Learning to Walk in Your Wife’s Shoes

Here is a story of my Domestic Delinquency; An episode where I failed to do my share of the work around the house, and left it to my wife, who was working longer hours than me. I was sleeping in.


My last post was Husbands: If Your Working Wives Are Doing Too Much Housework, That’s On You. In my mind it is a matter of fairness. You both have full-time jobs so you should share the work when you get home. I would say to men, if the shoe was on the other foot, and you were coming home and doing most of the work, would you think that is fair?

I’m far from perfect, and to expect other men to change with out acknowledging my own faults would be pointless. So I’m sharing an event that sticks in my memory.

My wife was pregnant with our third child and I was working part-time, having scaled back my hours after our first child was born. My wife’s sister and her family arrived for a visit one afternoon and my wife didn’t return from a business trip until later that evening.

She got up early the next morning to look after our toddlers. My sister-in-law made a passing comment about her not getting to sleep-in.

My wife repeated the conversation with me. It became an entree into a wider discussion about me stepping up. She was pregnant, starting in a big new job and we were about to move from Los Angeles to Chicago. I was quitting my job as a result of the move so it was my responsibility to manage all the non-work related stuff.

And she was right.

Our relationship was moving towards a much more defined separation of roles. She was about to make the biggest leap of her career, and I was about to assume the role of full-time homemaker. If anything in that moment I should have more time on my hands, as it was my last week at work. I suddenly had an extra 18 hours at my disposal, although as anyone who has run a household knows 18 hours can disappear rather quickly.

Years later she has no recollection of this conversation, but I was chastened by it. I distinctly remember putting myself in my wife’s shoes and looking at it from her perspective. When I did that there was no disguising that she had gotten the raw deal. It is an exercise I’ve often repeated over the years, but a lesson I’m still prone to forget.

imagesThe reason this particular story stuck with me goes back to the early 1990s. In college I read a chapter of Arlie Hothschild’s The Second Shift. Her research found that even after they entered the workforce women still take care of most of the household and childcare responsibilities. I vowed to never be one of those guys, so being confronted with that reality hurt.

Today, I am a stay-at-home dad and the dynamic between myself and my wife is different to that of a couple where both partners are employed. The basic logic of fairness is harder to apply. Whether one partner is doing more than his or her share of the work, both paid and domestic, can only be discerned within the particular relationship.

It’s tempting to make simple division between one works outside the home and the other within it. This is no solution. That approach might benefit a man who thinks that the workweek ends on Friday evening, but fails to account for the life work that his wife does through Saturday and Sunday.

The second pitfall of comparing the contributions of a homemaker with that of a “gainfully employed” partner is we tend to undervalue domestic work. Running a household, raising kids and doing the volunteer work that knits communities together can easily add up to a full-time equivalent job, but it is seldom given the same status as paid work.

It’s not hard to imagine a working spouse coming home and saying I’ve had a long day at the office and I just want to relax. But try the reverse; Good luck to the homemaker who declares “I’m done,” at 6pm!

My wife works hard. She has a well of internal energy that I still can’t quite fathom. She’ll come home and say she’s had a long day at the office, pour herself a wine and ask for her dinner. That is usually followed up by the declaration that she has a hundred emails to catch up on because she’s been in meetings all day.

Tonight, I’ve cooked, done laundry, and put the kids to bed. I’ve finished my working day, and all I can hear from the next room is the click, click, click of my wife furiously putting her keyboard through another stress test.

There are times I feel frustrated, where I would like a little more help, but it is seldom because my wife is expecting me to wait on her while she binge watches “The Gilmore Girls”.

If I remind myself to walk in my wife’s shoes, I realize that she is doing more than her fair share of the work required to keep our family functioning.

And, so far, my wife hasn’t had to ask me to up my game since that morning. (That was her edit by the way.)

Husbands, If Your Working Wives Are Doing Too Much Housework That’s On You.

No Trolls, I'm not implying African American men are lazier than Whites. I like the photo and it highlights the need to get boys attuned to housework.
Frank Mckenna/Unsplash

If you are interested in gender equality this is a depressing conversation:

Jancee Dunn Wrote a Book Called “How Not to Hate Your Husband After Kids” and We (Heleo) Made Her Talk to Her Husband About It.

