What's fair?

Is it wrong to expect the person who works fewer hours at a job to do more at home?

Published November 14, 2003 8:39PM (EST)

Dear Cary,

I've been married to a smart and beautiful woman for two and a half years. Life together is wonderful approximately 28 days out of every month. The other two? Well, here's the problem.

I have a job that is 65-75 hours a week. She has a job that she enjoys a lot more than I enjoy mine, which is 20-25 hours a week. We live very comfortably. Her income is roughly one-tenth what mine is. I have always encouraged her to work, and have tried to show an interest in what she does. We both feel our careers are equally important.

About once a month, we have a huge blowup over household responsibilities. Her idea of a minimally acceptable cleanliness level is a lot higher than mine (and probably a lot closer to the societal average). But the real issue is that she feels that as two working spouses, we should both do an equal amount of housework. I think this is a correct notion. But I'm at work from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. during the week, and then most of a day on the weekend. She's at work from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. three or four days a week.

When the inevitable blowup does happen, I suggest that perhaps it's not unreasonable for her to do more of the housework than I do, since she has much more free time on her hands. She says that I chose a job that demands so much of my time, and if I can't find time to pull my fair share, perhaps I need to change jobs. My response to that ranges from "if I were to change jobs to one that required less hours, we would likely see a dramatic decrease in our standard of living" to "maybe if you pulled your fair share paying the rent and bills, I wouldn't have to stay in such a time-consuming job." At this point she either leaves the room for a few minutes or the house for a few hours.

The monthly rhetorical brawls are starting to strain our relationship. She thinks I expect her to do all of the cooking and cleaning and errands (I don't, but I'd rather see them not done than have to do them after a hard day at work), and that I take her contribution for granted (I probably do). I think she takes me and my job (which financially supports us) for granted.

How do we resolve this? I've tried to suck it up and just do as much around the house as she would like, but I'll hit a rough patch at work, get home past midnight and collapse three or four nights in a row, and the backlog of chores will become hopeless. Am I being unreasonable to think that in a marriage where one person has significantly more of a professional time commitment than the other, it is not an affront to expect the other spouse to pitch in more? Or is this, as my wife seems to imply, an affront to sex equality?

Probably Misguided

Dear Probably Misguided,

Hire a housekeeper.

Better yet, hire a Marxist housekeeper.

A Marxist housekeeper will clean your floors and windows while also clarifying the displaced antagonism between you and your mate concerning the relative value of your labor. The fact that you are making tons of money in the workplace but still acting out some antique costume drama of domesticity and bickering about it as well -- hey, you might as well don blue and gray and reenact Antietam -- is a sign that invisible forces of economics and history are undermining your relationship.

If you can't afford a Marxist, then hire the cheapest housekeeper you can find and with your surplus labor value hire a graduate student to tutor you in how and why you got tricked into performing this quaint charade in the first place.

It's complicated. Basically, the world has changed. The labor exchange that used to be part of marriage has disappeared. At the same time, a new service class has arisen to do what used to be done by wives -- and many tasks husbands used to do as well, dumb-ass maintenance tasks working husbands simply don't have the time for anymore, much less the hand-eye coordination, physical stamina and tolerance for tedium.

Sure, you fight about it. Because you've been duped! History has locked you in its blinding embrace, drugged you and bamboozled you as it's bamboozled the rest of us.

So I urge you to gain some understanding of the forces at work on you in your home. At the same time, try to make your home a refuge. Stop counting your billable hours of domestic labor. Home is where you don't punch a clock. And stop fighting with your wife. Instead, work to find a common vision for your house. If you differ in your standards, let her higher standards prevail: You are never going to be dissatisfied because the house is too sparkling clean, are you? Whereas if she is feeling that the house is not clean enough, she will be continually dissatisfied. So be grateful if she has higher standards. It will reflect well on you. When you have agreed on some standards and a vision, go ahead and spend some of your money to achieve it. You'll both be happier.

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