Three (Better) Ways to Share the Housework

It never ceases to astound how the duties of running a household are, by and large, considered a mother’s domain. Now often referred to as “emotional labor,” this burden is getting a lot more attention these days.

You’ve heard it all before: how a mom (regardless of whether or not she works outside the home) is primarily responsible for a family’s logistics. Carpooling, meal-planning, childcare, registering kids for activities, making doctors appointments, signing field trip forms, knowing when a kid needs new shoes (and underwear), buying birthday party gifts, ensuring school uniforms are washed. This list goes on an on. It’s a huge burden on women, gobbling up hours a week that could be devoted to something else – work, or exercise, or a hobby, or sleep. It also makes it hard for her to be emotionally available and present, and that’s not good for anyone.

Most of the debate around emotional labor has hinged on the idea that women are doing too much, and then men should pitch in more. Fair enough and I agree. But I think this misses essential point: running household logistics govern a family’s time, space and schedule -- it’s a communal benefit and should be treated as a communal responsibility. Not just mom or dad – everyone should have a role – kids, too.

For all the griping we do about the tedium of all these little decisions, running a house is highly complex task. Keeping one person organized is hard enough. Add the complexity of three or four or five other people to the mix – for whom you must coordinate schedules and preferences, not to mention personalities -- and it’s a gigantic task that no one should be expected to do on her own. This stuff isn’t mundane, either. An organized (or disorganized) home life can fuel or inhibit each family member’s ability to achieve their goals.

If you’re the person currently in charge at home, you know all this. But how do you get everyone else on board? Here are a few ideas to shift people’s mindset, and the overall balance.

  • First, start with the dinner dishes. Seriously. Commit to doing the dishes with your spouse or partner every night. (Single parents, enlist your kids.) Sharing this one simple, daily chore is a gateway to sharing the burden of more complex responsibilities. You’ll be spending dedicated time together every day, bonding over a shared meal and shared responsibility to clean up.

  • Second, give everyone a job, a responsibility that is theirs and theirs alone. Even your preschooler can take on an age-appropriate task. Be clear on the what, the how (as in, this is what good looks like) and the when (as in, this is when said task will be completed). Everyone enters into the agreement with the same ground rules and expectations. There’s no nagging, no reminding. The family member who commits to the job does it – and moms (and dads) trust it will be done.

  • Third, hold people accountable. This is where so many parents (and mothers in particular) get off track. Their tweens fail to clear the breakfast table – so they clear it themselves. Someone oversleeps and skips taking out the garbage – so they lug the trashcans to the curb themselves. No! The agreements are null and void if that happens. If someone skips out (or fails to call in a favor in advance of the deadline) it doesn’t get done, and the whole family suffers the consequences. Forgot to take out the garbage? Bummer, but the garage will just smell terrible.

We have stop seeing the enormous effort required to keep a family organized as a zero-sum game – where one family member does all the work and everyone else reaps the rewards. This is about so much more than doing the damn dishes. It’s about families taking care of each other, by honoring your shared space, time and goals