A brief backstory; Dunn and her husband, Tom Vanderbilt, were living a life of domestic equality until their baby “shot out” and “these very traditional gender roles just came out of nowhere.”

Jancee Dunn and Tom Vanderbilt during their Heleo chat
Jancee Dunn puts her husband on the spot.

As they tell it, Vanderbilt stopped being the primary chef. He took up road cycling, which consumed several hours every Saturday,  and played online chess in the evenings. He was more likely to enter the kitchen in search of a glass of wine than dishwasher to empty. Dunn noticed that a lot of moms shared her anger about husbands being so “blithely unhelpful” after having kids, so she wrote a book about it.

I remember studying The Second Shift, Arlie Hochschild’s seminal work on the division of domestic labor, at university in the early 1990s. Hochschild found that working women still take care of most of the household and childcare responsibilities. As evidenced by Dunn’s book, things have not changed much in the intervening 25 years. That is DEPRESSING.

This issue is about men. The solution is quite simple; Men need to do their share of housework. It is easily quantifiable and its much easier to open the dishwasher than it is to open up emotionally. Towards the end of the interview Dunn and Vanderbilt briefly discuss their resolution of the issue, but the title of her book misses the point; the solution, to this problem lies with men.

It is not a woman’s job to stop hating the fact she is doing the lion’s share of the housework. Dunn goes through all sorts of emotional hoops; confessing to martyr tendencies, reframing her perception of Vanderbilt’s behavior and admitting fault for not having relinquished control to her very capable husband. That’s all well and good, but much of it would have been completely unnecessary if her husband had done some work around the house.

How can we reach a point where men pull their weight?

First, let’s acknowledge that housework is tedious. If doing laundry, washing dishes, cleaning toilets and changing diapers was fun and fulfilling work, we wouldn’t have feminism. We can’t blame men for not wanting to do it, but all these things are necessary to a functioning household, so someone has to do it.

This morning my son scrambled himself some eggs. During the subsequent discussion about cleaning up afterward his tween angst exploded, “This is STUPID!”

To which I rolled out my familiar retort, “Yeah, it sucks, but its got to be done, so get on with it.”

Which brings up the second point; it is necessary to teach boys how to do housework. My wife reports conversations with her working mom colleagues who lament that their husbands are useless around the house. Serving cheerios for dinner or washing brand new jeans with white shirts. Nobody wants to be incompetent, but as evidenced by my son attacking the egg pan with a sponge, boys don’t acquire these skills by osmosis. Credit to my mother more teaching me to do housework, apparently a number of mother’s do everything for their sons.

An added benefit of educating boys about the domestic sphere is it puts housework on their radar. Translating that awareness into action is a harder battle. My father was a great role model. When my mother started a business in the late 80s, he began to cook and clean. I don’t know if the chores where equally apportioned, but he did a lot more that most of his peers. Today, I’m a stay-at-home dad. I do most of the work around the house, which is a different dynamic to the one we are discussing here. Having progressive parents certainly made it easier for me to follow my current path.

Dunn and Vanderbilt’s solution is to have regular family meetings to dole out the workload.

“Expert after expert said, “Sit down and have a family meeting,” which is not that fun, but they [all] would say, “You have to very clearly parcel this out because the arguments arise from ambiguity.”

Jancee  Dunn

Setting boundaries and expectations is great. Tracking progress is also important. I have a chore chart on which we track whose turn it is to empty the dishwasher. That works for my kids. It can work for you and your spouse.

My suspicion is that some couples will go through all of the above and the men will still shirk their responsibilities. As many people have found traditional gender roles are quite resilient. I’ll admit I can be a domestic delinquent at times (There’s a future column.) If we are going to move beyond traditional roles, then putting the focus on the next generation of husbands might be more productive, hence my attention to setting an example for boys.

To my fellow dads, from a man whose primary role is the Second Shift, do more around the house. When a working dad like Tom Vanderbilt writes a book titled “How Not to Make Your Wife Hate You After Kids” we will be getting somewhere.