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Household Division of Labor: What's Fair?

We can blame the Victorians for women's sense of shame about the messiness of their homes.

Before the industrial revolution, the whole family shared in household work; wage work and urbanization meant that middle- and upper-class men increasingly worked outside the home for pay, and women took on all household management. The Victorians had strict notions about gender and the natural order, and "an entire code of conduct emerged supporting...a cult of motherhood and domesticity" (Ahlander & Barr).

It was at this time that "Cleanliness is next to godliness" began to be applied to homes. The phrase originally referred to moral cleanliness, not the state of your house. But during the 1800s, the idea flipped so that people began judging a woman's morality by the orderliness of her house.

Fast-forward 150+ years, and we still feel guilty when our homes are messy while our untidy male counterparts seem to feel nary a twinge. Amy Shearn, Senior editor at Forge, writes, "Everyone I know who is driven crazy by mess right now is a woman, and most of them are mothers."

She goes on to posit, "If your home is a chaotic mess in a way it wasn't in, say, February, I'm willing to bet that this means a woman in said household has opted out (or been forced by circumstance to opt out) of the once-invisible labor that kept things running smoothly pre-pandemic."

It is true that women still do the majority of unpaid household and care work in the U.S. If you are in a heterosexual relationship and both of you have been working from home for months---or you are both unemployed---the imbalances might be much more visible than ever before. In that case, right now might be a perfect time to explore ways to find a better balance.

Beyond Gender Binaries

"Sheesh," my young and hip readers say. "This is 2020. We are beyond gender binaries and heteronormativity."

So, in any living arrangement, regardless of the gender identities and relationships involved, the division of labor can get out of whack, especially if you have never made a conscious decision about how it would be divided. Often, the person who is most aware of the mess is the one who automatically takes on the majority of the household tasks (which goes back to those pesky Victorians and how women are conditioned to feel responsible for the mess).

The only way to make sure that the division of labor is balanced and no one feels that they are doing more than everyone else is to have an honest and open discussion about the topic.

I am particularly fond of this article (also from Forge--so sue me, Shearn initially sent me down this research rabbit hole) that discusses various economic approaches to dividing household labor. Brooks does an amazing job of making the economics not only understandable, but downright entertaining. I highly recommend that you go back and read his original article.

How to divide labor equitably in your own household

  1. Make time and space to have a discussion. If you have to schedule a meeting, put it on the calendar far enough in advance to do the homework described below.

  2. Homework: Have each person make a list of chores and responsibilities in your household with notes on how much time each task takes and how often it has to be done. You might ask each person to brainstorm all of the things they do to help the whole family. Or you can google "list of household responsibilities" to get you started. Writing down things as you do them for a week or so will help flesh out the lists. Be sure to include planning and logistics activities like keeping track of the kids' schedules or planning vacations.

  3. Make one master list. If you are a techie household, a shared Google sheet might be an easy way to create and dedupe your list.

  4. Decide which things you can stop doing or can do less often. For example, one of you might have been cooking hot breakfasts for the whole household. Those breakfasts are nice, but most of you don't think they are necessary every day. A cup of yogurt and some fruit or cereal would be just as good, and everyone can fend for themselves. Here is a place where you can start compromising. I might want the dishes placed in the dishwasher immediately after every meal, but I understand that everyone doesn't value the empty sink as much as I do. We can then agree that the sink will be empty at the end of every day (or week, or month...hah!)

  5. For all the items left on your list, negotiate who will do which tasks using the following ground rules:

    • Everyone has to be honest and you have to trust one another. (If you don't trust one another, you have deeper issues than who is going to do the dishes)

    • Everyone's time is equally valuable. This one is important to get your head around. Too often "I don't have time" really means "my time is more valuable than yours." Everyone has 24 hours in the day, no more, no less. More on this.

    • What tasks does each person actually enjoy? Some people love doing laundry. Others find dishwashing meditative. What would make a disliked task more palatable? For example, my husband doesn't mind loading or unloading the top rack of the dishwasher, but bending over to the bottom rack feels bad on his back. He loads and unloads the top; I load and unload the bottom.


Ahlander, N., & Bahr, K. (1995). Beyond Drudgery, Power, and Equity: Toward an Expanded Discourse on the Moral Dimensions of Housework in Families. Journal of Marriage and Family,57(1), 54-68. doi:10.2307/353816

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