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How to even the score on housework, kid duty

  • Story Highlights
  • In dividing up household chores, kid duty, you may never reach a perfect balance
  • Split responsibilities according to what each cares about most or does best
  • Use "sandwich" method: Put a complaint between two positive statements
  • Consider a little benign neglect -- cutting back on noncritical chores or activities
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By Teri Cettina
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"I picked up the kids from daycare all week; you bathed the dog."

Divvying up household chores is a constant hot button for many couples.

"I took the baby to his doctor appointment (and he got shots); you picked up dinner and vacuumed out the car."

"I mopped the kitchen floor; you forgot to clean the bathroom."

Sound familiar? Moms and dads argue like badly behaved kids when it comes to weighing who does the most.

Take Jenny and Marc Fink of Mayville, Wisconsin. They're champion scorekeepers. Both work -- Jenny as a freelance writer from home, Marc full-time-plus as a civil engineer with a long commute. Jenny also takes care of their four sons, ages 20 months to 9 years, and homeschools the two oldest. When Marc gets off work, he switches to full-energy-dad mode, hanging out with the kids before giving them baths and getting them to bed.

Partly because of their demanding schedules, the issue of divvying up household chores is a constant hot button. "My primary job is taking care of the kids," Jenny says. "But Marc still doesn't fully understand why the house is a mess when he gets home. He thinks I should find time to clean it."

Personal time is also a point of contention. Marc plays in a local softball league twice a week. Jenny tries to get to an exercise class once a week, or to meet up with friends for a movie or to grab coffee, but sometimes just doesn't have the energy.

Then the scorecards come flying out. Jenny angrily scrawls lists: Marc's chores and time spent with the kids versus her chores and kid-care time. She claims that her list is always longer, and fights the urge to toss it in Marc's lap. "I know I'm supposed to wait and have those kinds of conversations when I'm calm, but that doesn't always happen," she says.

The real score? It'll never be a tie. You probably have a load of laundry waiting (the one your husband should have done last night), so let's cut to the chase: Forget keeping score. Why? It won't organize your household any better -- and it could make things worse.

"Couples usually don't start keeping score until they're feeling stressed or disconnected from each other," says Scott Stanley, codirector of the Center for Marital & Family Studies at the University of Denver. "These finger-pointing conflicts aren't about trying to get tasks accomplished together. They're about one or both members feeling ripped off."

Marriage isn't supposed to be a competitive sport, Stanley says. So the reality is you may never reach a perfect balance of who does what. But you can aim for a partnership that feels more fair. To become less of a scorekeeper and more of a team player (not just because that's a nicer notion but so that stuff gets done), try these tips:

Stop nagging, start talking

"When we're tired and stressed out, we don't usually talk to our partners as respectfully as we might otherwise," says Kristen Harrington, a marriage and family therapist in Kingston, New York, and a mom of two. "We women, particularly, get bitter about our husbands' not noticing what needs to be done around the house and start treating them like their IQs are 20 points lower." Men, for their part, seem to tune out their wives when they nag. Parenting as a team

And herein lies a basic opportunity to wipe the scorecard clean: better, kinder communication. Face it -- you're not going to win any brownie points, or get any more help around the house, if your conversations with your spouse degenerate into something like this:

You: "You never empty the dishwasher! Do I need to start serving food on paper plates before you realize that you need to help out?"

Him: "Whoa, are you having your period? You're totally overreacting. It's just dishes. Of course I'll help. Just tell me what you want me to do."

You: "Oh, so I have to teach you how to stack dishes?"

Getting a little heartburn? If this sounds like you, what should you do? Although it may seem contrived, Harrington insists that a technique called "The Sandwich" really works. "Your goal is to 'sandwich' your concern or complaint between two positive statements," she says.

The first piece of "bread" is a statement of appreciation: "I love it when you make dinner for the family. Your chili is the best!" The filling in your sandwich is your complaint, phrased as an "I feel" statement: "I always feel really exhausted after dinner and wish I didn't have quite so much to clean up in the kitchen." More filling: "Would you consider cleaning up as you go?" The other piece of bread is another appreciative statement: "I'm sure we can work this out because I love your cooking!" If you mean the compliments, it won't sound cheesy. Parenting skills for your marriage

When you do start talking, keep in mind that sometimes the issue might not really be about chores. Making cracks about your husband's cleaning techniques (or lack thereof) might be your subconscious way of getting back at him for something. Could you be feeling disconnected from him? If, for instance, he likes vegging in front of the TV and you don't, maybe you really miss having couple or family time together.

