Tuesday, May 29, 2012

The Fine Print: Negotiations in Marriage's Work

Jan Hoffman's "Diaper Duty, Divided and Decided: Sign Here" takes a look at the way some couples are figuring out relationship negotiations on time and work: contractually.

I'm not knocking the idea. Without a doubt, the hardest part of negotiating my marriage and family life has been figuring out who does what when. It's since gotten easier, and some days it gets inexplicably and temporarily really, really hard again, but the division of time and work is something that is constantly negotiated and re-negotiated in our household.

And yes, on a couple of occasions, we tried something like a contract.

It didn't have the formality of the contracts discussed in this article. Hoffman writes how Mark Zuckerberg's girlfriend formally negotiated a written document that promised at least one date night and 100 minutes outside of the house together a week before she would move in with him. She also discusses couples who wrote down a schedule for diaper changes. Again, I'm not criticizing. Do what works. But for us, even less formal contracts just lacked the flexibility that we needed to make things work.

The bane of our happy little unit is housework. We've got a functioning (if not always smooth) handle on just about everything else. Sure, there are rough patches, but for the most part we manage to get to work on time, get daycare drop-offs and pick-ups fairly distributed with compromises when needed, we both go to the gym a few times a week, we cook healthy meals at home most of the time, we grocery shop, we pay the bills on time, we play with our daughter, we have regular family outings, we read bedtime stories, we give baths, we sing songs, we do well at our respective jobs, we build block towers, we kiss bumps on the arm, we have friends and sometimes even get to see them, we talk about current events, we talk about our future goals, we make fun of bad movies together, and the car never runs out of gas.

But to save our lives, we cannot get the housecleaning figured out.

The Simple Life
Demon possessed, I'm sure. 
So, we've tried charts. We make schedules. We assign duties. We fail. We don't even try to place blame anymore (though maybe we have in the past). We're bad at it. And no contract is going to help.

And I think the reason a contract is never going to help us is that, if there's a contract, things are never really truly equal.

Take this quote from Hoffman's post:
Cheryl Lynn Hepfer, a matrimonial lawyer in Bethesda, Md., and a former president of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers, said that for women, “even if they want a schedule for changing diapers at night, it’s an acknowledgment by him that she is important.”
So making a diaper schedule is a gift from the male partner to the woman. Doesn't that mean that it's still really her responsibility? He's just giving this "acknowledgement" by giving her some "help." Why isn't the diaper schedule an acknowledgement by her that he is important? Shouldn't ensuring that their child isn't sitting in its own waste be just as much his concern as hers?

And a contract requires management. In order to negotiate an agreement, someone has to have the upper hand. And whether that upper hand comes from a partner who sees him/herself as doing more than his/her fair share and needing an adjustment or from a partner who feels that he/she isn't getting an equal say in how the house is being managed and wants to take on more control, working out a contract means recognizing those (possibly hidden) disparities and bringing them to the forefront.

And a household (or at least my household) is not stable enough to negotiate these duties one time and let it go. A household is living. It grows, it changes, and it requires constant flux. The things that get the house clean this week will not be the things that get the house clean next week. So someone is going to have to notice the changes and make note of them. Someone is going to have to be responsible for charting the new responsibilities and assigning them. And that someone is doing more work and taking more control.

The solution? Hell if I know. Let me know if you figure it out.

I will say that we had a coupon for a house cleaning a few weeks ago. It was amazing. It was amazing not only because my house got clean in ways that I don't normally clean it (you should've seen the inside of my microwave. The angels sang when I opened it). but also because the cleaning service doesn't do everything. We had to de-clutter and organize enough for the cleaning service to do their job. Suddenly there were some clear boundaries on what needed to be done, and it was coming from somewhere outside of us. We were equally responsible for getting this thing done, and we would both reap the benefit of an ultra-clean house at the end of it. So, my solution? Make enough money to have a regular cleaning service, and I'll have no problem with having a written contract of what they will and will not do. I'll let you know how it goes if I ever get there.

So what about you? What negotiations do you find the hardest to maintain? How important is keeping an equal balance of responsibilities? Do you think a written contract is the way to go? 

