I am not proud to admit it, but I recently had a meltdown over some rice.
On the surface, it is as ridiculous as it sounds: I’d bought a bag of arborio rice to make some risotto, and when I went to start my dish, I couldn’t find the rice anywhere. I tore apart my kitchen, rifled through our overflow shelves in the garage, and pulled my grocery bags out of the trunk of my car to make sure the rice hadn’t been left in one of them. No luck.
I lost it, and emailed my husband that I was on strike and wasn’t going to be making dinner that night. 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 am the one with the evening shift, and am therefore the one home early enough to start dinner. I am also a faster cook.
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 over the missing rice was less about the rice and more about being tired of having to figure out dinner every weekday evening. I mitigate that annoyance by planning our meals on the weekend, but the missing rice meant I would have to come up with a new plan on the spot, and that particular day, I just couldn’t do it.
If I’m honest, I know the meltdown wasn’t even just about dinner. The problem is that the balance of suckiness in our chores arrangement is out of whack, and we need to fix it.
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 tend to 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 and her head full of what needs to be done when. 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 the way they are in any given family. In addition to the reasons mentioned above for me taking on the weekday meals, there is the fact that I have allergies and asthma and attempting to do the yardwork would literally make me sick.
But the fact remains: 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 the suckiness of that work.
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 my job. I was leading a team of people who had responsibilities for maintaining existing systems and providing support to people using those systems as well as for building new systems. For most people, building new systems is the most fun. But the maintenance and support still needs to get done, and so we divided that work up among the team. If we hadn’t, things would not have been fair, even if we were all doing the same number of hours of work.
One night, after a pointless argument with my husband about whose fault it was that we’d run out of our daughter’s toothpaste, I realized that we needed to do the same thing at home. We needed to balance out the suckiness of the chores.
The hard part of doing this, whether in the office or at home, is that different things suck to different people. One component of good management is to figure out what everyone on your team likes to do and what they hate to do, and try to make sure that no one has more than their fair share of things they hate or less than their fair share of things that they like. I’ve come to realize that the same principles apply at home. 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 suckiness. 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’re working on rebalancing our chores lists now, talking about what new chores have made their way onto my list by virtue of the fact that I, as the mother, am everyone’s default point of contact for anything involving our kids. My husband is perfectly happy to take on some of this work, but the rest of the world doesn’t make it easy for us, since they all assume they should email me, not him. So we need to periodically move items from my list of things to keep track of to his. Once we do this, I will still grumble about weekday dinners, but I probably won’t meltdown if I can’t find the rice.
We found the missing rice a few days later, by the way. It was in the cheese drawer in the refrigerator.
This is a repost of an article I originally wrote for Chronicle Vitae. I wrote articles about management (project, people, time…) and other related topics for them for a couple of years. They have taken the section in which my articles were published offline, and so I am reposting the articles I wrote for them. Some links have been updated because the original linked article has disappeared.