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What We Did Before Kids That Makes Us Happy Now

Photograph by Twenty20

During my last year of college, one of my roommates proposed that we set up a chore list for the house.

I quietly scoffed at the idea. Chore lists seemed like something for children living with their parents: not 21-year-old college students out living on their own. But I acquiesced, mostly because I couldn’t summon up a reason as to why the chore list was going to harm anyone.

About midway through that semester, I completely changed my mind. I was sold. The house was always clean. (At least according to college student standards.) We rotated the responsibilities each week. (No one had to scrub the grungy toilet two weeks in a row.) And perhaps most importantly, everyone shared the work.

I loved the idea of the house chore list so much, in fact, that I instituted one with my next roommate: the man who is now my husband.

On the first day that he and I moved into our tiny studio apartment in Chicago, we created a chore list. I chose to clean the kitchen and bathroom. He chose to do all the laundry. I chose to cook. He chose to wash all the dishes. We decided we’d do the grocery shopping and bill-paying together. And then I reassured him that I’d clean the cat litter all by my lonesome. (At the time, this cat was still known as my cat—not, as he’s now known 13 years later, our cat.) We wrote all of our selected chores down on piece of paper. And we committed to one another that we would follow through with these responsibilities.

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Once again, the chore list was a success. It was a specifically feminist success for us, too. Our responsibilities were not split down gendered lines: They were shared on the basis of our perceived strengths and weaknesses. (To this day, I’m still terrible at doing the dishes.) What’s more, we were not splitting up the “woman’s work” amongst ourselves. We were sharing our domestic work equally. Our home was a sweet little egalitarian oasis.

And then we had children.

We’ve never been interested in keeping score of each other’s work.

Life with children is messy, and not just literally so. Babies especially are time-devourers. Energy-sappers. They can make washing the dishes or scrubbing a bathroom seek seem as arduous as scaling Mount Everest. And though getting stuff done becomes a bit easier as children get older, it never quite gets as easy as it was before they were born.

In our case, my husband and I were too tired to split our chores with the perfect equality we had before we had babies. Yet we were still committed to sharing—we were well-practiced in sharing—so we split the work as equitably as possible. And we included the work of parenting.

Day and night, I breastfed our babies. But when those babies wouldn't fall back to sleep after nursing, my husband would wake to comfort them while I slept. I pumped bottles of breastmilk for when I was at work. He washed those bottles. In our 11 years of parenting, I’ve definitely done more baby-feedings than he has. Yet he’s also given more baths and changed more diapers than I have.

We’ve never been interested in keeping score of each other’s work. We’ve simply trusted each other to continue sharing the work we do at home.

Our parenting and our domestic responsibilities are a matter of teamwork.

And that sharing is important to a stable relationship. It’s important to our happiness, both individually and as a couple. In fact, according to a 2007 Pew Research Report, 62 percent of adults reported that sharing household chores was “very important” to a successful marriage.

Despite all the wrenches that parenting has thrown into our lives, the act of sharing our work has been simple for us. And I think that’s because we had a solid foundation for equally-shared work: We had that chore list.

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It would be disingenuous for me to suggest that the chore list was the sole cause of our equally-shared parenting. My husband and I are both feminists. We were committed to an egalitarian approach to parenting long before our first child was even born.

Nonetheless, I like to think that the chore list made equally shared parenting easier for us. It was a foundation. A model. A way for us to practice sharing the work that has, historically, been relegated to “women’s work.”

Our parenting and our domestic responsibilities are a matter of teamwork. And that chore list was our first attempt at figuring out how, exactly, our team would work.

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