OPINION
04/11/2018 09:01 am ET

How A Family Contract Helped Us End Gender Bias In Our Home

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It is true that all politics begin at home, and it’s especially true that all gender politics begin at home. Home is where children learn their responsibilities as good household citizens, so they can be good citizens everywhere else. It’s also where they learn and internalize harmful cultural patterns ― like the ones that have girls and women taking on the lion’s share of the tedious house chores, while boys and men duck and run, claiming time and space to realize their full human potential.

Before we send our children into the world, parents need to disrupt that pattern. Before they leave the nest, children need to understand that households don’t run by some magic, invisible alchemy. They run on work ― too often, work that’s disproportionately shouldered by women.

In my house, the clock is ticking on this project. My son leaves for college next year. My daughter is three years behind him. I can already see the gendered messages they’re receiving about work and their respective purposes in society. For instance, my daughter is invited to earn extra money babysitting all the time. My son is willing, but no one gives him the chance. More often, he is invited to start various entrepreneurial schemes. We have a lot of work to do.   

Parents need to disrupt the pattern of gender inequality in their families.

For a long time, my husband and I thought we had it all figured out. We have always both worked full time and split all of our bills 50-50.  When our kids were born he did more than his fair share of 2 a.m. feedings, diaper changes, day-care chauffeuring, Little League coaching and the like. He waved me off if I tried to thank him for taking our kids on weekends as I worked on my first book and studied for grad school. This was not a favor, he always said. “These are my kids!” He was parenting, not babysitting.

When it came to housework, we literally bought time. Soon after our son was born, I took the advice of my grandmother and my veteran female newsroom colleagues who urged me to hire someone to clean our hulking old house. My husband initially balked at the expense, but hiring extra help staved off a lot of arguments.

But something shifted around the time our teenagers surpassed me in height. In word and deed, my husband declared his days of coddling babies were over. Meals, homework, school, cleaning up ― it was time for the kids to fend for themselves. “Y’all are grown,” he loves to tell them.  

Only they’re not grown. They do not clean up after themselves. And even if they did, there is scheduling, and ride coordination and high school and college applications. And summer camps, and carpools and parent-teacher meetings. And driver’s ed, and volleyball practice and signing up for the SAT. And when it comes to helping them avoid accidents that could kill them or derail their lives, the teen years trumps the toddler years — by a lot. They need both parents more than ever.

As the complexity of our lives grew, the condition of our house deteriorated and balls were dropped. Pick-ups and drop-offs were missed. Messes and dishes piled up. Nutrition suffered. I felt like I was increasingly taking on home tasks that fell between the cracks: cleaning, organizing healthy meals, scheduling and more. As the kids became “grown,” I became increasingly stressed out. I’d get angry at them for not doing their share and at my husband for not doing his part to make them do their share.

Something had to give. And so I pulled out an old contract I got for a consulting gig, a “Memorandum of Agreement.” I edited in household duties and responsibilities and divided them equally between my son and daughter. Job A and Job B. Each week, they traded. Penalties for failing to complete their jobs were spelled out.

Without plan to change the culture, you will only continue the status quo. The Memorandum was my plan to change our household culture.

A family contract may seem a bit extreme of a solution. But there is no such thing as a structureless group, as Jo Freeman noted in her classic feminist essay, “The Tyranny of Structurelessness.” Like “objectivity” in news or “laissez faire” economics, the lack of transparency about the rules of engagement becomes a smokescreen that allows the powerful and privileged to have their way in the dark. Without a plan to change the culture, you will only continue the status quo. The Memorandum was my plan to change our household culture.

The status quo crept into contract negotiations, too. Thrilled that he would be getting a regular allowance to learn money management out of the deal, my son was eager to sign. My daughter, on the other hand, pored over each word of the contract with a sharpened pencil. It could not be called a Memorandum of Agreement, she said, because she did not “agree to any of this.” She balked at the disparity in their allowances. She scribbled “sexist” and “age discrimination” in the margin next to terms that gave her older brother more money. The contract specified that all household duties had to be completed by 9:30 pm; she countered that this was unrealistic given their homework and extracurriculars. I yielded on some things and tweaked others.

Our Household Memorandum of Understanding was signed last year.

Working things out with the kids doesn’t fix gender inequities between spouses. When the kids and I updated the family contract to include four jobs instead of two, at first my husband refused. (“I don’t make mess,” he claimed.) He eventually relented, but it took weeks to persuade him to take his turn on the family dishes. And as great as my husband is, he is not a wife. I still take the lead on most children- and household-related things. And I don’t get the free, uncredited ghostwriting, research assistance and administrative support that so many Great Men throughout history have gotten from their wives ― and that so many Great Men continue to benefit from today.

I wish I could say that since we signed and implemented our Memorandum we all rode off into the sunset ― on horses that we all cared for equitably and consistently. We did not. Sometimes, things work better in theory than they do in practice. When I travel for work, the whole scheme often lapses into cheap take-out food and dirty dishes. Everyone else in our household has made clear they care about a clean house far less than I do.

And of course, we have not solved all the gender politics inequities outside our home. But we have a blueprint for perfecting our household union— and to revisit it periodically. The victory is that our family has had serious conversations about the unequal drudgery of everyday life that women often suffer in silence. My biggest regret is that we didn’t start these negotiations earlier — perhaps when the kids were in utero.

Interestingly ― and perhaps unsurprisingly ― the person who has embraced the spirit of the exercise the most is the youngest in the household, my teenage daughter. These days when I ask her for any kind of favor, her answer is often: “Yes — but I have terms.”

Natalie Hopkinson is the author of A Mouth is Always Muzzled.

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