Yes, You're Doing More Work and Yes, There's Something You Can Do About It

While I usually keep my posts gender- and sexuality-neutral, this post will talk specifically to the married heterosexual woman, because I do think this problem is mostly gender-specific. That being said—there is much in here about basic communication that applies to all couples.

A common complaint among working moms is that their husbands don’t carry their weight in the house and with the kids. 

The good news/bad news is that scientific research has validated our feelings.

In an op-ed in the LA Times from Mother’s Day 2015, Amanda Marcotte, citing a study done by the Council on Contemporary Families, writes:

“The council collected a number of studies that, taken together, squelch the idea that modern marriage is a wonderland of equality. Among the findings: Married mothers do more than three times as much cooking, cleaning and laundry than married fathers. Men have more than an hour more leisure time a day than women. Men and women both — no doubt trying to feel good about their relationships — overestimate how much housework men actually do.”

In a New York Times piece from November 12, 2015, Claire Cain Miller writes:

“Men today are much more committed to equality at home, sharing dinner-cooking and diaper-changing duties, than in previous generations. But even in families in which both parents work outside the home, the division of labor at home remains unequal.
Men tend to disagree. They say they do as much housework and child care as their wives — even though data show that they don’t.
This disconnect shows up in surveys, like a recent one of two-income families by Pew Research Center in which fathers said they shared home and child responsibilities equally, while mothers said they did more. But the mothers’ perceptions are supported by plentiful research, including more rigorous data collection in which people keep diaries of the ways they spend their time.”

I talk with numerous working moms every day, clients and friends alike, who say that their husbands come home from work, make themselves something to eat, go sit down and relax in front of the TV "for a few minutes," while the women are running around, unpacking lunch boxes, folding laundry, doing dishes, prepping dinner, helping with homework, cleaning out the fridge, organizing next week’s Halloween Carnival, etc., etc. etc.

Their rage is palpable.

“How can he not SEE all the shit that needs to be done??”
“He says he’d do it if I’d just ASK. It’s not my fucking job to TELL HIM all the shit that has to be done!!”
“I’ve been working all day too. Why is HIS 'tired' more important than mine?? Why is his JOB more important than mine??”
“When we first started this, I really thought we were going to share the load equally, but apparently I was WRONG!”

Well, at least we can all congratulate ourselves on being right, since scientific research is on our side, but we can take that all the way to the bank, where we’ll get 78 cents on his dollar for it, and still be left doing a majority of the work.

So what’s the solution?

How can we actually get our husbands to help out around the house more, in ways that significantly reduce our collective feelings of overwhelm, and don't destroy our marriages?

