Balance the Pain, Not Just the Work

I am not proud to admit it, but I recently had a meltdown over some rice.

On the surface, that is as ridiculous as it sounds: I’d bought a bag of arborio rice to make risotto, and when I went to start my dish, I couldn’t find the rice anywhere.

I angrily emailed my husband that I was on strike and wasn’t going to make dinner. You might think that sounds like an overreaction. To his credit, he knew it wasn’t, and calmly made other plans to feed our kids that night.

He knew it wasn’t an overreaction because it was really a reaction not to missing rice, but to an underlying point of pain in my life: I do all of our weekday cooking, and I hate it. There are perfectly good reasons for this arrangement. I have the more flexible work schedule, and in fact work from home two days a week. In our division of child-shuttling duties, I have the evening shift, and am therefore the one home early enough to start dinner.

But flexible schedule or not, I am still tired at the end of a long work day. I am still likely to have some last piece of work I’d like to finish but cannot, because our evening schedule does not provide much wiggle room and I need to get dinner started now. So I hate this particular chore. My meltdown was less about rice and more about being tired of figuring out dinner every weekday evening.

In fact, the meltdown wasn’t even just about dinner. The problem is that the balance of pain in our chores arrangement was out of whack.

There is no surer way to get a group of working mothers commiserating than to bring up the topic of household chores. The statistics are clear: in heterosexual partnerships, women still do more household work than men. Even when both partners work, even when the woman makes more money than the man, women do more.

Beyond the statistics, there is a deeper problem. Women tend to do more of the organizing and planning and ball juggling that keeps a busy family’s schedule running. Women also tend to do more of the daily grind: such as my daily cooking versus my husband’s biweekly yard work.

There are often very good reasons the chores end up divided they way they are in any given family. But if we only focus on the amount of work when dividing up the chores, chances are things will not really be balanced, even when there seems to be an even division. We need to also look at how much the work sucks.

This is an insight I had when our kids were still in preschool, prompted by a rebalancing of the “grunt work” I’d just done with my team at work. One night, after a pointless argument about whose fault it was that we’d run out of our daughter’s toothpaste, I realized we needed to do the same thing at home.

The hard part of doing this, whether in the office or at home, is that different things suck to different people. It isn’t that we need to have a strictly equal division of labor, matching each other sinkful of dishes for sinkful of dishes. We need a fair division of labor, that recognizes that we each think some chores suck more than others, and balances the amount of suckiness we each experience.

Of course, as our kids grow older, the chores change. What worked when we were changing diapers does not necessarily make sense now that we are scheduling sleepovers and supervising school projects. My rice-related meltdown told us that we need to revisit our division of labor and rebalance the pain. We cannot change the facts of our schedules that make the weekday dinners my responsibility, but we can balance that by removing some other thing that sucks from my chores list.

We found the missing rice a few days later, by the way. It was in the cheese drawer in the refrigerator.

The above is an article I wrote a few months back, after I had a little domestic meltdown around the time I had a Chronicle Vitae submission due. The article didn’t turn out to be a fit for Chronicle Vitae, and I’ve been haphazardly shopping it around for publication elsewhere ever since. I decided that it is not worth more effort to keep shopping it, and so just posted it here. I don’t usually talk much here about how we balance two jobs, two kids, and keeping our house from falling to bits, but in fact, I use a lot of the same skills at home that I use in managing projects for work. So maybe I should talk more about that stuff here. Anyway, I hope you liked the piece. Maybe soon I will write a little more about the principle of balancing the pain and not just the work in the workplace. 

Image credit: By Steven Jackson from USA (Arborio RiceUploaded by Schwäbin) [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons


  1. Autumn Harting said:

    I remember you discussing the division of chores in an early blog post (years ago), and your sensible approach has guided conversations with my husband on the subject since the early days of our marriage. Thankfully I can say we haven’t had a single fight about chores, though I’ll admit we haven’t really been tested, either, since we don’t have kids.

    October 7, 2017
    • Melanie said:

      I read this comment in my inbox, was happy my earlier posts had such an effect… and then forgot to approve the comment. I’d say this means our balance is still not right, but to be honest we’ve both been flat out this past month. Thanks for the nice comment, even if I was slow to approve it!

      October 12, 2017

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