For a period of my marriage I harbored resentment toward my husband, unfailingly gentle and hard-working, over questions of housework. It was all utterly typical. I felt my work was unappreciated and invisible to him. I felt I was left with more than my share of the work generated by the kids and the household. I felt resentful that he resented me when I got grumpy. There was little outward conflict between us–chilly silence is more my speed–but I would allow aggrieved accusations to play on repeat in my head as I stomped through my chores.
Observing recent conversations, I’ve realized that I don’t carry that kind of resentment anymore. The exhausting work of caring for small children has ended for me; no doubt that’s part of the change. But the mental load and time demands of a larger home and busier household remain on my plate. I think I’ve come to see myself, my work and my relationship differently over the past few years, and those changes have contributed to my present composure on these matters (though new challenges always arise in family life). For me, the most generative ideas have not been about gender roles and sexual politics, but about how I understand myself, my desire, my agency, and my husband’s agency.
Caveat: my experience is far from universal. I’m lead parent of our four kids, while my husband is lead breadwinner. I work at home as an independent scholar, while my husband works a demanding job in research. As a household, we do not outsource any housework or yardwork. I’ve been lucky to find fulfilling vocations beyond our home, and our household structure generally suits me well. My experience may not apply to women in other circumstances, particularly those parenting alone or living in abusive situations.
For what it’s worth, then, here are four ideas that I’ve found compelling.
1. It’s been helpful to reframe my housework as an economically productive part of our household economy. I began to think about housework less as an expression of myself — of my love for my family, or my personality, or my work ethic — than as my contribution to our budget, an addition to the (very small) monetary income I bring in. It might seem counterintuitive, but when I stopped thinking of my housework as a personal sacrifice for those I loved, I stopped needing to be loved for doing it. You can’t buy love, and you can’t earn it or demand it from others–especially not on the implicit notion that you deserve it in exchange for your work.
Instead, I focused on the fact that my domestic work amounts to a significant (tax-free!) contribution to our household wealth, because we do not have to pay other people to do it. There are tradeoffs to contributing to the household economy primarily through non-market work, of course. But there are significant tradeoffs to earned income wages from a job, as well, and I can weigh those tradeoffs pragmatically. For me, the calculus favors non-market work. Thinking about housework this way allowed me to revalue my work in ways that did not demand love as payment and did not put my sense of being worthy of love into question.
2. Over time, I’ve learned to take responsibility for my own emotional state. I saw how futile it was to try to control my children’s emotional states — “Cheer up!” “Be happy!” “Stop crying!” — and I realized that only they can be responsible for their own emotions, with parental support and tools. Similarly, I came to see that I alone am responsible for my emotional state, and that I assume that responsibility when I work for the work’s own sake, not for some consequent emotional reward (like appreciation, praise or love) that may not come.
If my emotional wellness depends on recognition from my husband, and if I seek that recognition through housework, I’ve set myself up for unhealthy emotional dependency. That’s true for two reasons: first, it’s not my husband’s prerogative (or responsibility) to determine how I feel. Second, recognition from him, no matter how extravagant, brings me only momentary appeasement, not lasting happiness or peace. That’s because the nature of happiness and peace is to flow outward from a person, not to be accrued within, much less transferred from one to another. When I do the work for its own sake, not for recognition or relational credit, I assume responsibility for my own emotional wellness, which magnifies my agency within my own experience.
3. As I age, I’m better able to own my desire, to recognize what I want. Women are often socialized not to acknowledge desire beyond consumer goods, and this was a message I absorbed powerfully. I found it difficult–and still do–to give honest attention to my desire and discern what I wanted in a particular situation, let alone forthrightly express and seek that desire. Instead, I would channel the desire through some other narrative of duty or false self-sacrifice: this is good for my kids, I’m doing this for so-and-so, this is what’s expected of me.
The latter, expectations, is an especially powerful narrative in the era of the lifestyle blog. I’d find myself in a frenzy of fancy girls’ hairstyles before church, or making holiday gifts for schoolteachers late at night, because, I told myself, that’s what’s expected. In truth, I was doing those things mostly because I wanted to be viewed by others as the kind of person who did them. Cultural lifestyle expectations only have power over us to the extent that we desire the social rewards–praise, admiration, status–of fulfilling them. AND THAT’S OKAY, but own it. It’s natural to want admiration for the admirable work we do, and it’s not wrong, as long as we don’t expect to receive love in return.
It’s been enlightening for me to realize that when I spend hours decorating my house for holidays, for instance, I am doing it because, in the end, I want to — either for the sake of the pleasure it brings me in itself, or for the pleasure it brings me to project that image to others. When I find myself resentfully doing work that neither brings me pleasure in the doing nor brings me pleasure in the projecting, I’m using “expectations” as a cover for mere vanity. Recognizing that the expectations narrative often works as a cover for vanity has been counterintuitively freeing. I can jettison the “expectations” guilt-free, as a positive process of overcoming vanity, not as a shameful shirking of duty.
4. I became acquainted with the vocabulary of personal boundaries. It was helpful in itself to understand that when I build healthy boundaries into a relationship I prolong and strengthen its potential. I can’t gratify every wish of those around me, even those I love most, because I am a particular person, not an ideal projection. The problem is not that I’m unwilling to give of myself, the problem lies in the very structure of an ideal: definitionally, an ideal is not a particular. They’re just two different kinds of things.* For a lifelong good girl and people pleaser like me, it’s been a difficult but freeing process, ever ongoing, to give up a self-story greedy for external approval.
More powerful, though, was the realization that what’s true from my perspective is also true from my husband’s. He’ll never gratify my wishes, about housework or sex or politics or anything else–not because he’s unwilling to try, but because wishes are ontologically different from persons. When I measure our relationship instrumentally, in terms of how he is or is not providing what I need from him for my own happiness, he’ll never, ever be able to satisfy me. It’s a structure-of-reality thing. Worse, he’ll never be real to me. I’ll never really love him. I’ll never really see him. I’ll spend our life together chasing an instrument of my own mind.
It’s a kind of self-emptying–letting go of what I want and what I need from him and others–but paradoxically this self-emptying frees me to act more powerfully as an agent in the world, because I’m no longer dependent on external compliance or approval for my energy. I hear echoes of Christ’s dictum that she who loses her life shall find it.
In those moments when I can let go of what I need from him, and can own up to the fact that I am not what he needs from me, we have a chance of grasping the hardest thing the world: the inkling that the person sitting across from you is real.
In themselves, these four ideas don’t directly resolve issues relating to housework, mental load, or emotional labor. But I think they’ve helped in approaching the conversations. My love language is collaboration: I feel closest to my husband when we’re working on something together. I can invite him to participate with me in domestic work as a way to grow together, or explain to him what it would mean to me if he took responsibility for some of that work. But if he does not respond to the invitation on my terms, my happiness is not at stake. My love for and recognition of him as a person is not at stake. I continue the grown-up work of recognizing what’s given in my life, finding sustainable sources of happiness, determining what I really desire, and forthrightly becoming an agent in a world.
*It might actually be better to say that ideals are ontologically the same as particulars: both are particular entities, with particular histories, that can never fully coincide with another entity, but are always partially composed of other entities. Regardless, the point is that a person can never fully correspond to another person’s wish because of how reality is made.