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Sharing The Chores: Be Your Own Marriage Ref

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People often ask us how a couple can truly share in doing the housework, and caring for the kids. Forget all the theories about teamwork and the lofty aims to create a real partnership. How do they do it for real? It seems a whole lot simpler and clearer to expect one parent (typically Mom) to take charge -- to direct the other "junior" parent and "apprentice" housekeeper (that would usually be Dad) to "help" out as needed. Mom maintains the upper hand at home, and Dad listens. Easy, right?

But what happens if you don't particularly relish all the baggage that comes with this domestic caste system? Keeping one parent as the primary nurturer and house manager means one of you is always making the decisions - big and little - and is saddled with the endless job of juggling the to-do list while the other parent gets relative freedom until the boss calls. And life isn't so rosy for the unburdened parent either, maintaining a kind of serfdom in his own home - jumping to the demands of a master or trying to avoid these in the name of a little peace and quiet of his own. But still, having one of you in charge steers you both clear of the negotiations that would have to take place if you really decided to be equal teammates in raising your children and doing the chores.

The way this works is to approach them as a puzzle - a huge, challenging 10,000 piece jigsaw puzzle - that requires two to solve. Together, you're up against a host of obstacles - tricky pieces labeled "real men don't bake cupcakes," or "what will my neighbors think?" or "but Susie always wants Mom to put her to bed," or "you're so much better at cooking than me, honey" or "I hate how he folds the towels" or "my child is not wearing that!" But you're a formidable team, and you won't let these little issues prevent you from fitting everything together so that the big picture is finally in view.

Here's a little example from our own lives: our laundry.

We decided early on in our marriage that neither of us should be made to do all of the laundry. Others may choose differently, but in our home we wanted to share this never-ending burden. Yet shortly after we had our first child, we noticed something interesting: Amy was doing 95 percent of the washing, drying, folding and putting away. Where did we go wrong? Turns out that Amy has a much lower threshold for starting the washing machine that Marc does. If the laundry basket is full, in Amy's mind it is time to start a load. This thought doesn't even register with Marc; he is happy waiting until a few loads piled up or until our clean clothing supplies were rather slim.

Once we figured out the problem, we were ready to look for a solution. It still made sense to both of us to share this thankless job, but it didn't feel right to Amy to wait on Marc to do his share nor did it feel good to Marc to be pushed into any laundering ahead of its time. If Amy had been in charge, she might have taken on the task of reminding (read: nagging) Marc to do every other load or directing him to do something else instead. Marc might have given up trying to do his share.

Our particular solution is to work from two laundry baskets. One for light colored clothes and one for darks. Each family member places the clothes in their appropriate baskets as they need washing. Amy washes the light clothes as soon as they fill up their basket. Marc waits until he's good and ready to wash the darks, letting them spill over onto the floor if he feels like it. The result: harmony, equality, tolerance, individuality, and, yes, more than enough clean clothes for everyone.

This is one teeny-tiny, specific example of puzzle solving. The solutions to sharing any particular chore (be that 50/50 or in any other ratio), of course, are endless and as varied as the couples themselves. Perhaps she washes, he folds; or he launders and she cooks; or maybe laundry just isn't a puzzle worth solving in your family. But the key is that no one "wins" and no one "loses." The final decision is made by a two-person jury rather than a single judge (and if the verdict isn't working for any party, appeals can be entertained by the full jury at any time). What works is a joint desire to reach that solution and create a happy home for both partners. What doesn't work is an attitude of "it must be my way" or a half-committed approach to equality that still keeps one of you in charge when push comes to shove.

In our interviews with couples who are committed to sharing the chores (and who do so with panache), we heard loud and clear how they actually enjoy working out their own puzzles. Without gender stereotypes or the baggage of expectations, and with a heap of trust, their solutions are often quite creative - and they take great pride in their ingenuity.

What works in your house?

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