Housework Sharing Guide

When two or more adults share a home, what is a fair division of labour? How to decide? I’ve been examining my whole approach to these questions.

If all of us could work out schedules based on preferences, we would have done it by now! I don’t think it’s enough to draw up a list and split it, because each person’s abilities, priorities, interests and standards are different. Housework and home maintenance decisions can be a microcosm of how you see life, and they can mask serious conflicts. For example, one person may spend two hours a day visiting their ageing parent, and may feel it is entirely their responsibility to do the caregiving, while another thinks it’s optional: put dad in a nursing home! One person may consider their twice-weekly floor hockey games a steadfast commitment, while another thinks the floor hockey should be scratched as soon as life gets busy.

I am not a fan of dividing work along male/female gender lines. I think most gender divisions are culturally conditioned. Single people and single parents know they can and must do everything. There is only one home maintenance task I was ever physically unable to do: hold a sheet of drywall over my head for several minutes while my dad affixed it to the ceiling! I am not sure if strength training would have compensated for my low centre of gravity.

Room mates also have to consider how much private space and shared space each is responsible for, and what share of the rent they pay. And what about adult children who still live in their parents’ home, or have returned?

Let’s look at “hard commitments” first: activities that are not optional and can’t be rescheduled. For most, this will include some combination of personal medical needs, child care, pet care, looking after others, and paid work.

Physical Abilities and Personal Care

I mention this first because most housekeeping guides assume everyone is healthy, able-bodied and motivated. Ha! This category includes physical limitations, chronic illnesses, flare-ups, stress and anxiety, medical appointments, medication effects, hospital visits, home care, and so on.

Everyone has their own perception of their health, wellness and abilities. And their partners don’t always respect that – or agree! I often hear about situations in which one person is continually impacted by workplace stress, and they have no energy to do home things at the end of the day. Then on the weekends, they need to rest and recuperate for the week ahead. In effect, they can’t do an equal share, and their housemates have to compensate. If this is never acknowledged or negotiated, the stress on the relationship adds to the picture.

Anyone new to the world of illness or injury has to re-think what they can accomplish in a day, a week, a month, or…ever! The onset could be sudden, gradual or intermittent. This can be a hard adjustment for partners (either ill or well) who are used to a more comfortable share. It means changing expectations, habits, standards and budgets. Maybe the big stuff will go first (you are no longer able to do the annual cleaning of the leaves from the gutters along the roof) or maybe it will be the smaller stuff (for weeks on end, you can’t bring yourself to take the garbage out).

Are there any tasks you always do, but shouldn’t do, because of your health or your changing abilities? What about other adults in the household? What changes do you need to make to reflect the new reality?

Caregiving

Choosing to bring a child into the world or a pet into your home (or both) is a weighty and unending responsibility, and their needs cannot wait. There is no reprieve. On the plus side, there is a steady stream of magical moments, too!

In my opinion, where kids are concerned, there is no “balance” and there will never be. You do what needs to be done. But I hope anyone trying to keep pace with the Joneses will cut themselves some slack and agree to be “good enough” parents. You can slap together a quick meal after work, cover bath time and bed time and story time, and in between, you can send the kids off to semi-mediated play. Over the course of their childhoods, you will have lots of quality time and lots of drudge time, and that’s life. You know when your child needs more from you and when you can squeeze out more time for yourself. They can (over time) adapt to your needs and schedules too.

Your dog needs daily exercise and companionship, but we can’t all be Ryen and Gatsby – sometimes you will have to keep each other company watching Netflix or paying bills. You and your significant other(s) may also have big areas of disagreement, such as whether your dog can stay home alone or you pay for doggie daycare.

Do you agree on how much time, attention, chauffeuring and activities your children and/or pets need? What is up for negotiation? Are daycare drop-offs and pickups, school meetings, or vet appointments part of the shared household tasks or are they “on top of” everything else?

Other caregiving can impact your home life and shared duties. I wonder what percentage of mature adults welcome relatives into their home? I have friends and co-workers who have invited an ageing parent, a niece or nephew attending university, or an adult child and their partner to live with them. Whether it’s to provide care or help someone save money, it creates a big shuffle of housekeeping duties! I also know several people who provide extensive care to a friend or relative who insists on staying in their own home – enabling them to do so.

Could you rearrange your life to care for someone who lost their independence? Could you accommodate someone in your home?

Paid Work and Commute Times

At our place, Rom is out of the house 11 hours a day and I am away for 8.5 hours, for paid work. To some extent, that is a choice. We could scale back our lifestyle to live on one income, or two part-time incomes. However, we choose to work full-time to earn maximum pensions and benefits, and to save for goals. We have agreed to consider our jobs “hard commitments.”

Rom has almost 3 hours a day commute time while I have 30 minutes total. Part of this is a choice. Rom takes the bus and arrives 30 minutes early to allow for contingencies (such as late buses) and to ease into the work day. It would take half the time to drive, but he’d have to pay for monthly parking, and deal with traffic. We have agreed to treat this as a hard commitment because of the cost and stress of the alternatives.

