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posted: 7/17/2011 1:00 AM

Division of housework gets sticky after hours

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Q. I am a mom and my husband is a stay-at-home dad. We have three young, school-age children. Our age-old problem is the division of housework.

I work nine-hour days and usually work from home one night a week. On the weekend, I do all the cooking and usually all of the dishes. I also do the dishes on the weeknights I don't bring work home.

He does shopping, plans an activity for the kids after school once a week, prepares dinner Monday through Thursday, does heaps of laundry, meets friends for lunch once a week, conducts family business (doctors, etc.), surfs the Net, and works out at the gym two or three times a week. I don't begrudge him the lunch with friends since he doesn't get the socialization that I receive at the office.

My husband complains that he has to clean the house all by himself while nobody helps out. While we have both tried to get our kids to help clean, they often spend more energy trying to avoid housework. So what typically happens is either my husband cleans up the house during the week (and complains bitterly about it to me) or we as a family spend most of one weekend day cleaning the house and have to bark at the kids to get them to clean up.

My husband resents the first approach and thinks I need to do more housework. I think he has much more time during weekdays to clean and resent the implication that I'm not pulling my share of the workload.

My husband and I both find cleaning a tedious way to spend weekends and don't want to get irritated by our kids. What can we do to enjoy our family time more and not make one another resentful?

A. Well, you have to work full time and presumably no one helps you out. Managing a home and children is just as much of a full-time job as yours, albeit with no pay, vacations, 401(k), future, promotions or meetings.

So the path of least resentment is to compare your two jobs to make sure the entire family workload is being distributed equally. How many hours of your daily nine do you spend actively working? Are you pressing ever onward and eating at your desk, or do you get stretch/surf breaks and lunch with colleagues? What are your husband's afternoons like -- do the kids play and do homework quietly, or do they wring Daddy dry? Who's the Parent in Chief on weekends and weeknights? Were the preschool years exhausting to the point where he's still recovering?

Not only will this help each of you understand the true nature and demands of what the other does every day, it will also, ideally, flush out any lurking resentments that aren't just about soap scum. Is he feeling underappreciated? Are you? Did he feel pressured into househusbandry, or you into breadwinning?

While I'm in no position to say which of you has grounds to complain, I'm going to stomp in anyway, ill-advisedly, with a suggestion: It appears (hedging!) as if your husband could add a relatively painless 30 minutes of housekeeping to his weekdays, while the kids are at school (hello!), and cut the weekend cleaning load substantially. You, too, could reduce that pile by putting in an extra 30 minutes yourself on one weeknight and both weekend days. That's four hours of cleaning -- a good deal of attention to the average, non-cavernous house -- split 60-40, with his larger share reflecting his job as keeper of the home.

Ideally, that gentle and equitable distribution of chores will leave you both feeling pleasant and unencumbered enough to dedicate one hour of one weekend day to family chore time. This hour will not, realistically, be about getting the house any cleaner. The point will be to teach your kids that: couples work best together; all members of a household contribute; keeping things short, contained, routine and set to upbeat music is the secret to cheerful cooperation; play time is important, but it feels better when you earn it; and having a nonnegotiable, incentive-heavy, clean-first-then-play rule is better than barking at kids whom you've taught that dragging their feet is the way to get out of chores.

Since you don't want the job-comparison strategy devolving into bean-counting, note the attitude you bring to it. Instead of the, "No, YOU need to do more!" tone you've both adopted, make a conscious choice to have this mindset: "Would it help or hurt the family if I were to take on more work?"

It may be that both of you are to the point of diminishing emotional returns, where the cost of a clean floor is a pair of resentful parents. If that's the case, then either spring for a housekeeper or consider that nine out of 10 kids (possibly 10 out of 10) don't notice dirt but do absorb stress through their pores.

• Email Carolyn at, or chat with her online at noon Eastern time each Friday at