Claire, our oldest, had only been in Kindergarten for two weeks when she sat on the floor of our living room picking up her toys and through gritted teeth she said to me, “Mom, you know what? Cleaning up is NOT my destiny.”
What I wanted to do was pull out my white handkerchief and wave it at her shouting “Preach, Girl! Ain’t that the truth!”
But, I’m the mom, so I sat on the floor with her and told her she was right, but that cleaning up still needed to be done and I would help her.
Every year The Gates Foundation writes their Annual Letter addressing the issues around the world that the foundation will focus on. This year’s letter caught my attention in a really personal way. One of the issues they addressed is the global inequity between genders of who performs unpaid work. In Chapter 3 of The Annual Letter, Melinda Gates writes:
“Unless things change, girls today will spend hundreds of thousands more hours than boys doing unpaid work simply because society assumes it’s their responsibility.
Unpaid work is what it says it is: It’s work, not play, and you don’t get any money for doing it. But every society needs it to function. You can think of unpaid work as falling into three main categories: cooking, cleaning, and caring for children and the elderly. Who packs your lunch? Who fishes the sweaty socks out of your gym bag? Who hassles the nursing home to make sure your grandparents are getting what they need?”
The letter backs up her observations with this eye-opening chart:
The entire letter is worth reading. You can find it here: 2016 Annual Letter
Then Ariel, a laundry detergent company in India, released this commercial with their #sharetheload campaign:
As I thought about the issues this commercial and the letter from The Gates Foundation bring up, about how a lack of energy and electricity create a lack of opportunity, about the time it takes women to do the things that are simply necessary for family and community life, I reflected on my own first-world version of these scenarios. I am struck by just how enormously this idea of sharing the load of unpaid work has impacted my life and my family.
While, by and large, these stats are pulled from actual data of actual families that show that women really do take on the majority of unpaid tasks, our family has been doing things differently. From the beginning of our relationship, Tony and I have looked at our life together as one whole life. We share a house, it is our home. We share a bank account, it is our money. We have three daughters, they are our children. So, when it comes to the unpaid work that life requires, it is our work. We share the load together.
Currently, Tony works a full-time (paid) job as a designer. Currently, I am home full-time (unpaid) with our kids. This is the way we’ve set up our life because this seems to work best for our team, for now. But it wasn’t always this way. We both used to work full-time. After the birth of our first baby, I still worked full-time – some of those hours were at home with my tiny crawling around and pounding on the keys of my laptop. Some of those hours were in an office. While I was pregnant with our second, I took on a new job that required me to be in the office full-time while Tony stayed home taking care of our toddler and working on his new freelance business. Even now, I wouldn’t call myself a “housewife” – I didn’t get married to a house or make vows to do chores. I married a person to build a life with. For different seasons we have made different arrangements based on what was best for our life as a whole, not based on Tony being the man and Michelle being the woman.
I never set out to be a stay-at-home mom, though I feel fortunate that I get to do this for the season we are in. But, here’s the kicker: I don’t do the stay-at-home work alone. Even though Tony works full-time and has a growing freelance business, he still participates fully in the unpaid work. I mean it. He bathes the girls, sweeps the floor, cooks dinner, and folds laundry. I know, I’m starting to look a little useless in this scenario as the wife. But, when I think about the women around the world and in my neighborhood whose partners see the unpaid work as “women’s work” I realize why people ask me how I have time to have a blog and podcast with three small children at home.
Chores and Dreams
Sharing the load, doing the unpaid work together as a team, has freed up hours for me to pursue the things that are important to me. It’s also freed up hours for Tony to pursue the things that are important to him. We do the mundane things together so that we can also do the dreaming together. It reminds me of something we say to the girls, a phrase that came straight out of Tony’s own childhood:
“You gotta do the Gottas before you do the Wannas”
If I were stuck doing the “Gottas” all alone all the time, I certainly wouldn’t have time to do the “Wannas.” Studies show that even when both partners work outside of the home, the women still take on the majority of household tasks. Women around the world do not have time to do the things they might want to do. They don’t even have time to imagine what they might want to do. But, I do.
