Some people think laundry's really important; other people value household repairs—and those preferences should be taken into account when couples figure out who does what.
"Whoever cares the most wins."
This is perhaps the most crucial lesson I've learned from my parents' marriage, now in its 55th year. I didn't actually hear it articulated until after I had already been with my wife for over a decade; but I had apparently absorbed the lesson through the years, because by the time I heard the formula expressed, I realized that I had been applying it in my own relationship all along. And, like my dad, I cared the most about very few potentially contentious issues.
When I read Alexandra Bradner's "Some Theories on Why Men Don't Do as Many Household Tasks" on The Atlantic, particularly her bullet points enumerating the "categories of invisible labor" that couples should be striving to divide equally, it struck me that the "Whoever Cares Most" maxim determines most of how the labor is split up in my own marriage, and—I assume—in those of many others. It would seem that, based on the scores of conversations I've had whenever one of these articles about the glacial progress toward labor equality in the home makes the rounds, women tend to care more about many of the issues these chores address than men do. For their passion about these elements of household governance, they are awarded the dubious victory of being in charge of them. And in being in charge, they tend to follow another, sometimes self-defeating axiom: "If you want it done right, do it yourself."
Before I get too far along in suggesting that some women would do well to lighten up and not freak out about every detail of household operations, I should explain where I'm coming from. My wife and I have been together for 21 years, and married for almost 12. In terms of economics, we have what Hanna Rosin would call a "see-saw marriage": at various times, one of us has been in school while the other worked; we have both been working and I have made more money than my wife; we have both been working and my wife has made a lot more money than me; and, currently I am a stay-at-home (mostly) dad who earns almost nothing, while my wife is the primary breadwinner. Our decisions about who is responsible for what have nothing to do with gender, and everything to do with pragmatism. We both work hard at whatever we need to do to make it work. That's not to say that we don't experience tensions—we do.
It seems that I need to do more laundry.
My wife cares a lot about laundry—she always has. There are rules and procedures that I could never quite get right, and now that we have kids, there's a separate hamper with its own set of laws. So, since there's always work to do in a 100-year-old house with three-year-old twins, a feral yard, a vegetable garden, and a 125-pound dog with urinary incontinence and extreme anxiety, I absolved myself of the last of my laundry duties once the kids were out of cloth diapers. Because I felt like I was always busy doing something for the family, I didn't recognize the resentment simmering as my wife hung up all the little dresses and put away the tiny socks after seeing 24 patients in one shift at her clinic.
But that's fine. I can do some of the laundry. I'm not unteachable. All my wife had to do was tell me what she needed. Just a simple matter of navigating the emotional minefield I have created around myself while trying to suppress my ego and sense of adult entitlement as I come to terms with the fact that being a stay-at-home parent means making myself servile to people who can, at any moment, become inconsolably hysterical because, say, they wanted the big purple silly straw, not the medium one.
I don't see why she didn't bring it up sooner.
It's true that these conversations are difficult to have, because the dynamics of a relationship are so complicated, all the more so when kids are involved. As much as I like to smugly point out how my non-traditional family role hasn't emasculated me in the least, for instance, there are complaints I swallow because I could see them leading to a conversation where my wife begins a sentence with, "I work my fingers to the bone to keep a roof over your head..." and I just don't want to go there. Likewise, my wife respects my sensitivity about being told what to do, since that's what our children do to me all day long.
But we do need to have conversations about the division of labor in the home. Just maybe not exactly the conversation that Bradner suggests. Her list of invisible labor categories is a good starting point, but obviously it needs to be customized for each family. And in the customization process, we need to agree on what constitutes the core day-to-day labor that keeps our households running. I wouldn't demand that the 80 hours it took me to build plywood tricycles for the twins go on the ledger; and by the same token, I would argue that my wife spending the equivalent of a week's work per year cooking for dinner parties doesn't fit into the list of "core" invisible labor categories.