In previous generations, household and child care duties were mainly the domain of women. Though men today contribute more in these areas, the division of domestic labor still feels inequitable to many women, the majority of whom also work outside the home.
One major reason: In heterosexual partnerships, women tend to bear the brunt of the mental load — made up of often-invisible tasks like anticipating needs, planning, decision-making and delegating tasks that are required for a household to function. It’s a topic that has generated a lot of cultural conversation in recent years.
But another reason for the domestic labor disparity, and one that may be overlooked, is that the types of domestic tasks men generally take on versus the ones women typically do are inherently different.
Research on the division of household labor has found that men are often in charge of tasks they can do on their own schedule, “while women pick up responsibilities that are difficult to put off or reschedule and inherently forfeit their right to choose when the tasks get done,” author Eve Rodsky wrote in her 2019 book “Fair Play.”
Rodsky refers to these immovable tasks as the “daily grinds” — “time-sucking jobs that must be done regularly, repetitively, and many at a very specific time.”
For example, women in relationships with men tend to be the ones to prepare meals, wash the dishes, make school lunches and do day care or school drop-offs and pickups — all time-sensitive, often inflexible tasks that punctuate their daily routines.
Plus, these responsibilities also tend to be highly repetitive in nature.
“You mop the floor, and then your kid comes in with muddy shoes, and all of a sudden, you have to do it again,” Darby Saxbe, a University of Southern California psychology professor who studies the impact of family transitions on parents, told HuffPost.
“Meals are similar,” she continued. “You sit down. You eat a nice dinner that maybe takes an hour to cook. You’re done eating 20 minutes later, and then you’re hungry again at the next meal time.”
The men in these relationships, on the other hand, are often responsible for things like home and car repairs, lawn care and one-and-done type tasks like putting together furniture or installing a new appliance.
“You can determine when you want to do them and you don’t have to do them multiple times a day like with meals or cleaning up,” Saxbe said. “Even something like taking out the trash, which I think is a little more stereotypically male task, is more of a once-a-week or a couple-times-a-week task, that unless you wait ’til your trash cans are totally overflowing, you have a little discretion about exactly when you’re going to do it.”
All of this takes a toll on women.
As a result of the many inflexible demands on their plates, “women often may feel more like prisoners of their household routine,” Saxbe has previously said. Constantly rushing from one immovable task to the next can make women in heterosexual partnerships feel trapped, scatterbrained and stressed-out.
“The person who’s more responsible for the daily inflexible tasks loses autonomy over their time while the other maintains theirs,” Laura Danger — an educator who facilitates workshops on domestic labor and co-hosts the “Time To Lean” podcast — told HuffPost.
“Being responsible for meeting the essential everyday needs of the household is not the same as mowing the lawn once a week or resetting the WiFi. If you get busy and forget to trim the grass — you can always get to it the following weekend. The same can’t be said about the dishes or dinners.”
“Being responsible for meeting the essential everyday needs of the household is not the same as mowing the lawn once a week.”
And the constantly recurring nature of these duties means that the people who perform them (typically, women) may never really feel “done.”
“You may be an amazing chef who really loves cooking new recipes but when you have no other option but to cook three meals a day, seven days a week until the end of time, the repetition and monotony of the task can almost make it intolerable,” Danger said. “The daily tasks don’t come with a satisfying end-point or moment of crossing it off the list.”
It’s also harder to get ahead at work or dive into your hobbies or passions when you’re so tied to a particular schedule. The constant interruptions throughout the day “eat away at your focus,” Saxbe said, disrupting your flow and inhibiting creativity.
“It’s like these tasks pull you away from being in the zone,” she said.
Plus, living in a society that undervalues care work can make all of the time and effort spent running a household feel insignificant, rather than rewarding.
“We tend to focus on lining up what we value in conjunction with what makes money or what is seen as prestigious,” Saxbe said. “And care is really underpaid and generally assigned a lower social status because it’s so historically feminized. I think when you’re spending a lot of time and energy doing things that aren’t really valued by your society, then that gets depressing over time.”
So what can we do?
If this imbalance in your home life is making you feel stressed and resentful, it’s time to have an honest and detailed conversation about domestic work with your partner. Bring up the tasks that are weighing you down and the ones you feel are going unrecognized.
“Communicating that burden of invisible labor, documenting it, tracking it, those are some of the things that people can start to do to open up a more equitable division of labor,” Saxbe said.
One way to go about this is using Rodsky’s “Fair Play” card deck, in which each card represents a different domestic task. You can also create your own deck, list or spreadsheet to spell out who is in charge of what. Saxbe likes this method because it makes the invisible tasks visible and creates more accountability, she said.
“Whether couples are using that deck of cards approach or whether they have a different approach, just knowing who’s doing what and when is a big part of the conversation and recognizing each other’s labor,” Saxbe said.
“And I think saying, ‘I’m doing more of the things that I don’t get to control when I do them or how often I do them. Is there a way that we can divide this up better?’ is a great way to start the conversation.”
Danger agrees that clear and explicit conversations as necessary, especially as it relates to those “daily grind” tasks.
“Jointly set a standard that works for you and then commit to having one person own that task for a month or two,” she suggested. “Give [your partner] time to learn lessons, build their own systems and get good at it. Hold boundaries and don’t swoop in to save the day!”
If you struggle to set boundaries around your time — something Danger frequently hears from women — she recommends signing up for a club or class “where you’re held accountable for showing up.”
“Don’t give yourself an out,” Danger said. “Show up for yourself ... Put your personal time on your to-do list. Everyone deserves equal rest!”