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  • A precise 50/50 division of labor—including paid work, household, and child care tasks—might work for some marriages, but for many couples it’s neither realistic nor something to strive for. Tweet This
  • Open communication and compromise seems much more likely to achieve a healthy marriage than trying to equally split the amount of household work. Tweet This
  • There is no formula that results in a “fair” or “equal” marriage—that’s something that has to be worked out by the couple themselves. Tweet This
Category: Work-Family

Recently, there has been a spate of articles suggesting that many of the problems facing American mothers would be solved if their husbands or partners would simply get off their rears and step up to do 50% of the household labor and childcare.  A recent New York Times opinion article suggested that this was the solution for some strained marriages:

Splitting time evenly, so that each parent has roughly the same amount of work time, child care time, household chore time and free time? If both parents are on board, you can absolutely achieve this — while staying married. Doing so may even save you from a divorce.

Another article in Time suggested moms “quiet quit” household labor by “back[ing] away from those invisible tasks that often feel the most burdensome and stressful,” including meal planning, grocery shopping and scheduling.

A precise 50/50 division of labor—including paid work, household, and childcare tasks—might work for some marriages, but for many couples it’s neither realistic nor something to strive for.1 Two objections to trying to achieve a perfect 50/50 split of household labor; one pragmatic and the other philosophical:

The Pragmatic objection: It’s an impossible task, and attempting it is almost certain to result in marital discord. Even if both spouses have identical standard 40-hour work weeks with the same salary (unlikely), everyone knows that work demands ebb and flow. In addition, how do you value the difficulty of each household task? Cooking dinner requires a lot of different steps, including meal planning, shopping, and keeping a mental inventory of what is in the cabinets/fridge. How does a time-consuming task like cooking compare with the also time-consuming task of family budgeting? The former is important, but there’s always take-out. Get the second one wrong, and there’s no money for dinner. 

Open communication and compromise seems much more likely to achieve a healthy marriage than trying to equally split the amount of household work. Indeed, the available research indicates men and women often work the same overall number of hours, once you combine time spent on paid work and household together:

[O]verall work hours of men and women were similar in total number, despite “second shift” claims of overburden for women but not men. . . . Total hours of work, combining unpaid work in the home with paid work in the market, remained gender specialized in that women did a higher fraction of their hours in unpaid family care and men in paid work.

There are valid reasons to be concerned about this type of gender specialization, including that it contributes to some of the disparities in lifetime earnings between men and women. However—just like splitting household work—ensuring husbands and wives earn exactly the same amount over their lifetimes is both impossible and likely to lead to marital problems. The couple should sort out between them what works, rather than try to achieve externally-imposed standards of “gender equality.”

There is no formula that results in a “fair” or “equal” marriage—that’s something that has to be worked out by the couple themselves.

The Philosophical Objection: Underlying these articles is the sense that “educated women with careers and ambitions” should view housework as somehow lesser or unworthy of their time and attention. The author of the New York Times opinion article celebrated that once her husband took over 50% of childcare and housework after their divorce (via a shared custody agreement):

I wrote an entire novel during my evenings and weekends. I learned to play the ukulele. I’ve fallen in love at least once. On many weekends, I sleep in, take long walks, read books, see friends.

The introduction to Cheryl Mendelson’s lovely book, Home Comfortshas some important observations on the argument that physically caring for the home and kids should be seen as an unfulfilling Sisyphean task that displaces more important activities, like one’s career and other activities designed to result in personal fulfillment.

Mendelson points out that popular perceptions of housework are often informed by the media, advertisements, and other aspects of our culture which “portray housework as boring, frustrating, repetitive, unintelligent drudgery.” She notes that “having kept house [and] practiced law . . . I can assure you that it is actually lawyers who are most familiar with the experience of unintelligent drudgery.”2

She concludes:

Our homes are the center of our lives, and we should allow the time and resources to make the most of them that we can, and to care for them in a way that consolidates and elaborates their meaning for each of us. At a minimum, we should avoid thinking that time spent on our homes is wasted time, or that our goal should always be to reduce the time and effort we spend on them.

This is not—of course—to say that women shouldn’t have careers.3 Nor is it to say that in a heterosexual marriage, it is always the wife who should focus on the home. Different couples have different skills and interests. But aiming for a 50/50 split in household labor, childcare, and paid work seems to me to be a misguided goal. There is no formula that results in a “fair” or “equal” marriage—that’s something that has to be worked out by the couple themselves.

Ivana Greco is an attorney, with particular interests in employee benefits and healthcare law, and a mother, with particular interests in child development and education.

Editor's Note: This essay is reprinted with permission from the author's newsletter, "The Home Front."


1. Caveat: if you just had a baby, and your husband has done none of the grocery shopping, baby-care, cooking, cleaning, or laundry and he comes home, flops on the couch, picks up the remote and asks you for a beer . . . well, if I were sitting on the jury at your trial, I would vote to acquit on the grounds of justifiable homicide.

2. Having been both a stay-at-home mom and spent much of my first few years as an attorney doing document review, I can confidently report Mendelson has a good point. 

3. Hopefully it goes without saying that women who want to should have careers, including ambitious and demanding careers!