In the last of a six-part series, The Globe and Mail takes a look into bathrooms, kitchens, basements and legislatures to see how families and nations tackle the chore challenge.
In any household, the biggest chore isn’t the laundry or the dishes, it’s deciding how all the daily drudgery will get done. It’s the ultimate uber-chore, yet it languishes at the bottom of our to-do lists.
Luckily, a number of experts – mostly people looking for answers to their own domestic chaos – are starting to offer solutions they have test-driven, building a new genre of self-help for the too-busy, two-working-parents demographic.
There is no one-size-fits-all answer for divving up the chores. Here are some of the most intriguing ideas.
THINK LIKE A FEMINIST
According to Amy and Marc Vachon, chores and childcare should be split as close to 50-50 as possible. As they lay out in their groundbreaking 2011 book Equally Shared Parenting, neither spouse should have a more demanding job nor should one stay at home full-time – in fact shortened work-weeks for both partners is the ideal.
A clear-eyed accounting of dozens of domestic chores and tasks is required – the Vachons offer worksheets in their book and online. Men don’t automatically mow the lawn and women don’t automatically write all the thank-you notes. It’s fine if one parent does 100 per cent of a particular task. Overall balance is the goal. The word parenting in the title is key – the Vachons say that for them, having children was the trigger that challenged their commitment to gender equality.
“I started to get more and more angry at how the entire other parent was missing from the conversation. There was a solution staring everyone in the face,” said Amy Vachon.
Take-home tip: Sometimes a chore like laundry can be sliced in half. At the Vachons, she does the lights and he does the darks, each at their own pace.
THINK LIKE AN ECONOMIST
He leaves his socks on the floor. You can’t stand your weekly grocery-shopping trip. What may look like an impasse is actually a trading opportunity, according to the authors of Spousonomics: Using Economics to Master Love, Marriage and Dirty Dishes. Journalists Paula Szuchman and Jenny Anderson mined economic theory for ideas on how to perfect home economies. Take for instance the classic comparative advantage. Just as Canada doesn’t try to grow oranges; it grows lentils and swaps them for oranges from sunnier climes, the same principle can be applied to chores.
“Some people think vacuuming is like waterboarding,” says Szuchman, speaking from personal experience. Her husband does 90 per cent of the vacuuming and she takes on all the bill-paying, most of the babysitting co-ordinating and doctor appointments.
Some form of balance is key, of course, lest the person with the comparative advantage feels Tom Sawyer-ed into doing more than his fair share.
Take-home tip: Stay practical. Don’t make chores symbolic of other things, Szuchman says, “that can be a trap. He doesn’t do a chore because he doesn’t care. You’re bringing that into the realm of chores. It’s probably not true and unfair.”
THINK LIKE A THERAPIST
Before you hit DEFCON 1 in an argument about your pet peeve, can you pause a moment and remember why you married your wife? You love this person, right?
That’s what Toronto psychologist Sara Dimerman suggests you try. She has seen how chore tension can trigger screaming matches, deflated sex lives and other toxic behaviours – even divorce. The debates arose so often in her office she was inspired to write her 2012 book, How Can I Be Your Lover When I’m Too Busy Being Your Mother?
“It’s about the fallout of real or perceived unequal division of labour that leads to an emotional disconnect. It’s a domino effect,” she says.
Her solution is to stay cleaved to the relationship more than the minutiae of chores. Ask yourself what you can do to make your spouse more happy and less stressed-out.
Take-home tip: Dimerman asks clients to visualize themselves in one corner and a chore problem in the other. So, it’s not about firing your rage at him for not emptying the dishwasher; it’s about the problem of the dishwasher not getting emptied – a problem you share and need to solve together.
THINK LIKE A CEO
Newsflash: You don’t live in a home; you live in the small business you own and operate. It comes complete with paperwork, fiscal pressures and human resources. So, why not tap major tenets of office culture for inspiration?
According to Caitlin and Andrew Friedman, the authors of the recent book Family Inc.: Office-Inspired Solutions to Reduce Chaos in Your Home, the single most important upgrade a family can make is a formal family meeting, with an agenda and minutes-taking. Others include a filing system, time-saving documents like printable grocery-shopping lists and even blue-sky brainstorming about family goals, and even “managing growth.”
They advise couples to divide up domestic tasks based on “translatable skills.” If you’re the one who can multitask at work, you might be the best one to co-ordinate everyone’s schedules.
Take-home tip: We’ve all filled out questionnaires aimed at labelling our working style. The Friedmans say it’s worth seeing if those kinds of characterizations might offer clues for home.
THINK LIKE A NEGOTIATOR
If you’re more of an ad hoc kind of person, honing your negotiation skills may offer a spread-sheet-free strategy to wend your way out of that fridge-cleaning deadlock – one that doesn’t involve sneaking out of the house and turning off your cellphone.
In his new book The Secrets of Happy Families, Brooklyn author and journalist Bruce Feiler tapped into the work of Bill Ury of the prestigious Harvard Negotiation Project, known for its work in nuclear test-ban treaties and Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.
Ury told Feiler that principles finessed over the last 25 years could indeed work in the home.
One of the key ideas is “Go to the balcony,” which refers to imagining yourself looking down on the macro version of the conversation from a balcony. This could mean a break, or a change of venue. Then, you’re to go back and try to understand the other person’s point of view. Other tips Feiler adopted: Isolate your emotions from the matter at hand; stand beside, not opposite, your spouse when talking; and try to resist rejecting your spouse’s position out of the starting gate.
There will still be differences of opinion, but Feiler says recalibrating how we communicate could be key to figuring out a new template for family life.
Take-home tip: Ury suggests adopting these rules for home use: Anyone can call for a five-minute break at any time; when someone comes home, they get 15 minutes by themselves; pick alternate weeks in which one person gets to be right all the time.