Turning 30 – Thoughts on Housework

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Casual celebration at home! Ignore the mess 😉

It’s storytime!

It was the start of a great day. It was Friday, the last day of school before spring break, and also my 30th birthday. I woke up to sunlight streaming in my window, and felt great. It was going to be a good day! I stumbled out of bed to the kitchen, ready to make my usual breakfast (oatmeal with milk, honey, berries, and nuts), which I eat every day without fail.

In the kitchen, I froze. There was a GIANT PILE of dishes in the sink. I had seen this pile of dishes last night, but I had been expecting that the pile would magically disappear by morning. After all, dishwashing, we’d agreed, was my partner’s job in this household (he even had it on his calendar!), and he had gone to bed later than me with plenty of time to load the dishwasher.

Ugh, I thought, irritated. I’d just have to use a large cup to make my oatmeal, since all of the bowls were dirty. I dumped all the ingredients in the cup, put the cup in the microwave, and set it to heat for 3 minutes, which I knew from past experience was the optimal cooking time.

When the microwave dinged, I opened it up to find all of the oatmeal overflowing out of the cup. Argh! This morning was turning worse and worse. The smaller cup size, compared to my usual bowl, had caused milk to boil out of the cup. I reached out to remove the cup from the microwave and nearly dropped it onto the stove. It was burning! More oatmeal spilled everywhere, and my right hand was throbbing. Great.

I stomped back into the bedroom, angry now at my partner. “Why are there no clean dishes?”, I raged. “Why do I have to wake up on my 30th birthday to dirty dishes and not even have the ability to make my breakfast in peace? Why should I have to deal with this at my age?”. I burst into tears and started crying into the pillow.

Not exactly the best start to the day, and certainly not how I wanted to remember my 30th birthday. But it was memorable, and leads me to something that’s been on my mind lately – housework.

I suppose on its own, missing one day of dishes is not a big deal. I consider myself fairly lax – I don’t mind dishes piling up in the sink for a few days (to the irritation of my college roommates, sorry guys!), but I would certainly get them done once every few days.

S, on the other hand, was even more of a slob than me. When he’d first moved in, we’d agreed that I’d do the cooking, and he’d do the dishes. After some initial friction about the frequency of dishwashing, S had agreed to put dish washing on his calendar, twice a week. Initially, it was good, but after a while, the the calendar reminders got ignored. This led to huge arguments.

What would usually happen is that I would notice the pile of dishes growing larger and larger, encroaching on the counter space, and making cooking or just being in the kitchen a less and less pleasant task. I had two options: either I could bug S repeatedly, which was exhausting on my part, and would lead to responses like “stop nagging”; or I could bottle up my emotions, which was also exhausting, and usually led to an explosion at a later point, with S’ characteristic response being “why didn’t you tell me earlier?”

It was frustrating, to say the least.

Underlying all of this frustration was a sense of unfairness – I felt that I was already doing more household chores (laundry, general tidying, vacuuming), and S was only assigned a single task: dishes. And he couldn’t even do that! I’d like to think that I’m a modern day woman with her own career and independence, and I want equality in my domestic life. But somehow I’d ended up shouldering most of the household burden, like an old-fashioned housewife. I knew that S simply didn’t notice the state of the house and its general cleanliness. (I’m not talking extreme cleaning – I mean things like vacuuming once a month – don’t judge 😛 ) If I didn’t do it, it would never get done. And my taking up the burden was causing resentment on my part and hurting our relationship.

(By the way, I don’t mean to bash S repeatedly. He’s a good person and a fantastic partner in other ways, and I love him for other reasons. But as far as I can tell, he never had to do chores at home, and his personality is a bit scatterbrained in general. He’s the type of person who would forget to respond to a social invitation by email, but would be delighted to show up to the actual event and would be the life of the party. I should also mention that S has exactly the same job title as me, so that’s why I expect him to pick up an equal share of the housework.)

When I look at my own family, I can see this household imbalance, although I didn’t realize it as a kid. I feel positively guilty now when I’m home for the holidays, and my sister, my dad, and I lounge on the couch while my mom spends all evening bustling around the kitchen, cleaning up and preparing food for the next day. Of course, my dad does handle many chores outside of the house (at my mom’s insistence – good job, mom!), but my mom still seems under-appreciated by my family.

I know I’m not the only one who feels this way. There’s a great Harper’s Bazaar article that went viral a few years ago (Stop Calling Women Nags), and when I read it, I couldn’t stop thinking “yes, that’s exactly how I feel!” or “omg, that situation has happened exactly in our household!” There’s also a New York Times article (Mom: The Designated Worrier) with a similar premise, more centered on childcare (which thankfully, at the moment, we don’t have to deal with). I don’t feel as much of the guilt mentioned by others (An Invincible Summer), but more the burden and weariness of being the only one who cares (enough) to deal with it.

The most full-fledged reflection of my emotions, which I devoured this weekend, is a book called Drop the Ball, by Tiffany Dufu. Dufu talks about her own experience with domestic life while balancing a busy career, her perfectionism with household tasks, and how she gradually learned to let go of perfectionism (hence the title, drop the ball), allowing her partner to pick up the ball and assume some responsibilities as a result. I learned a lot from the book, and one of the most reassuring things was hearing someone else voice exactly the same frustrations/resentments that I feel, and to know that it can get better over time.

