Documenting All the Things

Our first step in understanding all the things that need to happen for our rich, full lives to go well was to try to write them down.

Jessica and I stood together in front of the large drafting table, notating tasks on post-its. We started slowly and then hummed along. We weren’t putting everything on the table to count who does more, but it was hard to quiet my defensive desire to itemize my tasks and prove they stack up. Secretly I was scared I’d come up short.

This feeling is a key reason to do this project.

Our shared goal with this process (and this blog) is to document all these things, and to understand who does what and why. Then we’ll be able to make decisions together about how our household runs, and the changes we need to make individually and together.

A few of my observations on the massive pile of post-its, and the process of writing them:

Emotional and domestic labor, often invisible, makes for lots of post-its.
I know this intellectually. I have even ranted about it in secret Facebook groups now and then, talking about how many men need to step up … yet I find that many tasks that Jessica put on the drafting table are not top-of-mind for me. The itemization of this work in the form of post-its makes it visible. Buying shoes for the kids. Seasonal clothing switches. Re-stocking dish soap. Creating Evites. Responding to invitations. Planning family events. We host Thanksgiving every year, sometimes for 40 guests. I make a tasty pan of roasted root vegetables (and rake in the praise for them because I’m a man that cooks a couple tasty dishes). Jessica is the mastermind of the event, planning the details and making sure everyone is comfortable, safe, sated, has a place to sit and a place to stay. This work – being the architect of the whole event – is labor that would be scary and uncomfortable for me to take on.

Isolating components is hard.
I struggled to break the tasks I feel largely responsible for into components. “Do the Taxes,” for instance, is a very big complicated deal at our house. It involves a household employee, rental property, two schedule Cs, and various filing deadlines and insurance requirements that occur throughout the year. It also, for me, involves a lot of anxiety. Should “Stress About the Taxes” be a separate post-it? I think doing the work to isolate these components might make me feel less stressed and more connected to Jessica. Tackling things together feels good.

We have some seriously gendered patterns.
We aren’t re-inventing common patterns for married cis-gender couples that I grew up around. I mow the lawn, load the dishwasher, handle finances, take out the garbage, deal with the snowplow guy, fix (or try to fix) the plumbing, and often work long hours. Jessica keeps us clothed, fed, and alive. She handles most parties and remembers to write thank you notes. She feels responsible (and takes responsibility) for the overall management of most day-to-day activities of our household. I usually drive.

We have tweaked some gendered patterns.
Jessica works outside our home, too – a lot. She owns a bookstore and serves on the city council. I do a wide range of household tasks related specifically to our children, and they view me as equally able to take care of them. I usually do Astrid’s bedtime and bath-time. I make sure the homework gets done. I am the main changer of diapers. I e-mail the 1st grade teacher. I take the kids to doctor’s appointments (though I don’t usually make them yet). Thanks to progressive paid leave policies at Carleton and MomsRising I spent a lot of time with both children when they were tiny.

For me, making post-its was a powerful step on this journey. There are a lot of things that need to happen for our rich, full lives to go well. These things, often undiscussed, have been stuck in our respective brains and driving our behavior, but not intentionally negotiated or agreed to. Now it’s all on the table.

All The Things That Need To Happen For Our Rich, Full Lives to Go Well

Nate and I didn’t cohabitate until we had decided to get married — he invited me to move in with him earlier in our relationship, but at 30, with a divorce under my belt and an apartment I loved, I just didn’t want the hassle of moving unless we were committed. My mother found this hilariously quaint.

When I did eventually pack up my stuff and move it around the corner to the duplex he’d bought when we were dating, we were still in the romantic glow of being almost-married. I found it charming and delightful to pack his lunches for work (complete with cute notes!). Though I felt busy at the time, in retrospect I had all the time in the world to browse for new and delicious recipes for dinner and shop at the farmer’s market. I don’t remember when I started washing his clothes along with mine. I also don’t remember when I stopped feeling responsible for taking out the trash.

Neither of us remembers negotiating anything about how we’d share the housework, because we didn’t.

We talked casually sometimes about who was doing which chores. We engaged in idle intellectual banter about the reasons, too, but we didn’t sit down and agree about any formal division of labor in the beginning (and by “beginning” I mean the first 5 years of our relationship). Everyone has patterns from past relationships, and things we’ve learned consciously or unconsciously from the domestic arrangements with which we were raised. Everyone also has preferences and talents, though any woman who’s ever had a haircut can tell you that it’s very difficult, maybe impossible, to disentangle preferences from socialization.

A lot of domestic patterns are connected to gender, but in the everyday ebb and flow of family life, in the organizing and prioritizing and constant renegotiating that happens in many of the marriages I’ve known, it’s a lot more complicated than old-fashioned assumptions about what people should do based on whether they’re men or women. Even for people who were raised, as I was, in steadfastly feminist households, the skills and interests we have, the ways we prioritize, and the assumptions we make about how to live together might be very different in ways that are linked to gender roles.

