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.