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To some degree or other, most spouses are vaguely aware of an inequity in household work and responsibilities that often falls along gender fault lines.
In heterosexual marriages, even when wives earn about the same as their husbands or more, they are likely to spend more time on housework and childcare than their husbands, according to a Pew Research Center study reported in April. Women spend roughly 3.5 hours more on housework on average each week than men, according to 2021 Bureau of Labor Statistics data, not including errands, grocery shopping or childcare.
So much of the work of running a household goes unsaid or is intangible, that unless you go through the exercise of writing down all the details, couples don’t have the full picture. At least the husbands don’t.
After my wife, Kate, got a full-time job last year she would sometimes say we needed to sit down and go over all the household and parenting responsibilities. She was working just as hard as me at her paying job, and now we needed me to work just as hard at the unpaid duties.
I had a sense she was balancing too much because items started falling through the cracks. Deadlines would be missed. Dates forgotten. Repairs left unfixed. I would (unfairly) get annoyed, even though I was the solution to the problem.
Before her full-time gig, Kate’s project-based freelance career had meant flexibility and bandwidth to take on the bulk of the unpaid work it required to run a family of four (seven if you include pets). We had a previous understanding about that. But with her new job, the situation changed long before the unpaid workload balance did.
About a year after she started, because she was too busy and I had no sense of urgency, we finally got down to it a few months ago. She handed me a pad of Post-it Notes to write down the things I was responsible for. I only needed a few. After I wrote down “mowing the lawn,” I sat for several long and embarrassing minutes while Kate ripped off note after note, making a mosaic on our dining room table.
The Post-it Note as medium was helpful, as opposed to a list. It created a visual representation of the imbalance and facilitated the easy movement of tasks from one side to the other.
When the notes were filled out I was unsettled by both the imbalance, and my ignorance of the volume of items. I had long thought Kate and I shared most chores, like laundry, trash and chauffeuring our kids, and that while she did most of the cooking, I did most of the clean-up afterward. I hadn’t even considered less visible items such as “car maintenance” and “pet medicine.”
The objective of the Post-it Notes exercise wasn’t to shame me for all the responsibilities I was shirking, or even unaware of. It was to move as many of them as possible from the Kate column to the David one in an effort toward parity. This peaceful transition of power included moving entire categories over to me such as “lawn care,” “pets,” and a big one, “school.” (School meant reading all the correspondence for dates, deadlines, permission slips and more.)
Kate mostly kept the items she preferred or that I would have little chance of success at, such as buying kids’ clothes, meal planning and all financial matters. For my new Post-it duties, in most cases Kate had to give me a little 101 on who to call and what to ask for so I could get started. But she was teaching me to fish and was no longer the sole keeper of these fishing poles. In the end, Kate still had more than half the pile, but I think we made real progress.
My new responsibilities have kept me busier since, but I don’t mind because they have had four other important side effects beyond less stuff falling through the cracks.
First, Kate’s mental health. She’d been carrying around a rucksack full of rocks on top of her demanding job. By putting some of the rocks into my less full bag, it immediately made her lighter on her feet. Even a pebble-sized duty relieved her of the mental burden of having to keep track of the pebble. And going forward she knew anything related to those rocks was now my load.
Second, diving into the sometimes complicated details of household responsibilities made me more appreciative of everything Kate had been doing, and sympathetic (as opposed to annoyed) to anything that had been missed. “I don’t see how you did all this by yourself,” I remarked more than once after a day spent chasing one particular household to-do item or another.
Third, my new duties have made me more engaged with my own family. Instead of going to my wife to ask her what is happening and when, I now know myself. Or at least I know more than I did, which feels particularly important for those responsibilities involving our children.
Finally, we are modeling equity for our two daughters who will eventually be in relationships themselves. And we hope fairness, cooperation and good communication are guiding principles for their relationships. The more they see me do, the more they will expect that level of engagement and effort from their partners.
This exercise is simple and effective, which is the best kind of lifehack. I recommend you carve out an hour to take the Post-it Note Challenge. Revisit it annually to maintain balance — in fact, your first Post-it Note could be to organize the Challenge. Do it for your partner, for the kids, for your relationship and for more equity in your life.
David G. Allan is the editorial director of CNN Features sections.