Photo Credit: Chiot's Run


  1. I know that my husband's deep resentment of middle-of-the-night diaper changing was my first clue that our parenting might not be this pie-in-the-sky egalitarian fantasy I'd had.

    1. For us, too. The new responsibilities of parenting took a lot of navigating, and it was particularly hard because sharing work before the baby came had never been a problem. It really tested our assumptions about gender roles and duties.

  2. I love your point that even with a contract - which is probably intended to make sure everyone is in agreement and understands what is important to one another - someone often ends up in charge of making sure it is followed. That isn't necessarily a bad thing, but if it means one partner is constantly reminding the other of the contract then the couple may end up back where they started - one person nagging and resentful.

    Oh how I would LOVE to have someone come clean my house!!! But here is a quick trick for microwaves I found a while back - stick a bowl of water in it and run the microwave for about 3 minutes. The steam loosens everything and it wipes right off. It's amazing! :)

    1. Put a cut-up lemon in that water and the whole house will smell *amazing* and the lemon essence also helps break up the crud.

    2. I'll try this! And I LOVE the smell of lemons.

  3. My husband claims he doesn't care how much housework I do or don't do. He does his own laundry, I'm in charge of everything else; and he would rather I played video games than did the dishes and made him feel guilty for not doing them. But his world, the dishes would never be done. He also doesn't realize all the little bits of housework (taking out trash, sweping, ptting clothes away) that only takes a few minutes that I have to constantly do to make sure the house does't completely look like a rats nest.
    But I'm not a good housekeeper, honestly. I was when we lived in our apartment in Orlando. But I had a, dryer, vaccume cleaner, and a dish washer. I don't have those things here in China. Doing housework here takes on epic proportions and it is extremely dishartening. I feel bad when I can't provide my husband with a clean home (even though it shouldn't be just my reponsibility since we both work full-time). The only good thing is that, yeah, I have a housekeeper who comes twice a week. She also cooks. As long as I live in China I will have a housekeeper. And I might not return to the States until I get a job offer good enough to have one there too!

    1. I completely get where you're coming from with the little things adding up. I also empathize with having different clutter tolerance levels than your partner. I think that has to be a negotiation, too. It may not be fair for the person with the lower clutter tolerance to insist on everything being his/her way all the time, but I also don't think it's fair that the person with the lower clutter tolerance just has to do all the work. It's gotta be a give and take.

  4. I am lucky that my husband is a firefighter, and therefore responsible for housekeeping chores at work - this gives him a sense of perspective most men just don't get.

    Let's face it - culturally, men don't often DO housework and therefore don't really understand what the big deal is(as it is, the chores at the firehouse are shared equally by everyone on the shift - including traditionally "male" chores like vehicle maintenance, yard work, and minor repairs. Most women don't have the benefit of that kind of teamwork.) Men who live alone frequently eat out, send out their laundry, and hire a cleaning service without thinking twice about just how much work they are delegating.

    It takes a LOT of explanation to communicate this difference in perspective/culture; if you've never done it, it's difficult to explain exactly how much work it is. I think sometimes calculators like this help illustrate the point: http://www.salary.com/mom-paycheck/ though I see some glaring omissions (who buys the supplies?)

    I feel lucky that my husband has an understanding that there are several jobs going on at once at home, and he has taken on some of the household jobs himself.

  5. I stayed home with my kids until the youngest was in school, so I always did the house cleaning but it was a rude awakening once I started working and my husband had to start pitching in. But a marriage isn't 50/50 it's 100/100 the kids are as much mine as they are his, the laundry is a team effort, and if I cooked he did dishes, it just worked for us. He really helped out before I started working but, it was more of a team effort once I got a job.

  6. Could you consider dividing work not based on individual chores but based on rooms and/or time? For example, you are responsible for cleaning the kitchen and your husband is responsible for cleaning the living room (assuming they're roughly the same size. If not, switch every so often to even things out). Assuming you have roughly the same standards of cleanliness, that way you both have to work but you don't have to agonize over who does what as much.

  7. That's more or less the pattern we've fallen into over time. It's easier when we have some clear expectations and boundaries to help keep the work from being overwhelming.