Speak Up, Step Back
Call it the mother lode. Call it unfair, or just call it a day. Dividing housework is without a doubt the biggest strain on the marriages of new parents, who are already struggling to adjust to life with baby (and trying to snatch an extra hour of sleep any way they can). "It's an issue for every family I know," says Pam Anderson, a mom of two in Coronado, California. "And it ranges from extreme bitterness to more easygoing resignation."
No matter how you take it, you are probably doing more of the chores around the house. Indeed, women do about 19.4 hours of housework a week compared to men's 9.7 hours, according to research by Suzanne Bianchi, a sociology professor at the University of Maryland.
Getting him to do his share of the work, then, becomes as much a battle of new parenthood as getting baby to sleep through the night. And although the problem is as varied as individual families are, there are some general strategies you can use to even out the situation (or at least to help minimize that brewing resentment that you're having to do it all).
Make Your Expectations Clear
It may be apparent to you that your partner's not pulling his weight, but don't assume he's aware of the discrepancy. "It's a perception issue," says Armin Brott, a dad of three and author of six books on American fatherhood. "Women tend to compare what their husbands do with what they do, while men tend to compare themselves with other men, primarily their own fathers." Until recent generations, he points out, men weren't expected to take any part in the housework or baby wrangling. "And compared with our fathers," Brott says, "we are doing a lot" -- which is why your partner may think all's fair in love and chores.
So if you feel resentful, don't expect him to read your mind. And don't wait until you're furious to bring it up. Be direct, nonconfrontational, and clear. Set up an agreement, in writing if need be.
Before the birth of their third child, Kristy Hill, of Keller, Texas, realized that her husband pitched in a lot more than typical dads. Still, there were some snags. "We agreed that whoever bathed the boys at night didn't have to do the dinner dishes," Hill recalls. "But neither of us wanted to commit to bath duty every night, and we both hated doing the dishes." Evenings didn't run smoothly, and with the new baby coming, they knew they'd both have to step up to the plate or the household would descend into chaos. So they sat down one night, typed up a list of every chore, and put it on the fridge. They each agreed to do what they enjoyed, so to speak. "I hate to vacuum, for example, but my husband thinks it's kind of therapeutic," Hill says. "I don't mind mopping, so I do that." And the chores neither wanted to do? "We split those up too," she adds. "Both of us are doing a few chores we don't like, so it's equal opportunity."
Once you have an agreement, make sure to check in with each other regularly. Rebecca Horvath, a mom in Bluff City, Tennessee, does the cooking and cleaning, and her husband does the "guy stuff" like yard work and repairs. "But we talk every few months to make sure the arrangement's still working and no one's feeling resentful," she says.
Of course, deciding who's going to do what is only half the battle. In order for your husband to feel a sense of ownership of household chores, you have to step back and let him do them. This means giving up some control, and that's easier for some people than it is for others. Whether you want your guy to load the dishwasher or get baby dressed in the morning, if you insist that he do it your way, you're sabotaging his efforts. After all, if you know everything, why should he bother? In other words, don't hover, offering helpful tips like "That orange top really doesn't work with the green leggings" or "The plates go on the bottom; you're putting them where the glasses go." Advice like this doesn't encourage initiative. "You have to let him make his own mistakes, just like you did," says Brott. "How else is he going to learn how to do the things you do?"
Don't Be a Martyr
If it takes more willpower than you possess to watch your partner come up with his own less-than-perfect solutions, perhaps you should take a hike -- literally. One option that gives him free rein to learn the ropes and also offers you a well-deserved reprieve: a day, or even just a few hours, off for you. Go to the gym, meet a friend for coffee, enjoy a manicure, or take a long walk. Don't wait for him to offer, and don't ask for his permission. Do give him a heads-up so he has time to get used to the idea: "Tomorrow morning, there's a yoga class I'm dying to try, so you're in charge of breakfast with the kids while I'm out."
What if you've done the spreadsheet and tacked up the list of his-and-hers chores, and you're still fighting about who does what? Some families who can afford it simply opt to hire a house cleaner. This option is particularly appealing if both partners work full-time. Amy Gebler Ashkenazy, a mom of three in Seattle, works 30 to 40 hours a week. "A month ago, we finally gave in, and now we have someone come once a week to clean," she says. "It's expensive -- we gave up eating out on the weekends -- but we're not spending time fighting about cleaning." Her husband disagreed with this tactic at first, saying it cost too much. "But after a few months of dividing the work and him not doing his share, he's on board with the plan -- and now we both look forward to Wednesdays!"
Value What He Does
Does taking the kids to Home Depot for two hours on Saturday equate with cleaning up after dinner five nights in a row? If your husband is up all night with a crying infant, does that make up for the dirty clothes he left on the floor? There are no right answers, but it helps for new parents to realize that everything each partner does -- from bringing in the income to cooking the meals to maintaining the car -- contributes to running the same household. So your husband has never set a pediatrician appointment. He does spend every Saturday working in the backyard and helping the kids capture bugs. Instead of keeping score or playing tit for tat, rethink the whole game, suggest experts. And for that to happen, it helps to...
Reaching perfect parity as parents is unlikely to happen, and it probably shouldn't be the goal in the first place. Communicating about expectations, realizing when you're burned out, and keeping a sense of humor about it all will help you keep a realistic perspective. "As a family, you need to be a team," says Anna Ortiz, of Oakland, California. "Sometimes the work is even-steven, but a lot of the time it's not. What's important is that the team has accomplished what needs to be done for that day, that week, or that month."
You might also ask, "Is all this housework really necessary?" "I once read somewhere that after your children grow up, they'll remember the pillow fights you had with them instead of how clean your living room or kitchen was," says Christina Bess, a mom of two in Maplewood, New Jersey. "I try to keep that in mind when my house is a total wreck."
Copyright © 2007. Used with permission from the October 2007 issue of American Baby magazine.