It’s coming up on that time of year again: The sprint of lavish meals, family traditions, charitable gestures, sparkly decorations, just-right gifts, religious rituals, and neighborhood cookie swaps that transform the year-end darkness into a cozy, glittering time of good cheer. But put down that mulled wine for a minute and consider: Exactly who makes all that holiday happiness happen? (No, it’s not Santa.)
For me, it began early this November. My family was invited to spend Thanksgiving with friends, and it quickly became obvious that I and the other mother would be doing all the planning for the festive meal. I volunteered for green bean casserole, cranberry sauce, and stuffing, and almost immediately grew overwhelmed at all I’d have to do. Thanksgiving comes at the tail end of a work week. When would I have time to find recipes, write a shopping list, and go to the store, let alone get the actual cooking done?
I added these items to my running mental list of tasks, but I didn’t think to bring them up with my husband, who, in turn, didn’t think to inquire what we were bringing.
There we were again, even though I’m literally an expert on the division of household labor — I’m a journalist and psychologist who wrote an entire book about the feminist promise of equitable domestic partnership, and how often it dissolves in practice, called All the Rage: Mothers, Fathers, and the Myth of Equal Partnership. So I know intimately how closely gender equity is connected with the self-reported happiness in a marriage.
Here’s something else I know from my research: that equity doesn’t happen by default. Successful couples understand that without great attention, most of the work of their homes would (in heterosexual households) automatically default to the woman. That’s true of both the physical housework and the mental load, a concept perhaps best articulated in a cartoon by the French artist Emma that went viral in 2017. She writes: “[T]he mental load means always having to remember.”
I heard this from many women I interviewed for my book. One of them, a mother in Illinois, told me of her husband, “I remember this profound moment where I had asked him to put the car seat back in my car after it had been in the shop, and he was like, ‘I promise I’ll do it.’ I moved on to other things I had to do. When I went to take my son to school in the morning the car seat wasn’t there. I said to him, ‘It’s great if you want to help, but I’m juggling balls and if I throw you one and you drop it, I might as well be doing everything myself.’”
“We’d have these discussions: Can you take the balls and keep the balls?” she recalled. “It’s draining me. I can’t trust him to do anything, to actually remember.”
Many of the women I interviewed had also come to the conclusion that they were doomed by their biology. They imagined themselves to be innately more capable around the house than their partners (whose capacities to manage the adult world apparently begin and end at work). “Women are better at multitasking,” one woman from Chicago told me, letting out a sigh.
The neuroscientist and author Cordelia Fine calls this kind of claim “neurononsense.” Our brains actually become good at whatever we spend most time doing. Sociologists explain that it’s social conditioning — and not biology — that leaves women more inclined to volunteer for menial tasks, and men more inclined to defer them.
The couples that avoid this dynamic do so by taking logistical control, often making lists and (ahem) checking them twice to ensure a fair split. As I interviewed couples, I learned that the ones who felt mutually satisfied with their division of labor were the ones who were very explicit with one another about what needed to be done, and by whom.
But in my own marriage, without conscious intent, we’d adhered to the roles that gender norms had outlined for us. My degree of knowing and tracking was inversely correlated with my husband’s. Gendered norms provided us with outlines for our roles in marriage, and without conscious intent we’d adhered to them. So now I knew, for example, we needed money for teacher gifts and year-end tips, and that my husband was likely to remark, “Oh, we tip the mail carrier?” as I scrawled on the Joyous New Year card.
So here is an idea for truly happy holidays: A spreadsheet. I know, it doesn’t sound very festive. But it can be a straightforward, unemotional, non-judgmental way to divvy up the labor. And trust me when I say that this is good advice not just for heterosexual married couples, but for any household, from same-sex couples to roommates to homes with children old enough to help out. (No one wins when tasks are not distributed, even those who get away with a lighter load — plenty of social science research has found that both members of a couple are happier when the division of work is more equitable.)
After all, without a system like this, or attention paid to dividing things up equally, women end up outpacing their male partners when it comes to the management and performance of unpaid domestic labor. The Bureau of Labor Statistics’ American Time Use Survey finds that mothers in dual-earner couples shoulder about 65% of childcare responsibilities.
The pattern holds true for those without children as well. Among heterosexual couples without kids, women report they do 75% of the cooking and 68% of the grocery shopping. Per the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research, women married to men do seven hours more housework a week than single women, while men married to women do one hour less of housework a week than single men.
And what better time to establish a more equitable relationship, or to keep up the good work, than the holidays? You’re about to face down an avalanche of household labor, one that doesn’t let up until we’re practically in the new year. Having a holiday season that’s more enjoyable than stressful may well depend on your ability to fairly distribute all that extra work.
Try it before holiday season stress transforms into a bigger problem. To lessen your mental load, here’s a necessarily incomplete crib sheet on end-of-year tasks that are easier when performed by two (or more!).
Share this chart with whoever needs it, or print it out and put it up on the fridge, and you’ll never have to answer the question, “What next?” again. Or until New Year’s Day, anyway.
Here it is in list form, just in case:
- Preparing for guests: cleaning, grocery shopping, buying holiday appropriate decorations and setting them up, stocking bathroom with clean towels and beds with clean sheets, determining airport pickup and drop-off schedules.
- Thanksgiving: meal planning (including beverages), grocery shopping, prep work and cooking, table setting, clean up, leftover storage.
- Black Friday and beyond: making a list of gift recipients, checking in about what they might want or need, making a budget, determining where to purchase gifts, ordering or physically going to the store, wrapping, package cleanup and gift storage, cleaning out kids’ rooms of toys no longer used to make room for new things, thank-you cards.
- Holiday cards: selecting a card, finding or organizing a photo, bathing and dressing children for photo, deciding what printing service to use and ordering photo, compiling address list for recipients, buying postage, mailing cards or photos.
- School and other non-familial obligations: teacher cards and gifts, participation in classroom holiday parties, making a list of people (e.g. mail carrier) who need to be tipped, pulling together the envelopes and the cash to make that possible.
- Charity: deciding on and carrying out year-end giving or volunteer work.
- Christmas/Hanukkah/Winter Holiday of Choice: arranging for the necessary implements (Christmas tree, Hanukkah menorah, etc), meal planning (including beverages), grocery shopping, prep work and cooking, table setting, clean up, leftover storage.
Get your own shareable chart template here, and adjust accordingly! Peace on Earth, indeed.