As a result, I have 2.5 more hours at home every day than Rom has. Does this mean I should do more of the housework? Or that his should be limited to weekends?

In my experience, when someone is upgrading their education or starting a home business “on the side,” it is treated like additional work time – it’s an investment in future earnings.

If your household has two adults working outside the home, do you divide tasks by the amount of time you have at home or the amount of energy you have after work?

Now I’ll move on to “soft commitments:” things that are optional or can be rescheduled.

First up is volunteering. How optional is it? Hmm. If you are part of a co-op, it’s required work. If you are deeply invested in a cause, it won’t feel optional to you. But if your lifestyle requires you to negotiate tasks with one or more other people, you’ll need to reach agreement on what level of volunteering you can sustain. Otherwise, the volunteer is assigning extra work, by default, to the rest of the household!

The same is true for all hobbies and activities. Everyone needs relaxation and fun for balance, but one person’s self-care is another’s shirking. What I mean is, some people get an awful lot of relaxation and fun while others in the home get very little (typically, moms of young children). As adults, it’s hard to say, “That’s not fair!” but I think we need to say it more. If time spent on hobbies and activities doesn’t even out between or among you over time, resentment will build. The same is true, of course, of seeing friends and “going out.”

A good way to assess this is to tally what home duties your significant other(s) must accomplish while you are at the gym, at the club, out with friends, away fishing, at band practice, fundraising or campaigning. Over the course of weeks, months or seasons, do you each get roughly the same amount of “time off” from home duties?

Finally, I’ll end with the Big Three that many housework plans start with.

  • Who enjoys doing the task? Or finds it the least loathsome?
  • Who can give the task the attention and care it deserves?
  • And, who can best tolerate the repetition involved in some tasks?

I think these are the least important of all considerations. Ultimately, you have to act like adults and do things you don’t enjoy, to a level that meets everyone’s needs, whether or not they are boring!

The most important things are:

  • Respect each other’s need for down time by doing your share
  • Show genuine concern for each other’s physical and mental demands
  • Speak up and re-negotiate when the home workload is unbalanced or unfair over time
  • Jointly resolve not to give up and leave everything undone!

Next post: our evolving Monthly Home Share List

15 comments

  1. These are all excellent points and well thought out considerations.

    A significant amount of ‘routine housework’ currently falls to my spouse. I work outside the home and bring in the majority of our income; we balance that with his taking on the majority of daily in-home task-type work (dishes, laundry, vacuuming, cat box cleaning), while I manage bills/finances and space organization. He has a significant amount of medical scheduling to manage, as well as a home treatment plan, and he attends school part-time. So those things combined pretty much comprise his “job” – mine is to make money.

    We share in weekly errands (groceries and such) and vet scheduling. And the larger home projects we tackle together. (Last spring we gave our deck a face lift and planted two new small flower beds, for example.) Yard work, for the most part, is his responsibility. (Because it’s not ‘work’ to him – he enjoys it too much!)

    These things have all morphed over the years; when we both worked full time we split household chores in half, and during the time I stopped working to go back to school, I did almost all the housework.

    Over all, I think we’ve been pretty well suited in the ‘chores’ department, and we work around whatever of life’s wrenches are thrown into the works. 🙂

  2. I love the way you approach things and always have. On the nose.
    We have a very varied home life because our work life is unpredictable and forever changing (thankfully). From not working, to working at home, working in a local office, commuting for hours or being abroad for weeks. Whoever get to be at home that day, take charge, usually without problem.
    But you ask so many good questions, it might be time for an analysis for us too.

    • It seems like there is usually someone who spends more time at home. On the other hand, when one of you is alone, there would be less housework to do! Would be interested to hear if you change anything.

  3. I totally agree with you. The hubby was deathly ill for five years (came close to dying). I took care of him, worked full time and took care of the bills (he was able to still take care of me by cooking usually and being there for me). Then he went back to school to finish his degree and he took care of the household completely and I earned money.

    Now we both work, we both have taken up various duties that we have assembled over the last twenty five years. As long as communication is done regularly and no one lets things spiral out of control I think it is definitely a flexible/fluid thing.

    • Wow, Lucky, I didn’t know about that phase of your life. In those situations I think we’re surprised by what we’re capable of (exhausting as it would be). Look how far your lives have come and where you are now! I agree that communication is the key – and hoping that no one ever completely “opts out” of doing a share (assuming they are able).