  • Talk about it. Yup. You actually have to talk about it if you want the problem to be solved. As a species, women love to stand in our metaphorical corners, arms crossed, tapping our feet, waiting for the men in our lives to just fucking get it already. But this actually disempowers the men in our lives from being able to meet our needs, and it keeps us in a state of resentment. There is a popular phrase of unclear origins that states that carrying a resentment is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die. When we don’t communicate our needs or our upsets to the people closest to us, we are the ones who suffer.
  • Talk about it when you’re not angry. Screaming and yelling out of frustration in a heated moment is not a reasonable or productive form of communication. It may let off steam, but it won’t propel the conversation towards any solution. Just as we never talk about sex issues in the bedroom, or in the middle of having sex (you don’t, right?), having a conversation about the division of labor in your marriage while you’re feeling stressed and overwhelmed is counterproductive, and likely harmful. Here’s what to do instead:
    • Choose a quiet moment, when you’re feeling collaborative.
    • Tell your husband you’ve been feeling upset about something, and ask if it’s a good time to talk about it. Having his buy-in for the conversation is key, because it invites compassion and sets him up to be receptive rather than defensive.
    • Keep the conversation in “I” language: “I feel stressed and overwhelmed,” “I feel taken for granted,” “I need your help.” When you keep the conversation in “I” language, you stay out of blame and criticism. (John Gottman, the only person ever to study relationships scientifically, identified the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse,” which are key predictors of the demise of a marriage: criticism, contempt, defensiveness and stonewalling. Read more about this here. I believe Gottman's work is vital to finding and maintaining almost any relationship.)
    • Consider this as a problem that needs to be solved together, rather than an issue that is dividing you as a couple. When you agree to stand shoulder-to-shoulder to solve a problem, you solidify your stance as a team and provide a united front against whatever might be dividing you. Invite your husband to do battle with you against a problem that is “over there,” rather than attack him for being the problem. If you don’t view him as the problem, you’ll be able to creatively problem-solve together, which will strengthen your marriage in all aspects.
  • Be specific. Bring very specific issues to the table for discussion, rather than a wave of emotion. Remember that men and women’s brains operate differently in some fundamental ways, and that your husband really does need to you to be specific about your needs. Is it annoying as fuck that you can’t say, “I need more help around the house,” and have him know what the fuck you mean?? YES. Is it helpful to be mad and annoyed that he doesn’t know what you mean and get all passive-aggressive about it? Nope. So instead, try saying something like, “It would really help me feel less overwhelmed and taken for granted if when you came home you emptied the lunch-boxes and helped with homework.”
  • Hear him. If your husband needs some time to unwind when he gets home so that he can feel more energized and fueled to jump in later, hear his need. Try to see his point of view, even if it totally differs from your own. Allow him to have his point of view, and dig in your reserves of compassion and empathy to hear him out. If your argument is that you need that time too, but you never fucking get it, learn to ask for it. So often we get pissed off that our husbands are employing self-care techniques that we don’t have time for, but really we’re just jealous that they have the chutzpah to actually take time for it. What if, instead of screaming about how you don’t have time to unwind, you said, “You know, having that time would really help me as well. How can we, together, carve out time for each of us to get some downtime so we’re both better fueled for the evening ahead?” This could look a myriad of ways. I have a good friend who knew he’d be over-run the second he walked in the door, and after an exhausting day and an hour-long commute home in LA rush-hour traffic, he’d stop on a side-street near home and take a 15-minute nap so he’d be refreshed when he walked in the door. His wife didn’t mind, because she knew he’d be useless without it. After his 15-minute nap, he was able to walk in the door, refreshed and ready to dive in, at which point he could relieve his wife so she could go exercise, or whatever she needed to re-fuel herself.
  • Make a list. Oh I know. Super-annoying. But one thing these studies revealed is that most men actually don’t see all the stuff that we do in the house on a daily basis. Like, they just don’t see it. Perhaps we’re more adept at just swooping in and doing shit, so they never get a chance to see what we do, but another conclusion is that many men are less bothered by the “noise” of un-done dishes, chores and activities than we are. Like, they just don’t care; it doesn’t gnaw at them the way it gnaws at us. So, in an effort to collaboratively problem-solve, make a list of everything you do in the house, for the children, pets, family—what have you—every day, and show it to your husband. Ask how you might be able to better divide the labor. Give him a chance to step up to the plate.
  • Offer appreciation. We all love to be appreciated for our efforts, but there is significant research that proves that men especially respond to words of appreciation. It’s basic neuroscience that when we are rewarded for a job well-done, the pleasure-centers of our brains are activated, and we are motivated to repeat the action, in order to replicate the dopamine rush our brains received the first time around. So even though you may not think your husband deserves praise or credit for doing shit you do all day long that no one “rewards” you for, doing so will have a three-fold effect: 1) your husband will be more likely to keep doing what he’s doing since he feels appreciated for it, 2) your husband will be more likely to start appreciating your efforts and giving you words of praise, as you model to him something that feels really good to him, 3) your kids will start to pick up on their parents appreciating each other, rather than nagging each other, and they’ll feel more secure and happy—and who knows, they may even be inspired to help too!

So often we assume that our partners should know how we feel, how much we do, and what we need help with, but the fact is that they actually don’t—and now science backs us up on this. The best (and I’d assert, the only) way to combat this is with direct, collaborative communication.

Remember, to ASSUME is to make an ASS out of U and ME.

Give the above a shot for a month or so and see how it goes. If you’re still having problems, see a certified relationship coach (um, hi, me) or licensed therapist to help you better express your feelings, and come up with an action plan that will work for both of you.