I recently broke down crying while making some tofu lettuce wraps.
My partner and I moved in together a few months ago, and we’ve been very slow to wean ourselves off takeout and get back to cooking regularly like I used to back when I lived by myself. The move-in had coincided with a particularly turbulent time in my family life and at his job, so it was taking us quite a while to start getting into a real domestic rhythm. I told my partner I’d do some meal prep that night and, because I knew he’d had a long workweek, assured him he wouldn’t need to help me with the cooking. I could handle these lettuce wraps myself, I told him; you take the night off.
As it turns out, those wraps were a pain! There were millions of vegetables to chop, the tofu took forever to cook, the mushrooms I’d just bought from the grocery turned out to be moldy, and we didn’t own a can opener yet, so I was knocking on doors all over the building trying to find one. As I fielded one mishap after another, he kept asking if I wanted help. I kept saying no, trying to be respectful of his leisure time, but there was a kind of pressure starting to build every time I turned him down. As it got later and later into the night, I knew he was starving. Finally he asked if we wanted to save the lettuce wraps for tomorrow and just eat some leftovers for dinner tonight. I burst into tears.
When he asked me why I was crying, I was shocked at the words that came out of my mouth: I just wanted to make a nice meal for us. I just wanted to show you I can be a good girlfriend, and I can cook and take care of you and make this a nice home for us.
Yikes! I’ve never in my life consciously thought about being a “good girlfriend” or “good wife.” (I don’t even use those labels to describe our relationship!) Why was this coming out all of a sudden now that we lived together?
The roles we fall into.
As far along as we might seem on the road to gender equity, equal division of labor in the home has been frustratingly elusive. Last year a United Nations report found women do 2.6 times the amount of unpaid domestic labor that men do, including cooking, cleaning, picking up the kids from school, organizing the family schedule, and more. Part of the problem is men’s unwillingness to do their fair share in heterosexual marriages. The other half of the problem? As a society, we have yet to relinquish a certain image of domestic femininity—and the pressure to adhere to it runs deep, even among the most seemingly empowered and progressive women among us.
Take one recent study published in the journal Demography that looked at how different types of women use their time. As Fortune recently reported, that research found married women spend more time on housework than single mothers. Stop and think about that for a second! Women who have a whole live-in life partner to share all that domestic labor with still do more work at home than women who have to shoulder it all alone. Why? According to the researchers, it’s because marriage and motherhood make women feel pressured to “perform gender” by taking care of the house and family.
As a society, we have yet to relinquish a certain image of domestic femininity—and the pressure to adhere to it runs deep, even for the most empowered and progressive women among us.
“Societal norms about marriage emphasize the importance of daily rituals like home-cooked family dinners, requiring home labor that is both instrumental and symbolic of women’s femininity,” write sociologists Joanna R. Pepin, Liana C. Sayer, and Lynne M. Casper, the three co-authors behind the study. “Married mothers increase housework in part to meet expectations about home-cooked meals, clean clothes, and well-kept houses—behavior integral to contemporary definitions of appropriate behavior for wives and mothers.”
Even without the rings or the kids, that certainly seems to explain why failing to prepare a lovely meal for me and my partner stressed me out so much. In her book Hard To Do: The Surprising Feminist History of Breaking Up, journalist Kelli Korducki offers an insightful history of the cultural norms around love and relationships; she smartly points out that the social pressure to pursue “the project of cheerful domesticity” is still alive and well when you look at “a certain style of mommy blog and lifestyle Instagram account in the 21st century.”
Past research has directly demonstrated the amount of time women spend on housework increases when they move in with a partner or get married and decreases when they exit relationships. Even when accounting for differences in employment, number of children, other family members living in the house, and other factors, Pepin and her team found married women spent 2.95 hours per day on domestic labor while single women did 2.41 hours. That’s a difference of about 32 minutes, Fortune points out, which might seem small but certainly adds up over time. And egregiously, several studies have also shown that when couples become parents, mothers’ household work increases while fathers’ household work decreases.
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Removing the burden from women’s shoulders.
This is no easy task. Pepin, the lead author on the Demography study, stresses the importance of larger cultural shifts—including changes to public policy and workplace expectations—in order to thoroughly address the problem.
“A lot of research suggests changes in men’s behavior is needed as part of the next phase toward more equal relationships. But it’s not as simple as telling men to do their share,” she tells health news. “It is difficult for individual actions to overcome structural barriers. Men are facing gender constraints too, such as expectations for long work hours. Societal changes that allow for greater flexibility in accommodating nonconventional roles, such as parental leave, would certainly help.”
That said, in the meantime, women married to men can and should take any necessary steps to ensure they’re not getting weighed down by an unfair share of the work at home. Research shows women living with those kinds of unequal home dynamics tend to have poorer health, more risk of depression, and less happy relationships, and Pepin’s study found married women’s leisure time and sleep also take a hit, to no one’s surprise.
“It is important to be aware of this issue and for couples to continually evaluate how things are going so that both partners feel they are getting a fair shake,” Pepin says.
So yes—if you’re a woman living with a partner who’s a man, talk about division of household labor with your partner, directly. Tell them about your concerns about fairness and getting your deserved share of personal downtime, and create a plan or system that facilitates equality between you two. If you have no idea how to do this or where to start, I recommend reading health coach Angela Watson Robertson’s helpful guide on 50/50 shared child care (which I have bookmarked to send to all my friends as soon as they get pregnant). Whether you have kids or not, her thorough instructions are useful for framing what these conversations should look like.
In my relationship, one way my partner and I keep this conversation alive and active on a daily basis is through a practice of gratitude. Whenever either of us notices the other person has done something for the benefit of the house, we directly say thank you.
“Thank you for taking out the recycling.”
“Thank you for scooping the litter.”
“Thank you for clearing out the dish rack.”
“Thank you for restocking the TP.”
Yes, this means we’re saying thank you a lot, constantly, for the same things over and over. That’s the whole point. You should always be highly conscious of the work your partner is doing, especially if you’re a man. Not only will it remind you how much better they make your life every day, but it might just remind you to get off the couch and do some dishes.
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