SPECIAL OFFER: - Limited Time Only!
(The ad below will not display on your printed page)
When a new work project took Diane Richards away from her family for three months, one thought got her through the separation: Maybe her husband would finally learn something about managing the household.
Before this time-out, Richards, a graphic designer from San Jose, California, was the spouse who schlepped three kids to and from school and activities, paid the bills, and handled the shopping, cooking, cleaning, and laundry -- all while holding down a full-time job. Her husband? "He fell into the category of 'semi-helpful,'" Richards says. "I was the one keeping all the balls in the air." By the time the three-month separation was over Richards sensed a change. "My absence forced my husband to be the logistics chief. He didn't always do things as I would -- he constantly ran out of bread, for instance -- but he did them. I hope it continues."
I can't help but envy Richards. Not for her three-month sabbatical (okay, a little), but because she's reaping the benefits of her husband's immersion in one of the most demanding and thankless jobs around -- domestic decider. Wives generally get appointed to this position when they take their wedding vows and the job only grows in size and complexity from there. Duties include everything from resolving the daily dilemma of what to have for dinner to keeping mental tabs on when the kids need new shoes, which plumber to call on a Saturday, and where the belongings of every single family member hide themselves at the end of the day. Oh, and the clincher -- acting as the social director for every occasion, including get-togethers with his family.
All this despite the fact that women hold nearly half the nation's jobs and indeed may soon outnumber men in the workforce, according to The New York Times.
Much has been made of the notion that men help out more around the house than they used to. And it's true that husbands today spend significantly more time on household chores than they did a generation ago: 13 hours a week in 2005 versus six hours a week in 1976, according to a University of Michigan study. But as every woman knows (and most men seem clueless about), there's a big difference between doing a chore and taking responsibility for it. Most of us have at least two to-do lists running in our head at all times -- one of our own and one for him. Did he pay this bill? Did he buy the new garbage cans? "If I always have to remind him to do the laundry, then it's still my job," says Judith Massengale, of Austin, Texas. "I don't even want a compartment in my brain that says 'laundry.'"
Getting men to fully own their piece of the domestic agenda may be marriage's last frontier. "Men have stepped up in so many ways, except in this area -- the executive function," says Stephanie Coontz, author of Marriage, A History. "It's probably the least-visible role in the household and the hardest to explain. It's one of the remaining barriers to full equality."
Women become CEO of their household for a variety of reasons, but tradition is surely one of them. Somehow the idea gets embedded in our operating software that this job requires two X chromosomes. "My mom did it, his mom did it," says Shawn DuPre, of Mount Pleasant, South Carolina. "It's easy to fall into the same pattern."
Stay-at-home moms, whose lives (on the surface anyway) may resemble their mothers', are probably more likely to feel this way, but working moms and major-bread-winner moms can get stuck in the rut, too. What's more, even when duties get divided they often conform to gender stereotypes: Men take anything that may require them to get dirty (cars, yard, garbage); women, everything else.
Such socialization is hard to shake. Indeed, a lot of women seem almost to believe that biology is domestic destiny -- that our DNA makes us more detail-oriented and better multitaskers than men. And in fact MRIs suggest that women's brains might be configured for better communication between the left and right hemispheres, which in theory would promote multitasking. Moreover, in a study at Missouri Western State University, women were more accurate than men when multitasking, suggesting a firmer grasp of details. My husband, Robb -- one of the most competent humans on the planet -- is nonetheless incapable of remembering what time our sons need to be picked up from their regular extracurricular activities. I, on the other hand, am constantly consulting the mental schedule posted in my brain, even as I go about all my other business.
Women may complain about the hoops we jump through every day, but most of us do get something out of this endless exertion besides the ability to play the martyr card. That something is power. Since I'm the spouse who's home on a consistent basis (Robb travels a lot for work), I pay all the bills and manage the taxes even though he's actually better with money. I used to gripe about this setup but at some point it dawned on me that it works in my favor. If Robb kept the books I'd be on a much shorter leash. As it stands, I don't have to account for every dime as long as everything gets paid on time and the bank account isn't overdrawn.
The upside of keeping the social calendar is similarly obvious: If husbands were in charge we might end up blowing a precious babysitter night at a sports bar. If we plan the activity, at least it'll be something we enjoy.
But the power and control that come with the role of domestic decider are precisely why it's so hard to break free. Diane Richards admits she still does more in her household. "But I put up with it," she says, "because I'm a control freak and I like being in charge."
And though we say we want men to take the helm, we often find fault with the results when they do. "What women want in the home isn't so much power sharing as a spouse who's better at following their orders, says Jerrold Lee Shapiro, PhD, a professor of counseling psychology at Santa Clara University. "The general sergeant setup works well in the military but in marriage it breeds resentment. Generals are not happy when sergeants don't respond to their leadership the way they want."
And sergeants (that is, husbands) feel as if they can't win. "When I try to help, my wife always gets on me about something," says one man with two kids and a working wife. "I bought pecan pieces instead of whole ones, or if it's my turn to cook I make ground beef too often. I'm damned if I do and damned if I don't."
But women aren't the only ones who defeat power-sharing arrangements; men have their own means of sabotage. One of the most effective is to feign, consciously or not, helplessness, as in, "I can't find the potato peeler" or "you didn't tell me Jack needed his guitar for his guitar lesson." The classic scenario is the guy who's asked to do laundry and (accidentally on purpose?) tosses a red washcloth in with the whites. The resulting pink tint usually gets him a lifetime pass on laundry duty. Small wonder, then, that a lot of women find it easier to do a job themselves than to delegate it, given all the explaining, reminding, and cajoling required.
But Coontz cautions against surrender. "The first time a wife says he's doing something wrong, the husband may think, 'oh, that's a good excuse not to do it,'" she says. "And if the husband says, 'I'm not sure what to do,' the wife thinks, 'it's hopeless; he just can't learn.'" Allow this dynamic to prevail, she warns and you'll never achieve equality.
If you haven't made your peace with being "the keeper-upper of everything," as one woman puts it, the fallout can be serious. Women who are overloaded with maintaining the household agenda feel greater psychological distress, including anxiety and depression, according to a study in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior. Furthermore, frustration with the division of labor is one of the biggest sources of marital dissatisfaction among women, according to research from the Council on Contemporary Families. An interior designer from New York City blames the breakup of her marriage on this disparity. "He liked the nontraditional things I did, like earn money," she recalls, "but he closed the door on any tasks that were nontraditional for him, like cooking and grocery shopping. I ended up pretty bitter."
But there's hope for weary deciders: Domestic-domain harmony is within reach, as men and women alike begin to question old patterns and mind-sets. Linton Brown, a mother of two from Aspen, Colorado, has worked out a system in which her husband takes on roughly 40 percent of the day-to-day responsibilities and she handles the remainder. No, it's not entirely equitable, but she's pleased with it.
And happily for them, men who step up to the plate may find their reward in the bedroom -- a theory supported by marital research from the Gottman Institute, in Seattle. Diane Richards was nearly overcome with gratitude when her husband announced that he wanted to be the sole dishwasher in the family (he'd noticed, he said, how much she hated doing dishes and didn't want her to become resentful). The upshot? "We feel much more connected, and that means we have a lot more sex," say Richards. "Everyone's happier."
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal September 2009.