Let’s Talk about Domestic Labor and Burnout
Maybe because I see so many couples. Maybe because I live in a house that always seems to need cleaning. Maybe because in a world where we all have so little control, the idea of taking control of the conversation and the division of labour in our home seems like a place we can take control of. And that was why when I read Fair Play by Eve Rodsky, I felt both excited and exhausted. Here was a book that really took a clear look at the pieces that make up domestic labour and the parts that are truly exhausting. When I recommend it to my clients, I focus on three ideas of the book that speak to truly shifting the conversation.
My Time is Valuable
Wow, was this a powerful and yet overly simple statement. What spoke to me in this section was the acknowledgment of unspoken thoughts that both parts of the couple might have. The rage that comes from seeing your partner watching a game or a tv show why you finish the dishes while they ignore that you asked them to vacuum for the third time. Even typing that sentence reminds me of all the times I’ve had this conversation with a client, with a friend, with myself. Because the fundamental shift that needs to happen here isn’t about a new communication skill or a letting go of your matyrdome syndrome or learning anger management. The real shift here is in valueing your time. Because here is a universal truth, nobody is going to value what you don’t. Not your boss, not your partner, and not your mother. If you don’t value your time, they will not.
The part that felt exhausting? Well, all the conversations that then need to happen between you and your partner. All the time that needs to be spent challenging your own core beliefs. All the time that needs to be spent to shift this entire conversation everywhere. But I’ll get to that.
I’ve gone back and forth on the name she gives time for yourself, what she calls Unicorn Time. But I’ve decided I like it. The name encapsulates how mythical, magical, and yet somehow unattainable this piece of time feels. She wants you to carve out time every week for yourself. Not for self-care, not for a nap, and not to work on your to-do list but for you to enjoy. This is time for a hobby, or a book, or something that will make you interesting. And at first glance, this just feels exhausting. This is another place to add to your to-do list. And yet. There’s this thing about this time that I keep coming back to. I see couples as well as individuals and I hear over and over again about how it is hard to feel connected and attracted and interested in their partner. I hear it from both sides. I hear the underlying rage and resentment and frustration and exhaustion about this constant circling around of an issue. And it often comes back to feeling like a person who exists outside of children and work and a partner. It comes back to feeling interesting to yourself. If you are not interested in what you have to say about the world, why should your partner be interested? It may be another item on the to-do list, but it’s an item that can start to create a place where you can come back to yourself and be more than the house work and the work and the children and the rage.
I could talk all day about taking ownership but I really think this comic by Emma, a french comic artist, shows it best. Essentially, what both Emma and Eve are saying is that partners need to take ownership of a task and not just complete the bare bones. When your partner asks you to vacuum, they are not asking you to turn it on and off, they are asking you to notice when the living room needs to be vacuumed every single day, get the vacuum and do a good job immediately and not after you finish your game, and then put the vacuum away so that the other person never needs to think about vacuuming again. And until that shifts, that expectation that everyone’s time is equal, that someone doesn’t get to have unicorn time when the other person doesn’t, and that it isn’t one person’s sole responsibility to own the house, nothing will change.
And that gets to the exhaustion and my criticism of the book. Nobody reads this book who has it all figured out and is well rested and just needs to “tweak” the problem. Asking couples to make exhaustive lists and have difficult conversations, and to have fights about the standards and to live with the anxiety of making this kind of monumental change while waiting for the other shoe to drop for you kids is a big ask. And asking them to do this on top of the exhaustion most of them feel from working a full time job, worrying about their kids, and worrying about their parents is a lot. They need help. That doesn’t mean I don’t think that couples shouldn’t try to implement as much as they can from the book. Small changes accumulate and can result in major shifts. But if you are feeling burnt out just reading this blog post, let alone the book, don’t worry, you’re not alone. And that gets to the next book I’ll review, Can’t Even: How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation by Anne Helen Peterson