What would happen if you asked a thousand moms and dads to tally the chores they do around the house? Working Mother recently did—and the results (surprisingly? unsurprisingly?) were straight out of a 1950s sitcom. He takes out the trash, mows the lawn, does yard work and takes care of the car. She does the rest: cooking, cleaning, grocery shopping, laundry, etc. (Worth noting: men and women are both likely to attend kids’ activities.) But are couples happy with the situation?
We reached out to a couple who have been candid about their own chore wars: Brigid Schulte, a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer for The Washington Post and author of Overwhelmed: Work, Love and Play When No One has the Time (Picador 2015) and Tom Bowman, NPR’s Pentagon reporter, are married and have two kids, Liam, 16, and Tessa, 14, and live in Alexandria, VA. In her book, Brigid chronicles how in their two-career, two-kid household, the arguments over chores (the cat, the unmade bed, the dishes!) became so contentious that they were “polluting everything.” And how a Thanksgiving Day breakdown led to changes. Here’s what they told us (edited for clarity and brevity.)
WM: Are you surprised that our survey found such a "traditional" state of affairs—she's cooking, he's mowing the lawn?
Brigid: No, not really. I think so much of this stuff is culturally programmed. You get these old movies playing in your head about what a wife and mother looks like. Think how much has changed with gender roles in the last century. I think we're still somewhat confused as a society and getting used to it. The fact is, women in particular are still going to feel more judged than men if the house isn't picked up_._
WM: When you two first got together, did you ever discuss how you would divide things up? A chore “prenuptial” of sorts?
Brigid: I don’t think we ever did. We were kind of nuts in that we didn’t even divide it; we liked doing things together. We did laundry together, grocery shopping together, a manic apartment cleaning which would get everything done in 30 minutes.
WM: You told us that after the birth of your son things went “haywire and all 1950s.”
Brigid: I think it started even with maternity leave. I got the leave. Tom didn’t get any leave. I started feeling like, “Well, I’m already here, I will do the laundry.” Then it became “I will do everything,” because you feel like you should. You’re comparing yourself to what you think other mothers are doing. You think things will go back to normal when you go back to work, and they never do.
In our new Working Mother Research Institute survey of more than a thousand married or partnered working parents, we found that 79 percent of moms with kids under age 18 at home say they’re primarily responsible for laundry, compared with 22 percent of dads. Even among moms who are the primary earners in their families, 62 percent claim laundry duty.
WM: You’ve talked about how you felt it was all on your shoulders, the cycle of nagging and resentment. Then came the infamous Thanksgiving dinner.
Brigid: That was awful. We had 18 people coming over. So here I am at 2 p.m., still in my running clothes from doing the Turkey Trot. I’m chopping vegetables, the kitchen is a mess, the table isn’t set. And Tom comes to the fridge. I’m thinking he’s going to take out the turkey, but he takes out a six-pack.
Tom: And I just left. I forget what I was thinking—maybe I was thinking I would cook the turkey later. I went to hang out with a friend who was grilling his turkey.
Brigid: People were coming at 4:30!
Tom: At any rate, I walked out the door.
Brigid’s reaction was equal parts fury, disbelief and sadness. When she realized she was “dividing up the furniture in my mind,” she enlisted a coach from the ThirdPath Institute, which focuses on helping couples integrate work, family and personal pursuits, to help. With that guidance, Brigid and Tom began to take long walks to discuss how things had gotten off-kilter and what each wanted instead.
WM: What happened next?
Brigid: We started small—with the bed and the dishes. Last person out of bed makes it. We split the dishes: Tom loads the dishwasher, I unload. In the past, if he didn’t do stuff, I would have done it for him. I stopped that. If it wasn’t done, I would take a picture of the dishes in the sink and text it to him.
Tom: That was kind of crazy. But the thing is, we had a system so there was nothing to argue about.
WM: What else worked for you guys in figuring this out?
Brigid: We thought about what kinds of personalities we had. Tom likes to go out on adventures. For him, it’s interesting to go grocery shopping. For me, it takes a lot of energy. I sort of wander the aisles. He also has stronger preferences about what we eat.
**A full 62 percent of moms with kids under 18 at home say they’re in charge of their family’s grocery shopping, compared with 32 percent of dads. **
Tom: So now I pretty much do all the grocery shopping and the cooking. My cooking is pretty basic—pasta, stew. No soufflés.
More than half (57 percent) of moms say they are in charge of cooking dinner, compared with 26 percent of dads.
Brigid: I do laundry. I’m a homebody, so it’s easier for me to do laundry. I throw it in in the morning and change it during breaks. I also do yard work.
Tom: I hate yard work.
Dads typically handle landscaping—61 percent say they’re in charge of it versus 21 percent of moms.
WM: How do you handle stuff neither of you want to deal with?
Brigid: Neither one of us likes to clean. We have cleaning people come in. That’s helped a lot.
In the WMRI survey, yard duties, taxes and car care are the chores most commonly identified as being outsourced.
WM: How did you handle it when you had different ideas of what, exactly, needed to be done?
Brigid: This was the important part: coming up with common standards. What does doing the dishes mean? It meant doing the pots, too. Making the bed means putting the pillows on, too. We decided that if you add to the common standards, then it’s on you to do the extra work.
Tom: Leaving pillows on the floor sounds stupid, but common standards are really important.
Brigid: We tried to make visible the invisible work we were each doing.
WM: Are things better now?
Brigid: Yes, it’s like the low-level radioactive waste in the relationship is gone. I’m not trying to keep track of what’s done or not done. I have space for other things, like thinking! And that’s huge.
Click here to read Brigid and Tom’s tips for 5 Ways to Win the Chore Wars at Home.