  4. Margie in Toronto

    A lot of great points, and a lot to think about!
    Since it’s just me I do it all – but – I have had to adjust my way of doing things due to medical issues. It was difficult to admit that I couldn’t do things the way that I had and it took a lot of time to come to terms with limitations and to figure out a new way of doing things or just letting go.
    I have also had to deal with the illness of parents (my mother died very young and I was the eldest of 5 children and a lot of extra tasks fell to me – and yes, it has left a lot of resentment). When my dad developed Parkinsons he lived about a 2 hour drive away – and I don’t drive. Most of his care fell to my stepmom but I did what I could by helping financially and by visiting at least every third week – and a simple visit of about 3 hours involved an all day trek on the subway, a greyhound bus, a taxi – and then the reverse to get home again. At first I did feel resentment that siblings weren’t doing more but eventually I just decided that in the end we all had to live with ourselves and our conscience.
    I don’t think I’d be very good at living with someone – I’ve had roommates a couple of times in my life and have to admit it was difficult and not something that I want to repeat. I admire those that can manage it all as it can’t be easy, especially as circumstances change throughout our lives.
    Looking forward to reading all the comments on this one!

    • “We all had to live with ourselves and our conscience” – oh yes! I would feel exactly the same. A sense of duty is very important to me. I could not let it go based on what others were doing or not doing.

      You’ve made me think – I have never lived with anyone EXCEPT a romantic partner, and turned down all requests for room mates when I was single. Apparently I have different standards or tolerances for friends or room mates versus a spouse 🙂 And maybe hold them to a higher standard! Not sure what that says about me!

  5. I like your disection of this topic. Back in the seventies when we shared a communal student house two people of the group (which ranged from 8 to 14 of us depending on how many visitors we had staying at anyone time) cooked each evenng and two others washed and dried. With a full house this meant you only cooked on average once a week. Two others went for the weekly shop with the money from the kitty (50p) each a week then!). We all did a bit of cleaning in the communal areas but just enough to get by. Our own rooms were as tidy or messy as the person preferred.
    We carried on from these days and my DH and I do a bit of everything from cooking to gardening to cleaning. Overall I tend to be the cleaner as I enjoy a good clean more than he does, DH does all the maintenance stuff – mending things, cleaning cars or heavy work. If I need some help I just have to ask rather than wait for him to notice – I live in hope that he would notice first but maybe it is really a man thing that he doesn’t always unless I go around hinting or sighing in a dramatic way! He likes to do anything computer based – order stuff, book hotels, flights etc – that is fine by me. I plan the menus and do the finances though – I like paper based activities and order – so it is safer that I do this but he will research things like best interest rates, electricity deals, pensions and he makes my lunches.
    We don’t have any hard and fast rules – if I am tired he takes over, if he is at work a lot I cope. It works for us and we have no simmering grudges against one another or keep tabs on who has done more or less each week we are fairly tolerant towards each other.

    • Your student system sounds surprisingly civilized! I am used to doing everything from my single parent days, so I have to consciously step back and ensure Rom does house and yard work, and I don’t burn myself out. More on that next time!

  6. It’s an interesting dynamic now, I live in my parental home with my brother, and sometimes his GF. Prior to their departure we agreed we’d continue with the cost of a weekly cleaner, and we each pay alternate weeks. This is good, as there’s no way I want to clean 2-3 toilets!

    My brother works overnight in a bar, and therefore, the household stuff is a very interesting situation. He is in charge of lawn mowing and hedges, though it’s been done once in a month. No one is set the responsibility of the pool, but given I cover electricity bills and they’ve been astronomical, I’ve taken to ensuring the pump is turned off more often.

    As to general tidiness? I noticed I so seldom FINISH the task. I will leave 1-2 items on the washing line. Or 1-2 things not washed up, or put away. It’s usually for some reason – an odd sock, I’ve just put all other items in that category away, the thing doesn’t have a clear place, it need a special or different cleaning method. It’s annoying me, but I’m not cracking the code! My brother is… also a bit like me. He leaves clothes and shoes in public areas. He is better at washing up his items than I anticipated.

    Oh and we have a dog – that’s been interesting. We ran out of food the day I had a wedding so I sent him a text and he sorted it. But he bought 3 tins, so really, he just patched a hole, and it feels like it now falls to me to buy a bulk amount of food :/ as to walking the dog? I’ve done it twice in a month. It’s not been a family routine, and she is 10.

    • omg, I can’t imagine living in my family home with my brother or sister! I love them both dearly and I’m sure we could work things out. I would enjoy their company but not the division of labour. We are all so different! Rom loves dogs but has chosen not to have one because he doesn’t want the work. I am not sure how I feel about ever having a dog, but I would “owe him one”, since he has lived with my 2 cats all these years! (I know I would love the dog if we had one, but resent the work).

      I do keep in mind that if Rom and I ever had serious disagreements about house or yard work, we would have the option of getting some paid help!

  7. Fiona

    I like the recognition of physical constraints and illness as a factor in all these equations. For some households that’s a defining issue. As I get older I start to ‘see’ more how many people struggle with pain (awful if they live alone.) We’re able-bodied and both work full-time. However, I do almost all of the housework and ‘mental load’ chores. It’s still a huge issue and the gender politics of housework still bugs me enormously! Look forward to more posts on this topic!

  8. Fiona

    He has the ‘cloak of invisibility’ happening, I think. He genuinely feels I’m making much ado about nothing and is puzzled/hurt by how frustrated I get!

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