As more and more women take it for granted that they will work fulltime for most, if not all, of their married lives, ideas about which partner should do what to maintain the household have required review and reconsideration. Very few people, male or female, enjoy housework. Nonetheless, a certain amount of maintenance work has to go on every day to get a family fed and clothed with some semblance of order.

Women, raised by mothers during the 1950s, 1960s, and even 1970s, were generally taught how to do household chores. Years of babysitting and helping out in the kitchen prepared them for managing a home. Men, raised by those same mothers, often don’t know how to do such tasks as laundry and food preparation. They never saw their fathers prepare a casserole or iron a shirt. They weren’t gradually taught to assume responsibility for such tasks while they were growing up. Often enough, even the most enlightened and willing adult male experiences a gnawing belief that he really shouldn’t have to do these things. He may even feel less of a man when he does.

Numerous studies have been done since the 1960s about the distribution of labor and leisure time at home and the good news is that things are, in fact, changing. Over the years, men have taken on increasing amounts of child-oriented work at home: reading to the kids, giving little ones a bath, monitoring schoolwork, and leading family outings. These fathers enjoy being closer to their children than their fathers were to them. Childcare truly is more rewarding (and, for many men, more acceptable) than laundry care.

But it is the laundry care (and the food shopping, meal preparation, vacuuming, toilet cleaning, etc.) that is still an unsettled issue in many families where both adults have careers. If the family can afford it, the solution often is to buy these services. Although this reduces the fighting, it doesn’t necessarily reduce the woman’s resentment. Women may feel angry that family money is going for housecleaning instead of a vacation just because their husbands won’t do what the women see as their fair share.

By the same token, men who are trying hard to balance the labor at home get equally upset with their wives who won’t take responsibility for getting an oil change for the car or for doing outdoor work they see as “men’s work.” “My wife has a fit if I don’t help with the dishes but I don’t see her going out in sub-zero weather to shovel the snow,” said a frustrated man who was coming to me for therapy.

Making Choices Together

Couples who do the least arguing about housework are those who have talked about it and made choices together. As with many things in human relationships, there is no “right” answer to how tasks should be distributed. What is essential is that both members of a couple make the effort to work the discussion all the way through to genuine agreement on a method for distributing or trading off the less desirable tasks of running a household.

This checklist will help you to take stock of the daily chores of family life and how you, as a couple, are coping with them. Indicate how you are handling each of the listed household tasks by labeling it with a 1, 2, 3, 4, or 5, as follows:

  1. We’ve discussed the issue and have come to a comfortable decision about who should handle it.
  2. We’ve fallen into a routine and it’s okay with me.
  3. We’ve fallen into a routine and it’s not okay with me.
  4. We are in the process of settling this point.
  5. We are fighting about this issue.

In the area of household chores, are you comfortable with:

  • who makes the food shopping list?
  • who does the food shopping?
  • who does the meal preparation?
  • who purchases children’s clothing?
  • who organizes clothing for the next season?
  • who does the laundry?
  • who repairs clothing and sews on buttons?
  • who decides who will do what household chores?
  • who decides the acceptable standards for household order?
  • who waits for tradespeople (electrician, plumber, carpenter, etc.) to show up?
  • who balances the checkbook?
  • who prepares the taxes?
  • who decides how the house will be decorated?
  • who does the decorating (painting, wallpapering, picture hanging, etc.)?
  • who takes out the trash?

In the area of chores outside the house, are you comfortable with:

  • who looks after car maintenance?
  • who chooses the type of car the family drives?
  • who makes minor repairs (a broken screen door, a rusty hinge, a loose stair tread, etc.)?
  • who takes charge of whatever yard work needs to be done?
  • who fixes mechanical items around the house?
  • who talks with tradespeople about work that needs to be done?
  • who does house maintenance tasks (like cleaning gutters, painting, etc.)?
  • who cleans the garage?

In the area of child care chores, are you comfortable with:

  • who knows where everyone else is at a given time?
  • who finds the babysitter when you want to go out?
  • who has more undivided time with the kids?
  • who keeps track of when medical and dental appointments are needed?
  • who takes the children to the doctor, dentist, etc.?
  • who puts the children to bed?
  • who gets everyone up and out in the morning?
  • who oversees children’s chores?
  • who helps with homework?
  • who buys the children’s birthday and holiday presents?
  • who plans children’s parties and events?
  • who helps children buy presents for their friends?
  • who drives the children to lessons, friends’ houses, etc.?
  • who oversees the children’s hygiene?
  • who finds appropriate day care for young children?
  • who attends parent-teacher conferences?
  • who keeps in touch with teachers?

In the area of relationships with family and friends, are you comfortable with:

  • who writes letters or e-mails extended family?
  • who keeps track of extended family birthdays?
  • who buys gifts for extended family members?
  • who helps out when a family member or friend is ill?
  • who knows something about the families of children’s friends?
  • who arranges couple social events?
  • who makes sure that family friends get enough attention?

The more 1s and 2s on your list, the more likely it is that you and your spouse feel satisfied with yourselves and each other. As 3s, 4s, and 5s predominate, clearly there is more work to do!