By Ann Cinzar
At a party the other night, a man asked me, “Does your husband know how lucky he is?”
Minutes later, a woman—quite possibly the man’s wife—asked, “How do you put up with doing everything at home?”
Evidently, I am a modern day conundrum: the envy or the scorn of people I meet.
My husband and I have what might be considered a throwback arrangement. In broad strokes, he makes the money, and I take care of everything else.
Now think of any of those cliché comments you’ve heard about arrangements like ours, and guaranteed, I’ve heard them too. “What do you do all day?” “Must be nice to stay at home.” “How do you afford that?” And, of course, “I don’t know how you do it.” In my case, this last one isn’t offered in a tone suggesting, Wow, you must be so pulled together and organized (I am not.) More like, Wow, the suffragette movement was wasted on you.
These comments assume certain things about our marital pact: that it is, amongst other things, unfair, old-fashioned, anti-feminist, privileged. While it could be mistaken for any of those things, the truth is, it’s none of them. For us, it’s a simple economic theory: division of labor.
Any couple raising children together knows that much of life becomes transactional. Who is taking the kids to soccer? What are we going to eat for dinner? How are the kids getting home from soccer? How will the house ever be clean? Whether we like it or not, things need to get done.
Not long ago, the common strains that afflict couples with young kids, older parents, and demanding dual careers began to weigh on us. I figured this was the opportunity I needed to reassess my career, and in the meantime I could get our home life back in order. So I quit my job as a short-term solution to getting things done. The result is that we now have a system which approximates a 1950’s parody.
Still, my husband and I are both practical people, so division of labor makes sense to us. It’s a basic economic principle which suggests that as you do more of the same specialized and focused work, you develop a higher level of skill. Done properly, it allows for more efficiency and better outcomes in each specific area. Done within the context of a relationship, it gets a bit trickier, not just for the couple themselves, but also for the couples looking in.
Say what you will about the ‘50’s, but roles were clear. Men worked and women stayed home. No husband left the office grumbling to himself that Chris in accounting never had to do carpool. No wife sat stewing because Bob down the street changed diapers and made dinner every second night. Every couple had essentially the same deal.
That old baseline model is (thankfully) gone. There’s a fluidity now to the roles we take on, the deals we make. What we haven’t yet figured out, though, is how to negotiate these new agreements without being distracted by the deals being cut by the couples next door, or down the street, or across town. Because, if there’s no standard of practice, and people can negotiate their own terms, someone might be getting a raw deal—and maybe it’s me!
This is the problem with economic theory: there’s a subtext that there are winners and losers.
It’s natural, then, that a person hearing of our situation will begin the mental math to see how it adds up against their own. Of course, this is the new math, and much like the math my ten year old is learning, there is more than one way to get to an answer. In our family, the answer may include that I do 95 percent of the cooking, while my husband gets up at 6:00am every morning to get to work and support our family, (while we sleep until 7:00). None of this makes us a winner—or loser—in some “who does what” household sweepstakes. It’s not a contest—why would we compete against ourselves? More importantly, how can we compare our situation to another couple’s? In a game with no preset rules or conditions, there is no such thing as a winner.
That’s why our calculations are made only within the context of our family unit, and not versus what happens in Johnny’s family or at Sue and Steve’s down the road. It’s also why I don’t take any of those comments and questions at parties personally. No one is offering praise or scorn. And clearly, no one asking “how do you do it?” is looking for tips. People are merely reflecting on their own feelings about the division of labor they’ve established in their relationship.
My kids have reached the age where they understand our dynamic. Sometimes it concerns me that I’m sending the wrong message, particularly with my ten year old daughter. Do I want her thinking that moms stay home and dads make the money? Luckily, game plans change. Our current situation is not set in stone, and in fact it’s already evolving.
For now, what I hope my kids see is that family life is a team effort. We may run different plays than other families, but it doesn’t matter. We’re only interested in the home field win.
There are days I wonder whether we’re making the right divisions; days I wonder when to begin the full-court press on my new game plan; days I just want someone else to buy the groceries, cook them up, and serve them to finicky and unappreciative diners. At times it’s disconcerting to divide and conquer your life and partnership down to a laundry list of who does what. Let’s face it, when distilled to its gritty parts, there’s nothing sexy about modern family life.
Then again, isn’t that why we have date night? A night away from the confines of our household arrangements, where we promise not to talk about the kids, or who does what, or how they’re doing it. It’s a salve to remind us that our current situation is a stopgap, fluctuating with the ebb and flow of our family; a temporary blip over the course of our long life together.
Just don’t go out with Sue and Steve down the road. I don’t know how they do it.