Drawing the Lines
October 25th, 2010

At some point, in the early stages of a marriage (or other cohabitant relationship), we draw lines.  We answer questions like:  Who pays the bills?  Who does the grocery shopping?  Who cooks dinner?  Who does the dishes?  Who cleans the house?  Who does the yard work?  Who gets the oil in the cars changed? 

Over time we add to the list.  Who cares for the kids, or handles the childcare logistics?  Who walks the dogs?  Who gives them their monthly flea and heartworm preventative?  Who bathes the dogs?  Who brushes them?  Who sweeps and vacuums the house because the dogs shed so constantly it’s a wonder they’re not bald?  (Sorry.  The dogs are in the midst of one of their biannual shed-fests.  I’m going a little crazy.  But I digress…)  Who figures out whether or not to refinance the mortgage again?  And so forth and so on. 

I got to thinking about all these things because of a comment I left on one of Big Little Wolf’s posts over at Daily Plate of Crazy last week.  She wrote a post about cash versus credit and posed the question: How do you pay for your groceries?  In my not-at-all-rambling comment I mentioned that I am a bit debt averse, but we pay for everything (everything!) on credit because we have a killer rewards program and because GAP is very financially savvy and does a top-notch job of keeping track of balances, making sure everything is paid off each month, and knowing when longer term balances are due. 

The follow-up thought to that comment is one that I’ve addressed in my head many times before.  GAP and I maintain very traditional gender roles.  He handles nearly all the finances, the yard work, and the dinner dishes.  I do the cooking, the grocery shopping, the coordination of nanny, housekeeper, and dog walker, and most of the other dog stuff.  Except for the fact that I have a job, we could be Ozzie and Harriet.  How on earth did this come to be? 

Sometimes I’m self-conscious about where we’ve drawn the lines.  Sometimes it seems like GAP should be responsible for a dinner or two and I should edge the lawn from time to time.  But in spite of my self-consciousness, I never wish we’d actually drawn the lines differently.  You see, I like cooking.  I enjoy my relationship with our nanny.  GAP loves tinkering with our investments and (I think) gets some sick sense of satisfaction out of balancing our many checking and credit accounts each month.  And I don’t really like the idea of being pushed around by some misguided application of feminism.  This is what works for us.

I have girlfriends who handle all of the finances and whose husbands whip up dinner every night.  I have friends who’ve drawn the line straight down the middle in all departments.  And we’re lucky to live in a culture where we can each choose differently.  We should all find the path that works for us and stick to it until it doesn’t anymore.    

Nevertheless, there’s something that feels strange about choosing the role that many women were forced into for so many generations.  However, if feminism is about anything it’s about options.  It’s about choice.  And if it means that we can’t still choose for me to cook dinner and for my husband to pay the bills then it failed, plain and simple.

15 Responses to “Drawing the Lines”

  1. TheKitchenWitch Says:

    I, too, feel a little uneasy sometimes about the traditionality of our roles in the household. I cook, clean, do laundry. He does the bills and car maintenance. I think my roles are more arduous day to day, but I loathe any car-related tasks and appreciate what he does.

    I sure wish he was a handy type of guy, but at least we can hire that stuff out…

  2. Gale Says:

    Kitch – We each maintain our own cars, which is fine by me. I got lucky and GAP is surprisingly handy for a lawyer, which I didn’t realize when I married him. Bonus!!

  3. Rebecca Says:

    We are pretty traditional in the home and probably have become moreso since moving overseas. But yes, there is always a lingering feeling of letting down my gender. But the things I do – cook, clean, finances – I do because I’m particular about the way they’re executed, so I might as well do it myself so I get the outcome I want. Although, I’ve probably developed my particularities b/c I was always doing them in the first place!

  4. Jan Says:

    I was a charter subscriber to Ms. Magazine. I worked for a newspaper, and in the television news busines, and I’ll tell you that women who survive in either one aren’t sissies. Those are my credentials. But, for my entire married life (34 years) I’ve resented the values that the feminists and now the general female employed population, put on homemaking and all those “gender-defined” chores you’re talking about. They do NOT require an apology, a defense, or guilt. They can be done mindlessly: pre-packaged food, cheap and tacky clothes bought with little thought or planning, a messy, dirty and dis-ordered house, a chaotic family life, an un-balanced checkbook, lamps that need re-wiring, a lawnmower that runs out of oil and freezes up (my fault). Or, it can all be done well, with intent, creativity and love. They are not easy jobs, but doing them can pay dividends. I liked the work. Quit apologizing, ladies, and enjoy yourselves, whatever you’re doing “in the home.” You’re not letting anyone down!

  5. Gale Says:

    Rebecca – Thanks for your input here. I’m sorry that you feel that you’re letting women down. I certainly don’t think you are. As Jan mentioned, doing domestic jobs well is not easy or meaningless. You have clearly set high standards for yourself and take pride in doing things well, and that’s nothing to apologize for.

    Jan – Thankfully, I think with my generation we are turning a corner regarding the judgment that you mentioned. I think today women with careers are more supportive of women who stay home, and vice versa. I suspect that in the ’80s many women who maintained careers didn’t understand why other women chose to stay home. And I suspect that you are not the only woman who resented the judgment of your professional peers. But with time we’ve all become more educated about the costs and benefits of each decision, and can choose the path that suits us best while still understanding that it won’t be the best choice for everyone.

