I’ve been married for 10 years to a pretty great guy. We have two kids, a dog and a house. And yet I feel stuck in domestic drudgery. I work full time, take care of most of the inside-the-house chores and organize all the activities for the kids and family. I go all day from the time I wake up at 5:45 a.m. until I collapse into bed at 10 p.m.
My husband and I have had several discussions and sometimes arguments about sharing the household workload. We make new agreements about duties that my husband can take on, but within a week these agreements have fizzled out. When I ask him to take on tasks with our children, such as bedtime or supervising homework, it generally devolves into screaming matches between him and the kids. My resentment is starting to affect my sexual desire for him. I feel less like he’s my partner and more like he’s another child.
Is this simply the reality of being a working mother? Should I give up on my feminist dreams of sharing the child care and household duties? Do I accept that my husband is doing his best and perhaps is limited by his parenting and organizational skills? Do I swallow my anger, do I fight for more or do I just walk away?
Cheryl Strayed: Your letter came to us in response to a call I put out on my social media, in which I solicited letters on several topics we’d be addressing in this column and on our podcast. No topic received more responses than the one you wrote to us about, Drudge, which speaks to how common your frustration is. Most of the letters could’ve been written by the same person — all of them women who described a situation similar to yours: a “great guy” partner who doesn’t do his equal share of the domestic and organizational tasks required to run a household (and, in some cases, also raise children). Some people call this kind of work “emotional labor”; others call it “invisible labor.” Whatever term we use, it isn’t fair. It isn’t right. And it’s a reality for a significant percentage of women in heterosexual partnerships, especially those who are also raising children.
Steve Almond: One of the most despicable tricks of the patriarchy is to peddle the myth that men can’t do more around the house because they weren’t raised doing so. Trace that logic out a bit, and you arrive at a kind of weaponized incompetence: Your husband isn’t good at certain tasks, so he shouldn’t have to do them. No. He should learn how to do them. Negligence as a domestic partner is unacceptable. Your exhaustion and unhappiness alone should be enough to motivate him. Why isn’t it? Is your husband O.K. with you feeling run-down and exploited? Is he O.K. with you thinking of him as a child, rather than a grown man? I’m posing these questions because it’s clear from your letter than you’ve asked your husband for more help repeatedly. The time has come for a reckoning in which you renegotiate the terms of your marriage. I’d strongly recommend that you seek the help of a counselor, who can make sure you’re both saying everything you need to say — and listening to each other. Is this another burden in your already brutal schedule? Yes. Is it frightening? Yes. But until you find a greater measure of equality in your union, you’re not going to be able to restore your faith in the “pretty great guy” you married.
CS: Your dream of “sharing the child care and household duties” is not a minor wish. I encourage you to address this conflict in your marriage with the seriousness you would in response to anything that contradicted your deepest values. You wouldn’t tolerate it if your husband repeatedly lied to you, would you? So why are you tolerating this? My hunch is that it’s because on some level you’re not entirely sure your demands are valid. Perhaps, like many of us, you’ve internalized the notion that men are incapable of this kind of labor — that, as you say, your husband is “doing his best,” when in truth he’s not doing much at all. But capability is not the issue. Your husband hasn’t taken on his share of the domestic work because it’s acceptable to him that you do most of it, likely because he’s internalized the same messages you have. Women in cultures all around the world have long been expected to perform most of the tasks related to caring for a home and children, after all. This doesn’t let him off the hook. It simply explains his behavior. I think it’d be helpful to discuss this dynamic with him — not the one that includes only the two of you, pitted against each other in a who-does-what argument, but one that acknowledges that this is a cultural problem and one part of solving it on the micro level is recognizing that there are macro reasons the imbalances in your relationship exist. Then rebalance them. Tell your husband you won’t be doing his share of the emotional and domestic labor anymore and follow through. If you don’t, your resentment will likely grow into a bitterness that will doom your marriage.
SA: At the heart of your letter is an effort to square the reality of being “a working mother” with your “feminist dream” of sharing domestic duties. Part of the problem we face as a culture is inherent in those terms. “Working mother” implies that only moms employed outside the home are truly working, which is both absurd and morally obscene. (Do we call fathers employed outside the home “working fathers”?) What this term helps do, unintentionally, is render work inside the home invisible — which is the crux of the problem here. Your husband, like most men, chooses not to acknowledge, or effectively perform, this labor. And while I agree that demanding a more equitable division of labor represents a “feminist dream,” at its core it’s really a dream of universal, gender-blind justice. All you’re asking for from your husband is that he share in the domestic burdens of your shared life. The same expectation should apply to any two partners, of any two genders. To be clear: You’re not asking for an exact division of labor. Every domestic partnership forges its own contract, with partners performing different duties. But it only endures if both parties feel seen and supported. That part of the contract is nonnegotiable. Your job now is to make that clear to him, and to begin the work of forging a new contract. The answer to your question of whether you should walk away from this marriage resides in whether he’s willing to do that work — not for you, but with you.