The Problem With Housework Isn’t Your Partner — It’s Capitalism
But seriously, they should just empty the dishwasher every now and then
I think things are fairly equal in my marriage. I make most of the money. My husband does almost all of the cooking and more of the daily child care than I do. I run admin. He deals with lawn and car things. The rest we tag-team in a haphazard way that mostly works out. Still, we argue over division of labor, and we both spend some time feeling put upon.
But lately, I’ve come to believe that feeling resentful about the work I do at home is distracting me from my real source of stress: capitalism.
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Our culture of constant work centers the paid economy, insisting that unpaid labor is secondary. But caring for your life, caring for your people, making a home, connecting with your neighbors, and strengthening bonds that help you thrive in the world is work, and it is often joyful work. I’ve come to actively love it because it’s labor I do for my family, and for myself, that exists beyond the reach of capitalism.
There’s power in reframing our idea of what housework truly is. If you want to stand against the dehumanizing effects of capitalism, start by putting your own economy first. After all, not everyone gets to find deep purpose in their job, but the unpaid work of the home has the potential to provide deep meaning to anyone, if we can appreciate it.
The household as economic system
To embrace the meaning in housework, and to unlearn the resentment that can come with it, I’ve been turning to an essay titled “Feminism, the Body, and the Machine” that Wendell Berry, the poet and farmer, wrote in 1989. He critiques the modern household, and partnerships within it, as focused solely on consumption. He offers another way to see things, identifying a “productive” household that “makes around itself a household economy that involves the work of both wife and husband, that gives them a measure of economic independence and self-protection, a measure of self-employment, a measure of freedom, as well as a common ground and a common satisfaction.”
As a farmer, writer, and teacher, Berry was able to craft, along with his wife, an existence in which work and life are rolled into one — the very opposite of our overwhelming grind culture that leads directly to burnout. We might not all be able to create a mini-economy like this, but I think we can all borrow something from the ethos. For many of us, our household lives aren’t distractions from our paid work. They are the reason for it.
Finding joy in the repetitive
Once you’re able to mentally reframe what a household even is, how do you stay non-resentful of the actual household labor? After all, boring and repetitive chores like washing the dishes and making the bed — tasks the scholar Silvia Federici calls “reproductive labor” — are activities at the heart of family life.
Federici “uses this term not simply to refer to having children and raising them; it indicates all the work we do that is sustaining — keeping ourselves and others around us well, fed, safe, clean, cared for, thriving,” Jordan Kisner writes in a profile of Federici in the New York Times Magazine. “It’s weeding your garden or making breakfast or helping your elderly grandmother bathe — work that you have to do over and over again, work that seems to erase itself. It is essential work that our economy tends not to acknowledge or compensate.”
Daily life depends on this kind of labor. It can also be a grind, as anyone who has grimly scraped yet another lovingly prepared and largely uneaten meal into the compost knows. There is no way to love all of the work required to care for our lives. But we can work to make sure we’re doing as much of the stuff that we actually enjoy as we can, through emotionally intelligent division of labor.
And we can mentally reframe tasks that seem a little dull. As Patric Richardson, author of the new book Laundry Love, points out in the Minneapolis Star Tribune, even laundry — a basic, often-dreaded task, is an act of service: “You do laundry for the people you love.”
Be the Bonnie and Clyde of making dinner
Here’s how you and your partner can reframe your thinking around housework:
Draft a mission statement. Figure out some shared language around what your home economy exists to accomplish and what its fundamental qualities are.
Use a safe word. Agree on a word or phrase designed to snap you out of an argument over who needs to fold the laundry and reconnect to your mission statement.
Accept that you will both be jerks sometimes. Build this into the mission statement and safe word and agree on a resolution process.
Divvy using the pleasure principle. Be honest about tasks you secretly enjoy (school paperwork?) and ones you absolutely loathe (making the bed?). Divide them up according to who likes doing them, and own your pleasure, even if you feel lame admit how satisfying you find a freshly mopped floor.
Give appreciation often and effusively. Appreciate the heck out of the other person for taking such loving care of your shared life. Especially for doing the tasks you’d prefer not to.
Check in with each other. Schedule a weekly check-in designed specifically to care for your life and share the cultivation of it. One useful structure is called plus-minus-next: You each name something that worked well and something that didn’t in the past week, and then what’s you’d like to focus on for the next week. Make room to list tasks that need to be accomplished, like taxes, school forms, or weeding the garden, but also make room to reflect on bigger picture goals, like cultivating a sense of adventure together as a family.
In the absence of chore-tackling robots or a fully automated home-of-the-future, household work isn’t going anywhere. But we can shift our thinking about it, and lessen the tensions in our relationships while we’re at it. It’s not lesser than any other kind of work. And it’s not a bunch of odious tasks to be pawned off on your partner. It can be careful and masterful, and a creative expression of love.