You may or may not have noticed that we’ve slowed our pace here at #staymarried. We aren’t posting as often as we used to, but that’s not because I’m stuck folding laundry, cooking, and doing the dishes all alone. We’ve slowed down here because we are making space for me to work on one of the biggest “Wannas” I’ve ever had. After years of grazing over the idea, I am finally writing the book. I’M WRITING A FREAKING BOOK! I’m pursuing a dream that takes a lot of time and energy and I’m able to do it because Team Peterson does the unpaid work together. We share the load. If we didn’t share the load and I still wanted to write this book, I’d find myself in the same situation that J.K. Rowling was in when she said,
“People very often say to me, ‘How did you do it? How did you raise a baby and write a book?’ and the answer is, I didn’t do housework for four years! I’m not Superwoman, and living in squalor that was the answer.”
Truly, the only reason I’m not living in squalor while I write this book is because I have a partner who has taken on more of the load so that I can do this. Our life is not divyed up into my chores and his chores that we never cross over. Sure, there are things I do most of the time and things he does most of the time. He generally takes out the trash, but that doesn’t prevent him from texting me if he forgets to bring it down to the curb on trash day to ask if I wouldn’t mind taking care of it.
It might be considered anti-feminist of me to give my husband all of the credit for being such an evolved human that he can see that laundry and dishes and cooking are not intrinsically women’s jobs. So instead, I’ll give credit to our mothers.
Tony’s mother worked outside of the home as far back as he can remember, for many years as a computer technician. Housework still needed doing, people still needed to eat, and she took care of a lot of it, but that’s not all she did. He grew up with a high regard for his mother and saw that she offered the world, and him, more than chores. It was his mother that first put a computer in front of him and taught him the basics of coding and computer language. He’s never questioned the tenacity, determination, or intelligence of a woman and learned early on to appreciate those things.
My mother was also tenacious and determined. As a single-mother from the time I was three years old, I don’t suppose she had a choice. She worked in male dominated industries and went to school in male dominated fields my whole life. I remember her rising early, wrapping her round 5’1” body in a thick flannel shirt, tightening her steel-toe boots, and tucking her hard hat under her arm as she left to do her work at the steel mill in El Paso, Texas. She’d leave warm Pillsbury croissants on the counter for my sister and I to eat for breakfast while we waited to be picked up and taken to school by our grandfather an hour later. Though she had no spouse to speak of, partnerships rose up around us, mostly in the form of grandparents and aunts, to share the load with her. From an early age, I have watched my mother bring more to the world than a clean kitchen floor.
So, my husband and I come by this partnership and our way of sharing the load naturally. I realize many of you may not. But if you start now, if you can begin to find ways to share and divide the work that just has to be done, maybe your children won’t have to work quite so hard at it when they marry someday. A study published in 2014 in Psychological Science found that when fathers and mothers share chores more equally, their daughters tend to have broader professional ambitions. When we share the load, we aren’t just making teamwork a priority for ourselves, we’re modeling the importance of teamwork and partnership for our kids.
If you begin to take an honest look at who is doing what around your house and how you might be able to divide that list a little better, you’ll have room to dream and time to tackle those dreams together. You’ll see one another as teammates looking out for each other and cheering each other on. If you can share the load, you can create something that feels less like drudgery and more like a thrill to #staymarried.
P.S. If one of your dreams has been to start your own blog, I’d love to help. I’ve created a free series over at Medium to share with you everything I learned in the first four years of this #staymarried project. I hope you’ll join me there. It would be my honor to help you launch (or re-launch) that blog idea you keep mulling over while you do the dishes and fold the laundry.
P.P.S. I WROTE THE BOOK!
Whew! I’m so thankful to be married to a man who will do whatever it takes to make room for me to pursue my dreams.
The #staymarried Book is meant to be an invitation into your own marriage. My friend Nate Bagley from First7Years said, “This is the kind of book that would make the Pope wish he were married.” You can buy it anywhere you buy books. For real! You can also find out more about it here. I hope you like it.
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