Heather, 32, and George, 31, live in Cleveland, OH with their three children, a daughter, 6, and two sons, 9 and 11. George works for an online clothing company doing customer service in the shipping department and has lots of flexibility. Heather works for an insurance company, has inflexible hours, and earns more than he does. Due to his more flexible work schedule, George takes primary responsibility for many child care responsibilities such as sick child care. How the household work and child care would be divided wasn’t something Heather and George talked about when they got married, though George notes that he had assumed she would “stay home and take care of our child, and I was going to work.” Even after their first son was born, Heather was supposed to be home for eight to 10 weeks, but at the sixth week she went back to work even though George “didn’t want our son in day care at that young age.” Ultimately the couple ended up getting his mother, who was retiring, to provide child care. Heather’s and George’s experiences highlight how the pull of traditional gender roles can be subtle. Even though they discussed whether Heather would stay home or work, the idea that George would be a stay-at-home father was never considered. The way a conversation occurs can be as important as the conversation itself. For example, if one spouse’s/partner’s role is considered fixed (the man has to work but the woman can work) the other partner’s options may be more limited. Heather and George managed to resolve the issue by having a grandparent provide child care but other couples must find a way to satisfy both spouses’/partners’ interests without the advantage of additional support from family or hired help.
Allison, 35, and Danielle, 30, live in Portland, OR with their 3-year-old son, Xander. Allison works 40 hours a week as an optician, and Danielle works from home, part time, prepping packages for marathons. Since Allison works from 9:30 am to 6 pm, she gets her son up, feeds him breakfast and changes his diaper. “I also try to unload the dishwasher,” she says. But most of the running of the household and child care is left to Danielle. They talked about the division of household chores before they got married, and both agreed Danielle would handle most of the load. The couple bases decisions about chores on time, not money. “I usually do the laundry and put our son to bed,” Allison says. Both try to talk to each other about what needs to get done, and that good communication is what they both agree helps keep arguments over household work at a minimum. For example, a recent rift over who would clean the litter box didn’t turn into a fullblown fight because they discussed issue.
Mark, 51, and Barbara, 50, live in Chicago, IL and have been married for three years, the second marriage for each. Barbara does the cooking and cleaning, partly because she says Mark doesn’t do such things as laundry well. But, she says, “I think my husband purposely did a few things wrong so I wouldn’t have him do the laundry.” Mark grew up in a single-parent home with a working mother so he and his siblings were all assigned household responsibilities. “I would own that responsibility in a marital relationship but since Barbara does a good job, why do it?” As for carrying the heaviest load at home, Barbara wishes she had more time to do things outside of work and the home. “So far,” she says, “I’ve accepted my lot in life.” Mark’s and Barbara’s experiences highlight the importance of sharing one’s expectations and wishes. Though she has “accepted her lot in life,” it seems as though Mark is willing and able to be a substantive participant in household responsibilities. It also demonstrates the importance of both partners assuming responsibility for checking in with each other. That way the less satisfied partner is not burdened with the sole responsibility of creating a situation that is satisfactory to both spouses/partners.
Mike, 55, and Peter, 56, live in Wilmington, DE with their 15-year-old son, Issac, and near their 19-year-old son, Avery, who lives in a group home for adults with disabilities. Mike works as a social worker; Peter as a scenic artist. Peter’s job is the least flexible, taking him away for long periods of time, and he also makes the most money. The married couple adopted their oldest son, who had fetal alcohol syndrome, when he was almost 3 years old, and quickly realized Mike’s plan to take FMLA and then get back to work within three months wasn’t going to work. “I usually handle everything,” Mike said about child care and household chores. The couple met when they were 19 and 20 so discussions about divvying up the care of children or housework didn’t really come into the picture. “Honestly, before we had kids, Saturday morning we’d clean and it was done,” Mike says. Today, he says, there is definitely tension at home when it comes to who does what to keep the house running. In the end, Mike says, “You have to have realistic expectations of what marriage is and what love is over a period of time.” [Emphasis added] The couple’s experiences help illustrate that arrangements that make sense at the start of a relationship won’t necessarily last throughout the relationship, especially after having children. Previous work among different-sex couples has shown that expectations and circumstances change when children enter the picture. The shift of Mike and Peter toward more division than sharing of responsibilities happened over time and in response to circumstances such as their son’s special needs and the relative flexibility of their jobs and earnings. As with Amberly and Lanelle, Mike and Peter may have set out with one vision of how they would divide responsibilities but needed to adapt as life and their careers unfolded.
Amberly, 30, and Lanelle, 32, live in Grand Rapids, MI and have been together for 4½ years, entering a domestic partnership a year and a half ago. Amberly is in food service management, working more than 60 hours a week, while Lanelle works part time, and is sporadically unemployed. After Amberly got promoted two years ago and ended up with little flexibility at work, Lanelle began to do most of the housework. But Amberly irons her own work shirts and takes out the trash. Amberly’s and Lanelle’s experiences exemplify the fact that there are multiple considerations when dividing household responsibilities, such as workplace flexibility. Same- and different-sex couples must both manage these forces in order to find a division that works for them and the best divisions are not necessarily 50/50 or homemaker and breadwinner. Their experience also highlights that any given household responsibility may consist of multiple parts, and couples may share by dividing up those parts. For example, Amberly and Lanelle show one way in which laundry may be more evenly divided (one person washes all the clothes but the other person irons her own work clothes).