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By Annie Mark-Westfall

Last month, I asked, “Where are our role models of working moms with big careers?”  I was honored and grateful to hear from many women who could relate to those sentiments—and women in their 50s who assured me that 34 will not be the apex of my life.  In my conversations with working women with small children, a second question arose: How are you making it work for your family?

In trying to answer this question, I found my own responses centered on household management rather than work itself.  I presumed that was due to my being on maternity leave, but in speaking to other mamas, I realized that managing our households well is critical to work-life balance for women with families; it is at least 50% of the puzzle.  This is the kind of thing that is completely obvious once you have identified it, but coming to that realization can be a struggle.

To manage a household well it is important to create systems around your family’s specific needs.  That is another “yeah, duh” statement, but if you take a moment to list out those needs, you may find it surprisingly difficult.  I am an extrovert who needs both planned and spontaneous social outlets; my husband M needs routine and predictability.  Meeting both of our needs can be challenging, with two small children.  A primary need that we both agree on is more sleep.

Other women I interviewed reported varying needs.  One friend craves the feeling of “not being needed.”  Every Tuesday, she goes out for an evening without telling anyone where she is going or what she is doing.  Her adventures are mundane—going to a movie or reading a book somewhere—but the freedom is grand.  Another friend travels frequently for work, and feels that she cannot ask her husband to take on more childcare on the days she is home.  Therefore, she takes extra effort to maximize her time away.  She makes reservations at special restaurants, arranges evenings out with local friends, maps scenic walks between meetings, and finds other big and small ways to capitalize on her “me time” so that she requires less of it at home.  I loved this idea, because it never occurred to me to use work travel for anything other than catching up on sleep.

It turns out, of course, that having a supportive spouse is incredibly important.  I am grateful to have a partner who values gender equality.  Being “grateful” can also imply an element of luck or generosity.  It was not luck that led me to marry M, nor is it a generosity that he views childcare and domestic responsibilities as a 50/50 obligation between us.  I had good role models for domestic equality, and I chose my partner carefully.  Still, societal norms are hard to escape.

After reading several articles about the amount of housework and “invisible” work that women do, I took stock of our own arrangement.  We had already established an intricate system of rotating turns sleeping in, and getting up with our toddler son when he wakes.  Detailed rules are written on a piece of paper affixed to the side of the fridge.  We also divided the main household tasks, with M doing all the grocery shopping and cooking, and me doing all the laundry and keeping our children clothed in appropriate sizes.

Despite these arrangements and our commitment to domestic equality, I realized that I was spending my evenings on the “invisible” tasks (arranging daycare rides, fighting the insurance company, tracking cash flow, etc.) and “emotional tasks” like sending emails and cards to both of our families, planning gifts for the holidays, etc.  As I read more and more articles about how much we women carry on our backs, I silently seethed…and then I realized: I could just tell my husband that there was a problem.

M immediately asked me how to fix it.  He thought that I either enjoyed or wished to maintain control of these tasks.  In discussing it in more detail, I realized that for the most part, he was right; it was their invisibility that bothered me, and the inequality in my taking them on.  I spent my free time on these tasks, at the expense of things that recharge my soul, like reading.

To address this issue, we set time aside twice a week for us both to work concurrently on “household tasks.”  We created a shared Google calendar, with standing Household Tasks events.  The goal is to make every task visible—cleaning the bathroom, paying bills, responding to family requests, taking out the trash, discussing how to celebrate both Christmas and Hanukkah in a way that will not completely spoil the children, etc.  We initially used a shared To Do list, but after a few weeks, it fell by the wayside as we established a new routine.  Having this dedicated time has enabled me to give myself permission to spend my evenings on the things that recharge my soul.

The Western world is in the middle of a paradigm shift, amid a female winter of discontent.  The Trump presidency and the #MeToo campaign have sparked a tidal wave of backlash.  Now is the time to bring that fight home, and ask or demand that our partners take on their fair share of domestic responsibility.  There is no solution to work-life balance without household balance.

Annie Mark-Westfall graduated from Kenyon College in Ohio.  As a former Fulbright grantee and Robert Bosch Foundation fellow, she views herself as a cultural ambassador.  Her day job is with an international conservation organization.

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