings over what I perceive to be the imbalance of our lives. When my husband gets up in the morning, he tends immediately and without distraction to two priorities: his coffee and his newspaper. I admire his ability to tune out a busy morning's hustle — packing lunches, making breakfast for the kids, tidying up so that the house doesn't look like we left it at gunpoint, dressing fidgety little bodies, brushing little teeth, washing little faces, wrangling little people out the door and into car seats and on to school. I also resent it, and I fear it's harming my marriage.

When my husband gets up in the morning, he tends immediately and without distraction to two priorities: his coffee and his newspaper.

We both work full-time, and we rely on both of our incomes to maintain a fairly frills-free middle class life in a working class neighborhood where we were lucky to afford a house. We love our work. We love our kids. We love, most days, each other. But when it comes to this division of domestic labor, I feel like staging a die-in. Laundry, dishes, groceries, clean-up: It consistently falls to me. My husband is a loving guy and a good man, and he does help when the spirit moves him — which is usually when he sees how pissed off I am.

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The other morning, as he left for work looking uncreased and rested, having had his coffee and his eggs on toast, I gave the finger to the door as he closed it. Not good. That morning, I managed to leave the house — kids in tow — having applied mascara to just one eye.

When I have raised my concerns about the workload at home being out of whack, my otherwise mild-mannered husband gets defensive and angry, and so I have stopped bringing it up. What I'm left with is a feeling that it's my problem — if he doesn't notice messes, maybe my eyesight can evolve to be selective, too. But I'm no good at dwelling in resentment. It makes me feel like a harridan. I'm not great at asking for help, either. I hear my mother nagging my father, and that's not the wife I want to be.

Help!

Yours truly,
Domestic Terrorist

Dear Domestic Terrorist,

Unless you are misrepresenting the morning routine in your house, here’s what I’m hearing in terms of the division of labor.

Hubby:

1. Make coffee

2. Read paper

You:

1. Dress kids

2. Brush kids’ teeth

3. Wash kids’ faces

4. Make kids’ breakfast

5. Pack kids’ lunch

6. Tidy up house

7. Get kids out the door and into car seats

8. Drive kids to school.

How in God’s name is that even close to a fair arrangement?

It’s not. And this is likely the reason your husband is “angry and defensive” when you bring this up. He feels guilty — with cause.

Two of you work outside the home. Two of you should work inside the home, too.

Of course, the division of labor is never equal in a marriage. And perhaps your husband takes care of other child rearing and domestic duties that you’re not mentioning. But based on your description, his behavior is not that of a considerate spouse but a spoiled child. He sits there and sips his coffee and reads the paper while you carry out a battery of exhausting morning tasks, and do the bulk of the remaining domestic duties. He helps out only “when the spirit moves him — which is usually when he sees how pissed off I am.”

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I’m not sure who you’re married to, but according to your own testimony, it’s not someone “who knows from gender equality and shared division of labor.” It’s someone who, at times, is perfectly happy to treat you like a housekeeper. Only you don’t get paid. Or thanked. You get guilt-tripped for having the gall to express your frustration.

What I find most distressing here is that you seem to have internalized the idea that simply expressing the desire for more domestic equity makes you a “nag” like your mother or even a “terrorist.” How does that work? If anything, you’re terrorizing yourself. You say you’re not good at dwelling in resentment. But that sounds exactly like what you’re doing by not asking for the help you need and deserve.

Okay, so your standards of cleanliness are higher than his. And so maybe you could argue that these higher standards require additional labors that redound to you. (I’m dubious about this argument, frankly, which is often made by slob husbands like myself…) Regardless of that, most of the duties you’re describing — child rearing, dishes, groceries, etc. — have nothing to do with different standards. They’re basic chores that have to get done. They’re necessary to the basic operation of the home and/or benefit both of you and therefore belong to both of you.

To put it plainly: you need to shake off the patriarchal mindset. Two of you work outside the home. Two of you should work inside the home, too. Otherwise, one of you (i.e. you) winds up working two jobs.

What I find most distressing here is that you seem to have internalized the idea that simply expressing the desire for more domestic equity makes you a 'nag' like your mother or even a 'terrorist.'

I’m not suggesting that the division of labor has to be right down the middle. Every couple makes their own contract. But the terms of this contract should be discussed — by which I really mean negotiated and agreed upon.

If you’re worried about being heard — and there’s ample reason to believe that you should be — I strongly suggest seeing a marriage counselor. Why? Because often it’s necessary to have an impartial third party who can help the two of you cut through the resentment and defensiveness to the feelings of fear and disappointment that are keeping you from expressing your true needs.

It’s clear from your letter that you love your husband and believe him to be a fundamentally compassionate guy. That’s great. Your challenge at this point is to help him recognize that compassion sometimes means helping out with the dirty work. This doesn’t make you a nag. It makes you a self-respecting human being.

Good luck,
Steve

Okay folks, now it's your turn. Did I get it right, or muck it up? Let me know in the comments section. And please do send your own question along, the more detailed the better. Even if I don't have a helpful response, chances are someone in the comments section will. Send your dilemmas via email.

Steve Almond is the author of the book "Against Football." He is the co-host, with Cheryl Strayed, of the WBUR podcast, Dear Sugar.

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