If that's the case, consider a little honesty instead. "Try, 'What's going on with us right now?' or 'I'm concerned with how we're managing things. Let's make time to talk about it,'" says Stanley.

Renegotiate who does what

Maybe you divvied up the household work and child care when you were pregnant or your child was a baby. And maybe it worked great -- for a while. But lives change. Is it time for a little reassessment?

If you haven't already, split responsibilities according to what each of you cares about most or does best. Or if you both hate or don't have time for a particular chore, trade off. Splitting up weekend chores

That's how Nathan Corser and Kristen Minor of Portland, Oregon, balance family duties. "I fold the towels a specific way and feel strongly about it, so that's become one of my chores," Nathan says. "Kristen couldn't care less about towels but loves to cook, and I depend on her for that." Every week, they also decide together who will take Owen, 11, and Eleanor, 9, to school each day.

Accept it: Sometimes you're in charge

Many women say they don't want their husbands to just "help out" with chores -- they want them to take the initiative and do them. But then they tend to micromanage.

Back to Jenny and Marc Fink. They recently agreed that he'd take over the household laundry on weekends. "But he has no idea whose clothes are whose," says Jenny. "He ends up asking our 4-year-old to help him. It drives me nuts! I'm like, 'Don't you see these children wearing the clothes? Can't you tell their sizes apart?'"

Harrington suggests they "dispense with the blame and approach this purely as a training issue. It's tough to solve a problem when you're focused on whether your partner is trying to tick you off." Then, she says, they can use "The sandwich" communication technique. Finally, Jenny can give her husband a little help as he takes over. "Yes, that means the wife becomes the job supervisor. As much as we hate that, it's reality," says Harrington. "Someone has to be in charge, and most women are trained better to do these things than men." (Note to moms of boys: Train them now.)

And don't expect your husband to mind-read your task lists. I'm guilty of asking mine to do something vague like "spiff up the kitchen." I assume he knows I mean wipe the counters and sweep the floor, but he wants specifics. Harrington assures me this is typical husband-and-wife stuff: Women generally expect men to notice what needs to be done. Most men expect direct requests for their help. Why dads don't share housework

A good team also agrees on the work terms and schedule. So if one of you stays home with the children, will you also do weekday chores? Or will you do family errands and upkeep together on the weekends? Will you each commit to a certain amount of time doing chores per day? It doesn't really matter what you decide, as long as you both agree.

Do less or get help

Maybe you're arguing about getting it all done because you really can't. Your family has too many commitments and not enough time. If so, consider a little benign neglect -- cutting back on noncritical chores or activities.

Do you really need to chauffeur your kindergartner to twice-weekly T-ball practices and swimming lessons? Would one activity be enough? Is it crucial to vacuum every inch of your home each week? Could you get by vacuuming just the high-traffic areas instead?

Another alternative: Pay for help. Even if it's a stretch financially, it can be worth it if those most-hated chores actually get done (without arguing).

Don't budge on free time

Sometimes couples think they're arguing about how much time they each spend doing chores when they're really angry about how much nonchore time they get. In other words, they both really want more free time.

This is when you should insist on true equality, not just fairness. No martyrs allowed. If your husband plays poker once a week, you should also have a regularly scheduled night to do whatever you want. "Even if you don't really feel like doing something outside the house, why can't Dad take the kids out so you can have quiet time?" says Harrington. "Or you could hole up in your bedroom and read a book -- whatever it takes for you to decompress."

Be patient

Shake off the fact that you've given the kids their last two baths and missed work to chaperone a field trip. As the two of you work to become a better chore team, your husband might step up -- though his pace may not quite match yours.

Case in point: Our youngest daughter recently woke up in the middle of the night and threw up all over her favorite quilt. My sweet husband took care of the whole mess without even elbowing me. I was thrilled.

But then he tiptoed back to bed, leaned over and whispered, "Um, honey? Tonight's vomit session should really get me extra points, don't you think?" E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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Copyright 2009 The Parenting Group. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part without permission is prohibited.

Teri Cettina also writes for Real Simple.

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