A Useful Rule for Dividing Household Tasks: Whoever Cares the Most Wins

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.

Negotiating what makes it to the list seems to be at the crux of why tensions arise over household tasks, especially when it comes to childrearing, which constitutes a significant portion of Bradner's categories. Here's the part where I'm going to suggest that the ladies lighten up. Several of the more mechanical parenting tasks (diaper changes, bedtime) that Bradner proposes as categories make me think of the many dads I know who say that their wives don't trust them to do much of the childcare, and then complain that the men don't pull their weight at home. Whether this is irrational territorialism on the part of the moms, or a considered lack of faith in their husbands' competency, or something else, surely depends on the family. I suspect that, in some cases at least, dads take criticism of their parenting instincts as a license to leave all the work to Mom (as I did with the laundry) while they go golfing. But when this dynamic is at play, as anecdotal evidence suggests it often is, dads need to be both thick-skinned and self-advocating; and moms need to be both demanding and flexible with their standards.

The more complicated parenting tasks included in Bradner's list (lessons, activities, parties) remind me of conversations I've had with dads who feel like their children are overbooked and over-coddled to the point that they're afraid to take care of them by themselves for a weekend—if their wives would even let them—because the kids' schedules and daily requirements are so daunting. Thankfully, given that I do probably 80 percent of the childcare, my wife and I are on the same page philosophically about parenting, even though our respective parenting styles might look different. Whereas laundry requires great attention to detail, parenting preschoolers allows for—demands, really—a great deal of improvisation. My kids go to school two days a week, they need to eat and sleep at certain times, and beyond that, it's all about having unstructured fun, learning about the world through play, and being loved. Because my wife and I never had any kids before the twins, there was no reason for her to think she would be better at providing these things than I would. While keeping children to a tight schedule would be tough for me, and apparently is for a lot of other dads, I'm pretty good at just letting them be kids. This might be a good strategy for moms who feel like they can't rely on their men to stay on top of all the theme parties and recitals.

Finally, Bradner's suggestion that couples try to divide the labor in each category of tasks down the middle is highly impractical, and would lead to its own set of tensions. (In fact, I'm not sure she's being literal about the half-and-half idea, because it's just too crazy.) Since, in most cases, one person cares more about a given category than the other, that person will be more skillful and efficient at it. It would make no sense for me to demand that my wife do half of the household repairs, since it would take forever and I would have to coach her through it and then probably go back and re-fix it. Likewise, it would make no sense for my wife to demand that I do half of the monthly financial chores, since I have no head for money.

The best we can do, if we want to literally track our labor, is to decide which tasks are essential, divide them according to who cares most about what, and then keep track of the cumulative hours we spend on our designated categories (which would have to include paid work outside of the home, of course). Where imbalances arise, as they will, the person who cares most about, say, the laundry, can assign time-consuming unskilled tasks that she cares less about (folding) to her partner.

It's easy to imagine that keeping track of the hours spent on chores at home could make them seem even more onerous, open up a whole new dimension of nitpicking, and pit couples against one another in marathon of martyrdom. Still, I might try it for a while. I care about my wife and I don't want her to think that she's being, to use Bradner's word, "exploited." If my log shows that I'm putting in as many hours as she is, I'm vindicated. If it shows that I'm not, then I have impetus to step up my game and make my wife happier. Win-win.