03/19/2013 02:52 pm ET Updated May 19, 2013

So, Who Does What?

After Lisa Belkin wrote her piece about "leaning in at home," she posted it on Facebook with the question "Who does what in your house?" I've been meaning to write about this ever since the Wandering Scientist wrote about the division of labor in her house (and yeah, that was 2011. Sometimes I need to think about things for a while). Lisa's right -- you can't "lean in" at work without someone "leaning in" to meet you at home. What does it look like when it works?

By "when it works," I mean this: a couple who both hold full-time jobs outside the home and split the household work equitably. That's not the only way to have a satisfying life, and I know that, but it's the family arrangement that's been in the spotlight lately (and why that's the "norm" is an interesting question, but not the subject of this post). I am qualified to write about this because, like Wandering Scientist, I live that life, and I am not married to a unicorn, either.

Our daughter is 13. We have one dog. We live in a part of a medium-sized city that functions like a suburb (no useful mass transit, detached houses, lawns). I'm the medical director of a hospice; he's the chief scientist for a small hands-on science center. We both have some flexibility in our schedules; he is more flexible than I am, but we both have to work some weekends and evenings (I work more weekends than he does). We have a cleaning service come in once a week, and they do essentially all the vacuuming/dusting/scrubbing, plus they change the sheets. We also have an after-school babysitter who takes Emma to her dance classes three evenings a week, and stays late on Monday (date night!).

So, who does what?


  • All outside chores and home maintenance, including calling service people when needed
  • Almost all the grocery shopping and cooking
  • All routine daytime kid appointments (well visits, orthodontist, dentist)
  • Making Emma's lunch and breakfast and usually starts mine as well
  • Carrying laundry up and down the stairs and actually getting it washed and dried


  • All financial matters (paying bills, doing the taxes, renewing insurance policies, talking to accountant/broker)
  • Child care arrangements and payment
  • Dishes and kitchen cleanup (when not done by the kid)
  • Taking our daughter shopping (clothing, makeup, other essentials)
  • Most of the "tidying"

The kid:

  • Takes care of her own room (including cleaning out her own closet and drawers periodically, on her own. Don't ask me where she got this. I don't know.)
  • Does her own laundry
  • Does dishes and kitchen clean up about 50% of the time


  • Dog care (all three of us do this)
  • Major "tidying" before we have company
  • Meal planning
  • Vacation planning
  • Child transport on evenings and weekends
  • Buying gifts and cards (he does his family, I do mine)
  • Putting laundry away (we each do our own)

One of the reasons this works is that neither of us has a punishing commute. David drives three miles to work; I drive 11 miles. We work long hours, but it doesn't take long to get there and back.

We're technologically oriented and fairly nerdy folks, so we use a number of systems and gadgets to make this work. We use Google Calendar -- we each have our own calendar, to which the other has access, and we have a shared calendar for family activities that also has all our evening and weekend work obligations, including my call schedule. We sit down every Sunday morning and plan the menus for the upcoming week, reviewing our schedule in the process ("Oh, by the way, I'll be in Chicago from Monday evening to Wednesday night." "Good to know.")

It didn't always look this way. The household division has been fairly stable since we got married, but of course Emma's birth changed things. For a long time, I did almost all the "kid stuff" and most of the invisible work related to parenting -- keeping track of what clothes she needed (before she started doing that), remembering birthday parties, buying presents for birthday parties, arranging playdates, checking out child care options. It changed because I needed it to change when I went back to work full-time six years ago. I had to make the invisible work visible, and I had to ask David to take on his share -- which he did.

Someone said that if you're the one keeping track of the division of labor, you're not the one holding the power in the relationship. I know that's true at a systems level; while i don't think David holds more power in our marriage, we're socialized and acculturated in a system in which he's not supposed to think about all that stuff. He was raised to believe that doing housework was his responsibility, but keeping track of birthday parties is a different kind of labor -- the invisible, emotional caretaking that men supposedly can't do. Turns out they can, if they are expected to.

David is not a unicorn. I am not a shrew. We've been married 28 years, and we've created an equitable balance by negotiating, and re-negotiating, and negotiating again. It is possible, but it won't just happen. Maybe the kids who are raised in families like mine will have a different experience, but for now, we are living in a system that assumes women will do the invisible work, and if we want that to change we have to talk about it, and arrange our lives to make it possible.

So, who does what in your house?