  6. Laura H. Says:

    In a lot of ways I am the role reversal you speak of….I pay the bills, decide when to refinance, shop for the next car, sell our used cars, and my husband does the household shopping, the cooking and the laundry. I also manage our children’s school (but my husband is always present at conferences, Parents as Teachers, etc.), doctor’s appointments and the whole family’s social calendar. We hire out the housekeeping and lawn care and other handyman jobs that are out of the my husband’s range.

    The important thing here is checking in with each other on how things are going. For instance, my husband, although not in charge of the finances, always knows what we have in savings or how much we have left to pay on the car, because I report that information to him and he sees our bills and statements. For me feminism rares it head when I find out my friend who had been married for 20 years just discovered that her husband blew their savings on gambling and strip clubs. For the most part, I feel deeply sorry for her at the end of her marriage and the betrayal her partner committed. But a little part of me wonders how did you not know the savings account had been drained, investments cashed, and credit cards maxed?

    So while I agree that feminism is about options, and that means it’s totally okay to choose cooking, cleaning, childcare, it’s also about empowerment and personal responsibility. Not having any idea the financial rug is being pulled out from under you is a personal responsibility fail.

  7. Anne@lifeinpencil.com Says:

    I agree with Laura’s point about communication. As long as the roles aren’t a foregone conclusion, take on whatever you enjoy! I think what can be difficult, however, is that the “gender-appropriate” tasks can simply be more time consuming. The checkbook doesn’t necessarily need attention every day, but the dogs do need to be fed every day. They’ve done a lot of research on the fact that the work women often do in the home keeps them busier. Think of the winter…lawn care is next to nothing, but vacuuming probably increases! So it’s important to watch the division of responsibility so nobody feels taken for granted.

    I also agree with Jan in the sense that work in the home has often been portrayed as tedious…and while feminism (and homemaking) have made major strides in the PR department, I do think work in the home is still often undervalued, even amongst supportive groups of women.

  8. Kristen @ Motherese Says:

    What a great post and a fascinating follow-up discussion. I clicked over from my Google Reader to make a few points, but all of them have been made much more eloquently by my fellow readers. Thanks for the food for thought today, Gale!

  9. Christine Says:

    What food for thought! To be honest I don’t think the division in our house is fair, but that’s my own fault. I tend to just do so that things can be my way. It’s unhealthy but true. And now, 10 years later it’s hard to shed roles that have become so familiar. In our house it’s largely traditional and I’m okay with that. I just wish we’d actually talkit through more, rather than always assuming.

  10. ayala Says:

    An interesting post Gale!! My husband loves to cook so I do the dishes. He is responsible for the outside chores and I am responsible for the inside. I think we found a way to do what we think we do best and it’s working for us:)

  11. Cathy @ All I Want To Say Says:

    I do all the traditional women’s chores, and work full-time too. Just goes to show the superhero in us modern women – we can do everything our mom’s did, and that of our dad’s too. Kind of kidding here, but seriously, working moms do a lot.

  12. BigLittleWolf Says:

    Whatever lines are drawn, that are comfortable and workable for a couple, seems like the “right answer” if there is such a thing.

    Where problems arise, I believe, is when there is lack of appreciation for the value of what each partner brings to the figurative table – whether it’s cooking, cleaning, parenting, breadwinning, or anything else.

    The danger in the traditional roles (my marriage followed semi-traditional lines) is if something happens in the marriage. If one partner has always taken care of paying bills, for example, will the other know what’s involved? If one has always dealt with the car, the home repairs, or managing parental discipline, what happens when you find yourself having to do it all?

    I’m not trying to throw a monkey wrench into the (happy) marital picture, but this is one of the reasons that “traditional” marriage was scorned during the “feminist” years. The need to know how to navigate the necessities of daily living. A measure of practical independence, should something happen in the couple.

  13. Gale Says:

    BLW – I wondered what your perspective as a single parent would be, and I appreciate this highly pragmatic comment. There is a certain freedom in relinquishing various tasks to your spouse as long as everything is humming along happily. But we each need to know how to pick up the reins should the need arise. I wonder if a temporary “job swap” of sorts would be beneficial to GAP and me. He would be responsible for babysitters, dog grooming, grocery shopping, etc. I would be responsible for bill paying and yard work. At the very least I think we’d each develop a stronger appreciation for the other’s contributions. Thanks again for your input here.

  14. Eva @ EvaEvolving Says:

    This is such an interesting – and tricky – topic. I started a response yesterday… but realized that I was claiming to do most everything to keep our household running smoothly. I clean, do laundry, pay the bills and manage the budget, do the yardwork, run errands, take the dog to the vet. But this isn’t fair to my husband. He cooks the majority of our meals. He helps with laundry, and cleaning when I ask. He deals with all our technology, troubleshooting when the internet isn’t working. He takes care of little stresses, like yesterday when the pilot light on the water heater went out. So this topic is very nuanced. And I think, often, we all over-exaggerate our own contributions and under-estimate our partner’s contributions. Do you think this is accurate?

    There’s another consideration, and that is how much do you enjoy the tasks you’re responsible for? I love doing yardwork, so even though some would consider it “man’s work” I’m happy to be responsible for this. Husband loves cooking – and honestly, we eat better when he cooks than when I do. So you need to try to balance the chores you enjoy with those you can’t stand.

    It seems this is so unique for every couple. There is no right way or wrong way. It’s just a matter of negotiating and revising and talking about what works for *you* as a couple.

  15. Ghosts, Goblins, and Ghouls | Big Little Wolf's Daily Plate of Crazy Says:

    [...] week, Gale at Ten Dollar Thoughts wrote about the division of responsibilities among couples – how the lines are drawn when it comes to bringing home the bacon, household chores, [...]