Women's Work: Divvying Up the Chores in an All-Girl Household

Filed under: Gay Parenting, Opinions

The little girl tilted her head to one side and thought a minute.

"You do?" she asked.

"Nope," I replied. "Em does."

The girl shook her head sadly -- she wasn't very good at this game at all.

It had started a few minutes earlier, when our young neighbor stopped by to watch me pulling weeds in the garden. Joanie* was about 8 years old, and had known us since she was a toddler, when Em* and I had moved in two doors down from her family.

Funny thing about toddlers -- whatever their normal is, is normal. So, for years it hadn't struck her as strange at all that two ladies lived in that corner house, instead of a man and a woman.

But now that she was in second grade, she clearly knew we were different from other neighbors, and you could almost watch her little mental gears turning. Many times, when she stopped by to chat (and this kid was quite the chatter), the subject of two women sharing a house would come up. Today's topic: Who did what? Who did the laundry? Who killed the bugs? Who cooked?

Joanie probably wasn't conscious of it, but she was clearly trying to figure out which of us was the "man" and which was the "woman" based on what jobs we did in the house. Even though she knew we were both women, she just had to fit us into gender roles somehow.

If we lived together and ran a home together, surely we divvied up the chores the way her own parents did, the way couples did on every sitcom she saw on TV, the way she expected everyone to. And, from that, she'd be able to figure out which of us was which. But I was confounding her.

Em did the cooking in our house, but she also killed the bugs. I mowed the lawn, but I also did the laundry. Neither of us changed the oil in the car -- yuck! -- there are service stations for that. So this whole line of questioning was going nowhere for this kid, although I was rather enjoying it myself.

In our house, gender couldn't play any role in our chores. We had developed a very egalitarian system in which each of us did the chores we actually enjoyed (or disliked less), and it all worked just fine.

And then something funny happened: Em got laid off. It wasn't so funny at the time, of course -- we had two small children, and our finances were still in recovery from a couple of years' worth of staggering adoption expenses.

We'd spent our first 10 years together as DINKS, a double-income, no-kids couple with discretionary income that supported a very nice lifestyle; then we'd had a couple of years as two overstressed, time-strapped, guilt-ridden working parents paying an expensive nanny to take our place during the day.

Now, we faced a fork in the road, and we decided to use the layoff as an opportunity for Em to become a stay-at-home mom by day and grad student at night as she prepared for a career change.

We knew that decision would affect our budget -- but the restaurants we couldn't afford to patronize any more were no fun with kids in tow, anyway. And, it turned out, we liked our little family beach vacations just as much as we'd loved our European cycling trips. My income was enough to support us nicely -- not lavishly, but we didn't want for anything. (Not having to pay a nanny helped a lot.)

It also turns out that it's nice, and I mean really nice, to have an adult in the house all the time. Even with two active children, our lives calmed down tremendously. No longer were our weekends crammed with errands and chores we had no time for during the work week. No longer did we turn down party invitations so we could do the grocery shopping, get to the dry cleaners and mow the lawn. We actually had something of a life.

But here's what we didn't expect: Splitting up into breadwinner and stay-at-home mom also split our chores up along frighteningly predictable gender lines. The reason we didn't have to run all those errands on Saturday was because Em was doing them during the week.

The grocery shopping that we used to do together was now done while I worked, the fridge miraculously restocked each week with no effort from me at all. Phone calls to the cable company, the summer camps, the dentist -- all taken care of without my having to squeeze them in between meetings at the office.

I even ceded the laundry, since Em could get it done during the week instead of having it consume my Saturdays. (I'm still smarting from that one ... I had a system for the laundry!)

All I have to do is go to work every day -- and I've been doing that practically my whole life, so there's no great sacrifice there -- and I come home every night to a home-cooked meal, with food in the fridge and clean laundry in the dressers. It's kind of a beautiful thing.

It's also a very weird thing for me. Here I am, a woman, playing the Rob Petrie role -- working all day and coming home to Laura every night for my dinner. Em and the kids have developed a separate life -- playdates with kids I don't know, hours spent without me in playgrounds and in our own backyard, creating routines and memories that I'm not a part of at all.

I know it's good for the kids to have a mom who can be there for special events during the school day, but I'm never the mom who gets to do that. I'm pretty much ... the dad.

Joanie's now in high school, but if she were to stop by again today with her questions, she'd get much more predictable answers than I gave her when she was 8.

There are a lot of up-sides to this arrangement, not the least of which is that, to our girls at least, there are no gender roles at home. They may see Em doing some chores and me doing others, but they still see women doing it all. Women in our house not only cook and do laundry, they also kill bugs, shovel snow, take out trash, unclog overflowing toilets, hang holiday lights, earn a living and everything else that needs to be done in a family.

There's no such thing as women's work in our house -- it's all just work.

Our girls help with small chores now, and, when they're bigger, they'll get their share of large tasks. Maybe someday they'll find themselves married or partnered with someone who'll kill the bugs for them, take out the trash, cook or do the laundry. Who knows, maybe even change the oil.

I think they'll be better prepared for adult life, with all the many jobs they'll need to do in a day, than young Joanie will be. After a lifetime of our teaching them they can do anything, I hope they don't sit around waiting for a guy to come running with the plunger when the water's rising.

A girl can find herself in a mess of trouble that way.

*All names have been changed to protect my family's privacy

Veronica Rhodes writes about gay parenting under this pen name; read her blog on RedRoom. She and David Valdes Greenwood alternate weeks writing the Family Gaytriarchs. Look for them on ParentDish every Wednesday.

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Start by teaching him that it is safe to do so.