How to Re-Distribute Unpaid Labor as a Couple

couple unpaid labor

I recently wrote about how the pandemic has exposed more clearly than ever the unfortunate downside of flexible working for moms, namely the way that “flexibility” often translates into more unpaid labor falling on our shoulders. You know something’s off in the balance of your relationship when your partner doesn’t know where the 3-year-old’s socks are kept, or when he calls you during one of your (very rare) evenings out of the house to ask where the clean towels are. 

If you feel overwhelmed but often struggle to put your finger on what exactly you did all day, you rarely take downtime without also trying to multitask and do something “productive” (like folding the laundry while you watch TV), and you generally feel frustrated, exhausted, and perhaps resentful of your partner, you’re probably experiencing she-fault parent syndrome. You’re not alone; women carrying the greater proportion of unpaid labor is an age-old problem, one with significant repercussions for society including women getting fewer promotions and being paid less than men.

In her beautiful memoir, How We Met, writer and feminist Huma Qureshi describes the process of becoming the she-fault parent in a way that’s so familiar to many moms: “I had a naïve idea that I could simply carry on writing when my children were babies but nobody told me how impossible that would be and it’s my work, my writing, that took the hit. It’s me. What startles me is that [my partner and I] never really had a conversation about this, until it was too late.”

So many of us assume an equal division of labor and childcare will just happen naturally if we have a supportive partner, only to discover, like Huma, that we fell into a pattern of carrying the heavier domestic load without ever consciously signing up for it.

 

So many of us assume an equal division of labor and childcare will just happen naturally if we have a supportive partner, only to discover … that we fell into a pattern of carrying the heavier domestic load without ever consciously signing up for it.

 

Eve Rodsky is a lawyer and organizational expert who has dedicated her life to a growing cultural movement to empower women to reclaim their time. Her passion for this issue grew out of her own personal experience, and she’s gone on to design a whole system for couples to use to re-balance unpaid labor at home, explained in her book Fair Play: Share the Mental Load, Rebalance Your Relationship and Transform Your Life.

“Because Seth and I hadn’t pre-negotiated how to share in the domestic workload before Zach came along, it defaulted to me,” she writes in Fair Play. “In his defense, after returning home from the office Seth would offer, ‘How can I help?’ but I was unable to articulate what I needed. I’d typically reply with a sputter: ‘I don’t know. Just pick something!’ I was overtired and quickly became overextended. I also felt isolated and alone.”

As so many of us have discovered, it’s incredibly hard to get yourself out of the she-fault parent situation once you’re in it. When you’re short on time, the pressure is on and things are near crisis point, it can feel quicker and easier to continue doing things ourselves than to make a change and risk potentially disrupting an already delicate situation, and so the vicious cycle continues. 

 

couple unpaid labor

Source: @mikaperry

 

As Eve told me, there is a lot more at stake here than just a few dirty dishes. “For women to step into their full power in the world, we have to invite men to step into their full power in the home. But to do that, [our culture has to go through] a great unlearn.”

So, what do the experts recommend we do to break this cycle in our own relationships? Here are six ways to start addressing any imbalance in unpaid labor within your relationship that will help you to be a happier and more fulfilled parent and partner.

 

1. Touch base with your partner regularly

The Gottman Institute reports that the amount of time young couples in LA spend engaged in face-to-face conversation is an average of just over half an hour a week, and most of this conversation time is spent discussing household chores and division of labor.

This may seem extreme, and maybe you and your partner get more time together than that on a weekly basis, but it’s easier than you might think for communication to fall by the wayside, or become a means to an end rather than a good thing that you actually want to make room for in your busy week.

During the pandemic, Eve interviewed hundreds of different couples to find out how they were doing with all the new stressors on their relationships and found that communication was the key to whether or not couples were thriving or struggling to keep a manageable balance of work between them. “Communication is our most important practice, but we rarely think of it that way,” she told me. “It was the [couples] who recognized the beauty of the check-in, the ritual of coming together for 10 minutes a night to check in with your partner and say ‘I see you’… It was the ritualization of communication that made the biggest difference for people who could assert their boundaries and systems.”

In her book, Fair Play, Eve recommends a weekly couple check-in at a time when the kids aren’t around and the pressures of the workday aren’t distracting you. However, she said she now recommends a new normal of a nightly 10-minute minimum check-in to survive and thrive through life during a pandemic. (For more advice on how to implement stress-reducing conversations as a couple, explore these tips from The Gottman Institute.)

 

couple unpaid labor

Source: @sopharush

 

2. Make your labor visible

One common theme for mothers is that their partners aren’t always aware of all of the domestic and emotional labor they do for their families. Eve’s Fair Play system is all about making invisible labor visible, and other experts agree that this is essential and transformative.

Katherine Goldstein is the creator and host of The Double Shift, a podcast that challenges the status quo of motherhood. She points out that making labor visible is an important first step in changing the status quo: “If you find yourself picking in the slack from something your partner said they’d do, don’t make that labor invisible. If your partner is making lunches all week, and he forgets to do it the night before, don’t swoop in and just handle it when you see there’s no lunch made at 7 a.m. I’m a big fan of ‘natural consequences.’ If the lunch isn’t made and everyone is late as a result, that is a natural consequence.” 

