A couple of years ago, I started invoicing my husband for housework. It made sense to us: While our goal was to divide the work equally, I ended up doing much more because he worked in an office and I worked at home as a freelancer, using my breaks to cook, vacuum, and do laundry.
We split all our bills down the middle, except for rent, which we each paid in proportion to our income. But if we felt financially even, we didn’t when it came to time. It seemed unfair that I was doing most of the housework, even if I found it easy to fit into my day and was more proficient at it. So we came up with a system: He would pay me for every hour of housework I did more than him. We set my rate at €11.50 (about $13, at the time) an hour—the price of a cleaner where we lived, in the Netherlands. This seemed like a way to ease my resentment, to make our chore imbalance visible, and (I hoped) to incentivize him to take on more tasks.
The idea of paying your partner may sound absurd. But domestic work is work, and sometimes it cut into the time I wanted to spend working each week. If he was doing less of the housework but earning more, shouldn't he pay someone to complete his half?
In the United States, on average, women spend upwards of an hour more per day than men do on various domestic responsibilities, and tend to bear the mental load of seeing to it that those tasks are completed. Much of this work is physically taxing, and has further-reaching impacts as well, taking a toll on relationships and, in the case of child care, women’s earning potential.
Most men have not been sent the message—by their parents, by their peers, by society—that housework is their responsibility. That’s a possible explanation for why, even though American men have a half hour more free time each day than American women, they still do less housework.
Many women are consistently frustrated by how the burden of housework gets divvied up. “It’s always me asking him and him somehow doing me a ‘favor’ by agreeing to do this for me. Not for him, not for the house—for me,” says Shay Raviv, a 30-year-old design researcher in the Netherlands. “He says, ‘You’re always telling me what to do,’ and then I say, ‘But if I don’t, it doesn’t get done.’ I’m tired of it.” Indeed, all of the (straight) women I interviewed for this article said that their partners didn’t seem to notice or mind as much as they did when their home was unclean or untidy; the women therefore took the lead on domestic work, while their partners needed to be cajoled into doing it. A wage like the one my husband paid me could be one way to avoid that dynamic.
The idea that domestic work should be compensated has historical precedent: In 1898, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, an American writer and feminist, wrote Women and Economics, arguing that caregiving should be done by paid specialists (both men and women), to make it accessible to everyone, rather than only those with a mother or wife at their disposal.
Almost a century later, in the 1970s, an Italian movement called Wages for Housework made its way to the United States. The movement petitioned the government to pay women for domestic work, arguing that it was central to the economy: How, without mothers and wives, would male workers make it out of the house, fed and ready for work?
Of course, the government was unmoved, and Wages for Housework eventually fizzled out. If any countries had adopted its proposal, their economies would look a lot different. For instance, the British government estimated that its residents performed £1.24 trillion worth of domestic work in 2016—roughly 63 percent of the United Kingdom’s GDP that year.
Instead, the idea of paying women for housework was overshadowed by a brand of feminism that urged women to seek liberation in work outside the home. These modern-day feminists might point out that a salary for housework risks further cementing it as “women’s work,” and even obliging them to do more of it.
There are more practical concerns as well. Most notably: Who would pay? I happened to live with a partner who could afford to pay me for five or so hours a week. But this is a luxury, and not one that could likely become policy.
When I described my arrangement to Marilyn Waring—an academic, activist, and former politician in New Zealand who, in a 1988 book called If Women Counted, and in a 2018 follow-up called Still Counting, argued for valuing women’s work more highly—she pointed out that it overlooks the needs of one-adult households.
So perhaps the government could foot the bill, as Wages for Housework suggested? But Waring and Nancy Folbre, a former economics professor at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, both told me that they thought state funds could be better spent on policies that encourage men to increase their responsibilities at home or on subsidized services that lessen the burden on women.
“I don't favor a public sector ‘wage’ … This strategy is too literal. Applying a market-based model to non-market work is simplistic,” Folbre wrote in an email. “But we could honor and reward such work by, for instance, guaranteeing paid family leaves from work, paid sick leaves, family allowances and/or tax subsidies for caring for children.”
While couples wait for those policy changes, what can they do themselves? Of course, one option is to just hire a cleaning service. But paid domestic work is performed disproportionately by women and people of color, and my husband and I thought that outsourcing household labor came with troubling dynamics of its own. So for other solutions, I turned to Darcy Lockman, the author of All the Rage: Mothers, Fathers, and the Myth of Equal Partnership, an investigation into why having children can aggravate gender inequalities in heterosexual relationships.
Of the couples Lockman interviewed for her book, the ones who managed to split domestic work equally started by explicitly making a commitment to doing so. “From there each couple can decide how to divide labor, and as unromantic as this sounds, many use spreadsheets,” she wrote in an email. “If you think about it, it’s actually very romantic—keeping your spouse’s feelings top of mind in this way.”
My husband and I had, in fact, already arrived at the same conclusion about the strategy we had devised. It was failing: Paying hadn’t incentivized him to do more, and I still resented that I spent more time on the house. I didn’t want more money; I wanted more time.
In the end, I did get that, but only after talking with him about the reasons for why he did less. First, he was prioritizing other things in his life ahead of housework. Second, he thought my standards were unreasonably high. Eventually, after much discussion, he understood that by deprioritizing the domestic realm, he was heaping work on me. He recognized that this wasn’t fair, and committed to doing more. For my part, I agreed to stop being a perfectionist about how certain tasks were done. Together we wrote up a list of jobs, agreed on how frequently they should be performed, and began to keep track with a printed-out spreadsheet. Things aren’t perfect yet, but we’re on our way to parity.