Does 50-50 Chore-Splitting an Equal Marriage Make?
Not long ago, I was doing the dishes and railing at my husband. I was holding forth on how important it is that we create deep, meaningful lives so that our nine-year-old daughter, Lillian, knows a spiritual way of living is possible and while I'm on the subject, it's critical that Lillian see us as equal partners because 'I was going full bore, barely pausing to breathe, when Christopher opened the fridge and asked, 'Why can't you be like other women and shop?' I laughed, he grinned, and we launched into making weekend plans, the intensity of my tirade forgotten. But later, lying in bed, I replayed his remark. There was a weariness under his playfulness. There was something about my vehemence, my insistence about creating meaning and how it was linked to being equal partners, that was tiring us both. Maybe that shouldn't be a surprise, I thought. I've been insisting for a long time.
We - ve both been self-employed most of our adult lives, Chris as a cinematographer and film teacher, me as a writer, creativity coach, and retreat leader; before we were married 14 years ago I had declared to him, ' I'm not doing it all. Cleaning, cooking, grocery, laundry: pick two.' Chris chose grocery shopping and cooking' but did he really have a choice? Did I really think a 50-50 divvying up of the Big Four household chores constituted an 'equal partnership - ? Had I ever given any serious thought to how I defined that concept? What did Chris think it meant? And what did it have to do with creating a 'meaningful life - ? Maybe our working model needed work.
I tossed and turned and cogitated. I realized that I judged other couples who I thought didn't have an explicitly 'equal' partnership, who simply settled into an implicit understanding of who does what that, I thought, often came at a cost to the female half of the partnership. But why so judgmental, and so quick to it? Conversations over coffee with other moms, and with some of my coaching clients, let me know that a lot of women were struggling with a complex historical and emotional stew, a maddening trifecta of guilt, anger, and resentment, as they fitfully balanced traditional 'women's work' with the staking of claims for their own dreams and goals. I had thought I was such a vehement feminist in my own home because I couldn't stand to see women on the losing side of this equation. But now I wondered if there was a more personal reason.
I couldn't sleep. I padded down the hall to Chris's study and plunked down on the chaise. 'Honey, why do you wish I shopped more?' He laughed and groaned at the same time. 'Do you wish I were a more traditional wife, that we had a more traditional marriage?' I added, just to hear him say, 'No.'
I tried to breathe deeply to control the sudden rage I felt. 'Why, dear?'
- Who wouldn't want a wife who cleaned without making a peep, who made dinner every night, and who seduced me soon after?' Okay, Jennifer, breathe. Look into his eyes. Maybe he's been invaded by alien pod people.
- But what about my work, my interests, my life? What about the fact I make more money than you? In this dream scenario, would you make all the money?'
- I'd have to, wouldn't I?'
I pounced. 'So the only reason we have an equal relationship is because I can buy my equality? In this new scenario, you'd buy my compliance?' Chris looked completely bewildered, then shrugged. 'All I meant was I'd have to make more money than I do now, to replace what you're earning.'
I wanted to slap him or at least scream, but instead I mumbled good night, kissed his head, and headed back to bed. I puzzled over our conversation for the next few days. Is it okay that Chris does half the housework simply because I insist (is that any different then when a woman does it because a man insists)? I felt such rage - and yet Chris had always done his share, albeit with the prod of my vehemence at his back. I broached the subject again a few days later, after Lillian was tucked in bed. 'So, what I heard you saying the other night was, if you could, you would magically want me to have my own life and take care of the details like cleaning, cooking, and even childcare.'
He considered this, shook his head. 'No, if you did all that you'd either have to be Superwoman or such a pansy I could walk all over you. I just wish we could hire a housekeeper and a chef.'
Something opened up for me then, and I began wrestling my thoughts into a clearer picture. Chris doesn't think I should do the housework because I'm a woman, he just doesn't want to do it himself. He doesn't think I'm less of a woman for not doing it all myself, and he clearly doesn't feel coerced to do his share. So then why do I feel, if he doesn't do exactly his share all the time, that I'll somehow be prevented from writing my novel, creating a one-woman show, leading retreats'somehow prevented from making meaning? Chris has always been deeply proud and very supportive of my creative efforts, in both practical and emotional ways.
I looked at this man I've known for 19 years, almost half my life, and I got it. The picture came into focus. My vehemence over who does what was a cover for my fear that I'm not really capable of creating a life shining with meaning and creative grace - that what I've done to date is all smoke and mirrors. It reminded me, ironically, of several of my coaching clients who have trouble granting themselves time to create because they're not Mozart or Tolstoy. 'Why should I take time away from my family if what I produce isn't going to be great?' they ask. I take the time and then feel gnawed by doubt and guilt, which makes me gnaw at Chris. I'm caught between logical entitlement and illogical guilt.
I try to recall a bit I read in The Feminine Face of God, a pioneering work on women's spirituality that came out in 1992. I search my shelves and pull down the book, in which psychologist Sherry Ruth Anderson and spiritual leader Patricia Hopkins ask, among other questions, 'What happens when we no longer automatically modulate our personalities or reorder our priorities to accommodate a husband or a lover? Does the glue that holds male-female relationships together break down?' They found that the immediate answer to the latter question, in terms of their research over four years tracking 38 relationships, was yes. But if one is not willing to defer, is there no other glue that can hold men and women together?
I have to believe there is. Any couple who's able to successfully, mostly happily, hold things together must have their own formula. I know what glue holds Chris and me together: There's the mysterious force called love, certainly, but there's also the fact that he believes in me - my abilities, my creative projects, my quest to make meaning'sometimes more than I do. And vice versa. We value each other's time, freedom, and dreams as much as we value our own. We are partners in our hopes. Well. Sounds like a pretty true definition of 'equal' and 'meaningful.'
I wondered whether the next question for many of us to ask is, 'Do we have the courage to fully utilize the freedom and choice available to us or do we hide behind housework or battles over who does what?' My own answer: I'll never be much of a shopper, and Chris will never cheerily volunteer to vacuum, but I'm throwing out the rigid yardstick measuring how fair things are in our home. I trust my husband to have my best interests at heart. Now it's time to trust myself, too.
About the author:
Jennifer Louden is a best-selling author of five books, including the classic The Woman's Comfort Book and her newest Comfort Secrets for Busy Women. She has appeared on numerous TV and radio programs, including Oprah. She's also a certified coach, creator of learning events and unique life balance products. Her upcoming retreat with Master Coach Molly Gordon is on how to 'do' change with grace and confidence. Visit www.comfortqueen.com/retreats