How to Balance Household Work When One Parent Stays Home

by ParentCo. June 06, 2017

A kid is playing in a bath tub while his parents are watching

When I was in college, my roommate and I perused a thrift store looking for cheap ways to decorate our apartment. We discovered a gem: a 1950's General Electric cookbook full of recipes and homemaking advice. The book had us laughing for hours.

“Make sure to give your husband a cocktail when he gets home! This will put him in the mood to discuss what you really want to talk about – how you need a GE home freezer like the other wives on the block!”

“Put on a fresh face of makeup before your husband gets home. Have him sit in his favorite chair while you bring him his slippers. Cook his favorite meal regularly.”

My roommate, being the artistic one, cut out these nuggets of advice, laminated them, and turned them into magnets for our refrigerator. Every time I opened the door to grab a bite to eat on my way to class, I snickered at a bygone era. I was confident of what I would not become.

Ten years later, I'm back in the kitchen. Instead of grabbing a cold beer out of the fridge, I’m searching through it to find a healthy snack for my kids. I cook my husband’s favorite meal regularly. I don’t bring him his slippers – though I did give him some for Christmas one year.

Thankfully, the days when a woman’s highest ambition was to become a sycophantic housewife catering to her husband’s needs are gone. That doesn’t mean the job of homemaker has disappeared, instead it has morphed into the stay-at-home mother. In the United States today, nearly 30 percent of mothers with children under age 18 stay at home.

When I became a stay-at-home mom, figuring out how to divide the household labor was more complicated than I initially pictured. Back in the era of my 1950's cookbook, things were pretty simple:

Fathers: Work. Maybe mow the grass.

Mothers: Everything else.

The problem is, the everything else category is rather large. It includes, but is not limited to: childcare, cleaning, cooking, budget management, paying bills, organizing schedules, doctor appointments, researching school and activity options, teaching, planning outings, sick care, buying gifts, grocery shopping, shopping children’s clothes, organizing holiday events and activities, gardening, volunteering, chauffeuring, helping with homework, doing laundry, managing special diets, reading to children.

And that all comes after that initial heavy load of pregnancy, labor, and breastfeeding.

For every minute that my husband spends at the office working, I am at home – or the store or the playground or the school – also working. The idea that the fathers of the 1950's got to come home at 5:00 p.m., hang up their hats, and call it quits for the day while the mothers kept on cooking, cleaning, and tending children is as baffling to me as it is frustrating.

A division of labor where one person does all the work outside of the home and one person does all the work inside of it would be, for most families, fairly unbalanced. Women today are spending less time on housework than they did 50 years ago, but even with more mothers working outside of the home, the amount of time they spend with their children has increased by nearly 50 percent. For fathers, the amount of time has nearly tripled. Some might chalk this up to helicopter parents, and that may be part of it. Another part is that we’ve realized that children do benefit from our time and attention. This makes getting the housework done difficult.

Reading to my children or taking them to the park means that I don’t always (or fine, ever) have the laundry folded and put away by 5 p.m. every day. A good chunk of childcare and household work falls to my husband, even if he’s putting 40 hours of work in at the office.

So how can you balance household responsibilities in a family where one person stays at home?

Don’t keep score

Trying to make each day or each chore perfectly equal will result in bitterness and arguing.

I don’t know how many times my husband did the dishes last week. I don’t know how many times my I tucked the kids into bed. It doesn’t matter. We have a divide-and-conquer system after dinner: one spouse cleans up the kitchen and one gets the kids ready for bed. I’m usually fairly ready for a break after a day with the children and volunteer for washing dishes. However, if my husband has had a long day and wants to zone out in front of the sink, and if I’ve been in the kitchen for hours already, we’ll switch. We usually finish up at the same time, and can both enjoy being “off” together for the rest of the night.

Admit that, sometimes, your spouse has the harder job

“I get up with the baby in the middle of the night because my husband has to work the next day.” I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard this line from another sleep-deprived mother. Admittedly, I don’t get it. When our kids were younger, my husband had the option of sitting at his desk all day and plying himself with coffee. I, on the other hand, had to spend my day doing physical labor – chasing a toddler, cleaning up messes, breastfeeding. He realized this and was happy to help rock our fussy one back to sleep in the middle of the night.

My job isn’t always harder. Occasionally both boys will take a nap, and I will get to watch a TV show or read in the middle of the afternoon. I get to enjoy sunny days at the park. I never get stuck in a boring conference room, eating stale bagels for dinner, and hammering out a project until midnight. Each of our jobs has its ups and downs and neither one of us has automatic claim to the “I’ve had a long day so please grab my slippers and hand me a cocktail” card.

Play to your strengths

If it’s a bath night in our house, I'm almost always the one doing it. I have a higher tolerance for getting splashed and for repeating myself a thousand times to “please leave the water in the tub” than my husband. While I bathe the children, he’ll typically finish the dishes and pick up around the house. I don’t do bath time because "I’m the stay-at-home mom so I’m supposed to," I do it because I don’t mind rubber ducky duty.

My grandparents, despite raising children in the 1950's, had a similar strategy. My grandfather often helped with cooking because he loved it and it brought him joy, even if it wasn’t typically what men of that era did. There’s no definitive way to divide the household labor.

But don’t fall into the “I’ll just do it” habit

Sure, I can pack the diaper bag faster than my husband because I do it every day. That doesn’t stop me from asking him to pack up when we’re getting ready to head out on a Saturday morning outing. When you're taking care of the children and house all day every day, it’s natural you will become more efficient at some tasks. However, that is exactly how all the work ends up falling on you. Get used to spreading jobs around, including to your children when they are old enough. The stay-at-home mom doesn’t have to be the one who does everything. Don’t try to.

If I tried to accomplish every single household task while raising children, I’m pretty sure I would end up self-medicating like the housewives of the 1950's and 60's did. If spending more time with my children means that my husband needs to scrub the toilets occasionally, that is more than fine with me. A traditional division of labor places an absurd amount of work on women. Divvying it up more equitably benefits the entire household.



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