So based on the book and my thoughts, there are some action items that I’m going to try:

  • Doing my own laundry only: I used to do both of our laundry, because I thought, well, doing one person’s laundry isn’t that different from doing two peoples’ laundry. But my partner generates way more laundry, and folding takes time. Without doing his laundry, I can halve the amount of time I spend doing laundry. I’ll still do the general household laundry, like sheets and towels.
  • Not doing/reminding about the other person’s tasks: Along with major tasks like dishwashing, there are plenty of minor things that I think each person should be responsible for. For example, putting your own clothes in the laundry basket, or putting away your own dishes after dinner. Just simple things that I would expect from a child, must less an adult partner. Once expectations are clear to both parties, I will not remind or do these tasks, even if they are piling up (this might be tough!).
  • Write down a list of household tasks and divide them: This was one of the things suggested in Dufu’s book. Make a list of tasks, allowing both people to add to the list, and then divide them equitably with discussion. The list can be adapted over time if life circumstances change, but having the list to refer to can hopefully help forestall future arguments. Sort of like an informal contract, in a way.
  • Hire a house cleaner: I’ve heard this advice from sooo many people. We’re lucky enough to be able to afford this. I’d like someone to come in once every two weeks and vacuum, clean the bathrooms and kitchens, and do general dusting. I don’t enjoy this task, and getting my partner to do it is like pulling teeth (I’ve tried!) I have some leads on finding such a person, although this is just another task that gets added to my to do list…

Well, that’s all for today. I didn’t realize I’d write such a long post, veering towards the negative side, but the thoughts really poured out as I started writing! I guess it’s a topic I feel strongly about. And it’s not a topic that I have anyone to discuss with IRL, because my friends/colleagues are not in a similar situation (i.e., their spouse stays at home, or they’re single).

I don’t really have any answers either, as still this is still a work in progress. But I’m optimistic that things can improve, as I think my partner is starting to understand my concerns and wants, at least in theory, to help out more.

How do you handle splitting housework duties in your home? Any tips or suggestions?

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4 thoughts on “Turning 30 – Thoughts on Housework

  1. happy birthday. you’re only 20 years behind my but i won’t spoil it by telling you how it ends. i do my own laundry and half the cooking, but i work a lot more these days in our house. mrs. smidlap is home more and over the years the tasks just kind of divided themselves. i did the dishes yesterday and we have no dishwasher so it’s by hand.

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  2. Now this is a complicated topic that I think about a lot, as you mentioned! (Thank you for the shout out, by the way.) Everyone doing their laundry is a good policy in my experience. We’ve always stuck to that as we’re both a little particular about how our clothes are done, though I throw in towels and pillowcases with mine because I do smaller loads of laundry far more frequently. And happy birthday!

    Among other things that complicate this question: I get the sense it’s very difficult for a person to change their habits with chores in a lasting way, even if they sincerely want to do for their partner. For instance, I’m really good at little, day-to-day tasks (like loading and unloading the dishwasher, taking out trash, or wiping down counters), but awful at the big tasks (almost no power on earth, except the prospect of my family visiting and my fear they’ll judge me, is enough to make me proactively start doing things like the once-a-month vacuuming, or a deeper clean in the bathroom or kitchen). I could think of a lot of scenarios where, if I didn’t end up with a partner that as easygoing/not-that-nitpicky about house cleanliness as K and I both are, I’d be a terribly annoying person to live with.

    One thing I haven’t tried, but that I might like to at some point, is having a deeper conversation about emotional labor. (There was a Fairer Cents podcast episode about it, and about those two money bloggers’ experience with discussing it with their partners.) It isn’t something that fits our life right now because there really is such a disparity in working hours that it is only fair for me to take on more at home, and even if it looks like traditional gender roles, that’s not what’s actually happening. But it’s a conversation I feel like could come up again at some other stage in our lives.

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  3. I’ve talked to so many women about their experiences, and every single one does more housework (or at least mental work – keeping track of tasks, due dates, etc.) than their spouse. I had a similar experience to you after my partner said he wasn’t going to clean the stove because I was the one that got it dirty (I was doing most of the cooking). I explained that we were a team and need to help each other out- if I cook, he cleans. After this, we wrote a list of chores and each put a number beside each chore representing how much it bothered us to do it. Turns out, I hate vacuuming and dusting, but my partner doesn’t mind it at all. Conversely, he doesn’t like cleaning the bathroom or kitchen, but I find it satisfying. He makes breakfast and I make lunch. We alternate cooking dinner or just have frozen pizza or take out if we’re really tired. I do most of the laundry except his clothing, but he does the major occasional cleaning (windows, fridge, etc.). I still do nearly all of the mental work, and also make all reservations for vacations. Overall, I definitely still do more work because I am more organized, but at least the physical chores are evenly split.

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  4. My line in the sand is that my husband does the cooking. He often ends up doing the dishes too, tbh, and then I usually put them away. I do most of the laundry, but he folds everything and he washes anything complicated of his own. So my extent of a laundry service is just dumping the laundry bin in the washer, putting all of his stuff in the dryer and leaving it there. We have a house cleaner that cleans everything that isn’t day to day, which helps a LOT. We started using a Trello board to do household sprint planning of non daily tasks, which helps somewhat. It gets them all out of my head at least, but doesn’t help him do them any faster, lol.

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