I love to cook, Nate loves to fiddle with technology. I have confidence and expertise when it comes to laundry, and I care a lot about how it’s done. If you ask those closest to me, they may even allege that I enjoy ironing (I will deny it).

Nobody has ever told me that I should care about having neatly-pressed clothes because I’m a woman, but several people in my life (one of them being my father, notably) invested the time to teach me how to do it well, because they thought I would need to know. Is the same true of my husband? I honestly don’t know, because he’s never cared whether his clothes were wrinkled. One might say this was just a matter of personal preference, that I am naturally more fastidious. But there’s another important difference that underlies whether we “care” about wrinkled clothes: he almost never has to prove anything by dressing a part at work every day, and in most of my jobs, I have.*

Nate tends to assume that home repairs are his job, and he has always kept tabs on our finances — sometimes, I’m embarrassed to admit, without my giving it a second thought. He has always been the one to call the guy to plow our driveway when it snows. I have mostly done the cooking and the laundry, and thus I always know what’s in our closets and our fridge. There have been many times when neither of us minded anything about these arrangements. But as domestic responsibilities multiply with children, bigger jobs, and more complex lives, what was once a private, quotidian display of affection (or at least a simple, emotionless task) can easily become a dreaded chore. Responsibilities can be part of what makes life rich and satisfying, but they’re better if you’ve consciously agreed to them.

So, we sat down together to document All The Things That Need To Happen For Our Rich, Full Lives to Go Well. We used a lot of post-its.

100 or so post-its on a drafting table

Like most married couples (heck, probably most roommates), we have plenty of baggage about these things, but we worked hard to leave it aside. We wanted a survey, not a scoreboard. We didn’t argue about what’s important, or tally up who does more for whom, or air our guilty feelings about the things we think we ought to be doing, but aren’t. We just wrote it all down. This was extremely satisfying, and a lot more time-consuming than we expected.

* We’ll leave the unpacking of why I had to prove my worth using every conceivable tool available to me for another day, but women who have worked in offices will not need to read that future, hypothetical blog post.

Feminism Begins at Home

The first time my husband Nate met my best friend, she stared him down over a tiny table in the bar where we were playing pool and asked, “Are you a feminist?” I was embarrassed for about eight seconds before I realized these two dear, wise people agreed on this obvious criterion for dating me. Of course they did.

Young and in love on the Santa Monica Pier, before we were married, had kids, or even lived together. Look at those carefree smiles!

For a long time, he and I debated about whether to get married at all, unsure whether we wanted to participate in an institution built on the idea of women as property, and one that, at the time, only offered its legal and social benefits to people in heterosexual relationships. But for various reasons, most of them practical and some romantic, we decided to do it. Nine years later, we have two kids (a six-year-old daughter and a one-year-old son), our second house, a family business, lots of community and volunteer commitments, a sometimes-thriving social life, and deep connections to both of our extended families. All of this would have been possible without getting married. The legal contract of our relationship is just a small detail compared to the complex commitments we’ve made, built, and rebuilt together over the years. But it sure helps with taxes and health insurance.

One of the reasons to get married (at least for us) was to establish a household together. Taxes and health insurance are part of that, and so are dishes and laundry and yard work and holiday gatherings and bedtime rituals and shopping for toothpaste. In the world of dual-wage-earner households, high expectations of parental involvement, thriving and active elders, a clear need (for us and the world) for us to be civically and socially engaged, a household has a huge number of moving parts. Both of us often feel overwhelmed by our responsibilities and the sheer complexity of the everyday. And despite our deep commitment to equality in all things, we find ourselves operating out of unexamined and even unconscious assumptions about how all that domestic and emotional labor gets done.

We see families of all shapes and sizes all around us struggling with these same things. Resentment, guilt, and frustration about chores, family relationships, and the elusive, so-called “work-life balance” are so common that on some level, it hardly seems worth talking about them. It’s obvious without even looking at the (abundant and well-thought-out) studies that domestic equality has yet to be achieved in America, even in our liberal, middle-class college town, where lots of us have the resources and flexibility to make liberating choices. Nate and I want to be as intentional about our domestic tedium as we’ve been about the foundations of our relationship. We’ve made some big decisions that have built feminism into our lives, but we think there’s room for more progress, and we’re tired of feeling guilty and frustrated. So, we’re setting out to examine our patterns and assumptions, with the goal of creating a more perfect union — one that is based on our values, and on rational, transparent, mutual commitments about the ways we want our household to work.

There’s a definite tendency to curse softly under my breath when I start to think about how we can sort through all the stuff we do, talk about it, maybe organize it a little better, maybe even agree about some new-and-improved habits and systems. Nate and I both tend to be a little on the anxious side, and looking at the big picture can trigger big feelings. So instead of talking about All the Shit We Have to Do, we have given this work another name (with a big credit to our therapist, who’s always helping us reframe):

All The Things That Need To Happen For Our Rich, Full Lives to Go Well.

We’re not sure where this process will take us, but we’re going to document it here in hopes that it might be interesting to other families who are striving to create calmer and more equitable domestic arrangements. Wish us luck.