In my house, obviously, we don’t need Fair Play, a recent book by the Harvard lawyer and organisational expert Eve Rodsky on the perennial question of how to get men (in heterosexual relationships) to do their share of household chores. That’s because I already do my share. Or I genuinely think I do – and will assert it, with the tiniest hint of bitterness, if challenged. Then again, how could the matter be definitively settled, without hiring a team of clipboard-wielding consultants to monitor my partner and me around the clock for a month?
Even that wouldn’t resolve things, really, because it all hinges on expectations. The reason I don’t vacuum as much as my partner is that I’m fine with less-vacuumed floors; meanwhile, a significant portion of the domestic labour I pride myself on doing consists of tidying that she, a non-neat-freak, considers unnecessary. Who is right? It’s a question as unanswerably profound as any philosopher might ponder, if she didn’t have so much damn laundry to do.
Rodsky’s book is especially strong on what gets called “cognitive labour” or “worry work”, the invisible burden of keeping track of what needs to be done, which tends to fall disproportionately on women. A home in which each spouse does half the cooking isn’t really splitting the cooking equally, if one spouse has to do all the meal planning. There’s nothing especially fair about a situation in which one spouse has to maintain the family to-do list, dispensing tasks to the other, whose only responsibility is to carry them out. (And who is liable to trigger rage in his other half should he refer to his contribution as “helping out”.)
The heart of Rodsky’s system, which incorporates an optional card game for dividing up tasks, involves each person taking responsibility for “conception, planning and execution” of a given project or category of chore. If buying gifts for other children’s birthday parties is your job, it’s your job to know when parties are coming up, then make sure gifts are bought, wrapped and delivered. You can delegate tasks, but the buck stops with you, just as it would at the office. It’s a businesslike approach to domestic life, admittedly, but treating housework explicitly as a job potentially stops it poisoning everything else.
Even so, I sense further conflict ahead in the housework wars. As society inches closer to parity, for one thing, you would naturally expect women to resent any remaining lack of parity all the more. We’ll see the end of unreconstructed men, who expect their wives to do everything; but they will be replaced by the equally annoying phenomenon of reconstructed men like me, who sincerely feel we’re doing our share, even though maybe we aren’t. Because in any specific case – whatever the research says about the population as a whole – who could ever know? You can’t go by our partners’ judgment because, of course, they sincerely feel they are doing the lion’s share, too. Whereupon we’ll have to confront the other looming issue: the way modern life seems to demand that each partner take on about 70% of the work of running a household.
No, I don’t understand how that works mathematically, either. But can anyone in a family these days with two jobs, and kids, deny that that is how it feels?
Eve Rodsky describes the “full ownership” path to housework harmony in an episode of Talks at Google on YouTube.