Anyone in a dual career partnership knows how important “dividing the labor” at home truly is. This is often a topic of discussion with my colleagues and friends when we address the demands of our jobs and how to find our balance between work life and home life.
Inevitably, someone raises the issue of unequal division of labor for household duties such as grocery shopping, cooking and childcare. In my experience, it is common that the woman in the partnership is the person assuming the lion’s share of these domestic responsibilities. (This is not always the case for all families, but it is for most of society.)
Last fall, I was at a dinner meeting, and afterwards, I sat with a group of women over a glass of wine. One of them, my colleague, mentioned that she has been feeling very overwhelmed with two children in elementary school and a high-powered job. Like many mothers, she found herself absorbing the role of overseeing and performing most of the childcare and organization of the household. She knew that her husband wanted to help but didn’t know what to do in order to be helpful.
I told her about my experience coming home from work one night after a long day and finding my husband, a busy physician and very supportive partner, sitting at the island sipping a glass of wine and reading the newspaper. When I entered the kitchen, he looked up and asked what we would be doing for dinner. Right then, I decided that I, like many spouses, had created a situation of learned helplessness. I had gotten into the bad habit of taking on too much by myself, removing most of the responsibility to divide household duties from my very smart and capable husband.
I also told my women colleagues about a pre-prepared delivery meal service that provides fresh ingredients and step-by-step instructions on how to prepare the meal, something I’d learned about from a group of young women physicians and mothers at CHOP. I sent my friend a free meal as a trial. A month later, she told me that the meal service had changed her life. Her husband was able to prepare the meals, gain some cooking experience and, most importantly, relieve her of the burden of cooking fresh meals for the family three nights a week.
It is time for women to shift their own understanding of housework and childcare as a woman’s obligation to the obligation of both partners. Learned helplessness is not a matter of having a partner who doesn’t want to help. It’s about letting go of the ingrained expectations we all carry, so that the health and nutrition and organization of our families are in both partners’ capable hands.