It may feel uncomfortable at first to let those consequences unfold, but as long as your child is safe, a few mistakes here and there are a great way for your partner to learn—as long as you let them see and take responsibility for the consequences. 

 

3. Agree on a minimum standard of care

One way to avoid any dangerous or damaging mistakes, as well as limit the amount of conflict you experience as a couple as you start to divide and conquer your massive domestic to-do list together, is to agree on a minimum standard of care. It’s very common for couples to have very different standards for everything from cleaning to packed lunches—you wouldn’t be human if you have a few disagreements on how things “should” be done. However, assuming that your partner can read your mind is never wise. 

Eve advocates for agreeing on a minimum standard of care as one of the first steps in the Fair Play system. As she explains in Fair Play, you do this “by having a collaborative discussion about what is reasonable in your own home.” For every domestic task on your to-do list, ask yourselves “what a reasonable person (your partner, spouse, babysitter, caregivers, parents, and in-laws) do under similar circumstances?” Talk it out until you’ve reached some kind of compromise. 

Having a pre-arranged minimum standard of care will keep you both accountable and prevent one person’s perfectionism or high standards from interfering with the other person just getting the task done.

 

 

4. Be clear on who’s doing what (and own the whole task)

Both Katherine and Eve are very clear on something that can be a big sticking point for many couples, namely agreeing in advance who does what, and giving each other full ownership over that task, without interference.

“I’m a big fan of partners agreeing on who owns entire tasks—and then let each other do it, your own way, without meddling,” Katherine told me. “I find sometimes moms can have a hard time letting go of things, mainly because we are under so much social pressure to do things related to our kids ‘correctly.’ No one judges a dad if a kid shows up to school with a dirty sweatshirt. They judge the mom even if laundry is a dad’s job.” 

Personally, shame around unspoken expectations of what a “good mother” does and does not do is my biggest sticking point when it comes to the balance of domestic tasks in our home. When I had to leave the kids at home with my husband after a family bereavement recently, I was horrified to see photos of my daughter with unbrushed, loose hair at her [daycare] upon my return. Didn’t you brush her hair? I demanded. What must the [daycare] staff have thought? I’m learning to take a deep breath in those moments and ask myself why I feel that way. 

“As challenging as it is, let go of external judgment and let your partner do it his or her way,” Katherine said. If it helps them take more ownership over a task and lets you find more peace in your day-to-day, it’s well worth it. No one likes being micro-managed, and giving your partner space to do things their way empowers them to take things off your plate.

 

5. Challenge the idea that you’re naturally better at a task than your partner

“I also like to challenge the idea that moms should do things because they are better at it,” Katherine said. “The reason you might be better at something, like arranging a carpool, is because we may have done it more often. You know what helps with that? Practice. We shouldn’t allow ourselves to default to certain tasks that perpetuate unequal labor in the home just because we’re ‘better’ at them or have ‘always’ done them.”

This makes sense when you think about it; we weren’t just born naturally knowing how to use a vacuum cleaner or unblock a toilet. But again, it takes a lot of patience and persistence to change old habits. 

 

 

6. Make sure you both get time for fun, too

If you’re wondering how you’re going to get your partner on board with this project to address the imbalance of unpaid labor in your home, this next and final point should help. In Fair Play, as well as in her latest book (due for release in December 2021), Eve is a big advocate of what she calls “Unicorn Space.” This is all about asserting the importance of each person in a couple having time to pursue or discover interests and passions beyond parenting. These are the hobbies and activities that make us interesting, make us feel alive. 

Unicorn Space may feel like a luxury to a time-starved parent, especially when you’re already juggling so many chores. But the point is that it’s in your best interests to help your partner have regular Unicorn Space, and vice versa, because this is what keeps you both happy and fulfilled.

Ultimately, as Eve explained, addressing the imbalance in our own domestic life isn’t just personal, it’s political. By acting as if you believe your time is just as valuable as your partner’s, you’re playing an important part in a movement that’s pushing back against a cultural norm that tells us women’s time isn’t as important or valuable as men’s time. 

 

By acting as if you believe your time is just as valuable as your partner’s, you’re playing an important part in a movement that’s pushing back against a cultural norm that tells us women’s time isn’t as important or valuable as men’s time.

 

“The really interesting part of this is that it’s a mindset shift to understand that your time is diamonds,” Eve said. “It’s [about] centering your full power, and recognizing the preciousness of your own time, recognizing that you have 24-hours in a day just like your male counterparts. It allows you not to do the non-promotable tasks that women are twice as likely to do, it allows you to say no to office housework. But all of this does require a global unlearning.”

The inevitable consequence of a more balanced relationship is deep and authentic gratitude on both sides. You’ll soon discover you’re spending more time together; not because you have to, but because you actually want to. Pursuing fairness in how you distribute domestic labor as a couple is the best way to make sure that your relationship is a joy, not just another chore on your already full to-do list.