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?
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