Recent studies show that although many more women hold jobs outside the home than 40 years ago, and are even increasingly the primary breadwinner, women still do the majority of the housework and childcare (Japan, Britain, Canada, USA). This is not a path to success for women – we will always struggle to keep up with the men at work if we are taking on more work at home. For many, trying to ‘have it all’ means having to ‘do it all’.
My husband and I work hard to combat this. One of the big things we did was divide daily chores in half. Sometimes we chose our tasks based on skill/interest, but more often than not we divided up days because neither of us wanted to cook every night, or have to get up every morning with early rising children. I cook some nights, he cooks on other nights. The person who doesn’t cook does the dishes. I do a weekly grocery run on the weekends, and he goes again later in the week. When our kids were little, we traded off bath time and putting the kids to bed – we were each in charge every other night. And we still trade off mornings too – we are each in charge of getting up with the kids and getting them to school every other day, allowing the other person to sleep in (or get a head start on work) every other day.
We found, though, that a surprising amount of the childcare and housework didn’t fit into these buckets. And the “extras” tended to land on my shoulders, and was often very hard to quantify. Recently people have started referring to this as Invisible Labor. Even though my husband is willing to do half of the housework and childcare, things like shopping for clothes, making medical appointments, buying presents for birthday parties the kids were invited to, checking grades, arranging to get the gutters cleaned, buying flights for an upcoming trip, signing up for soccer (the list is truly endless) were still falling on me. And it wasn’t that my husband couldn’t, or wouldn’t, help with these things, the problem was him even knowing which of these things needed doing.
That’s when we realized my love of lists (I am the creator of The Trip Clip, after all), was our solution, once we applied a little technology. We decided to create a shared to-do list online. We chose a simple solution: Google Documents. We created a new document and then shared it between our individual Google accounts. I like Google Docs for our list because the formatting is totally flexible (we can make a ton of detailed notes if needed), and it’s super easy to share with my husband and access it from anywhere – including from our phones and from work.
One of the first things this shared to-do list did was help make us both aware of the magnitude of the problem. The list is always huge and never-ending, and it was really eye opening to both of us to see just how many tiny, hard to quantify tasks need doing to keep our household and kids running smoothly.
The list also served as an effective way to quickly share information between us. Despite our best efforts to avoid gender stereotypes throughout our marriage, I tend to be the one more in charge of our household and our kids. Some of that really is just us falling into gender roles even when we don’t mean to, and it also happens naturally because I work from home, so I am simply at home and with the kids more than he is. But some of it is thrust upon us. Moms at school are significantly more likely to coordinate with other moms for playgroups, carpools, birthday parties, summer camp signups, etc. Even if my husband wants to be in charge of half of this stuff, he just doesn’t have access to all the information I do. See my article about Using a Joint Email Address as one solution to this problem. When the joint email doesn’t fix it, the shared to-do list helps.
The list also encourages me to keep my husband in the loop. Many women I know find it much easier to just do the items on the to-do list rather than take the time communicating the task to their spouse. They’re not wrong, sometimes it DOES take more time to communicate the task than it does to just do it. But using the shared to-do list takes away a little of communication burden and helps me make room for my husband to help. It gives us a space and a routine around making sure that he can be effective, and more importantly, be aware of everything that’s getting done. And this feeds on itself. The more involved he is, the more he knows what’s going on in our home life and the more effective he is in anticipating and handling stuff that comes up.
The list has made us better partners, too. When the list was primarily in my head and I just dictated tasks when I got desperate for help, my husband had no input into the list of tasks, or how they were prioritized. By writing everything down, items he cared about made it onto the list in a way they never had before. Previously his priorities either got ignored, or he just did them on his own making me resentful that he had picked his pet projects over my more pressing needs. By writing them down, and reviewing the list together to prioritize how we’d spend our time, we behaved more like partners in how we tackled running our home lives.
Most importantly, sharing the list with my husband made the list, and the tasks on it, ‘ours’. He became a co-CEO instead of just being my employee and doing what I tell him to do.
In order to make sure the list stays useful, we have a weekly appointment to sit down and look at the list together. We talk about tasks that we’ve completed and fill each other in on how it went, we add things to make sure the list is complete, we prioritize the list so that we agree on which things we’ll tackle next, and we divide up the tasks between us.
A great example of how the shared to do list helps is with birthday parties the kids get invited to. One simple birthday invitation (which usually came to me) turned into many tasks that I usually just took care of. Until the day of the party my husband might be only vaguely aware it was coming up, and it wasn’t unusual for him to get handed a present and an address on the way out the door to take our son to the party. Now with the Shared to-do list, I pop “Andrew’s birthday party” on to the list when I get the invitation. When we look at the list together, we work together to figure out what to get, who should buy it and when, we make sure it’s on our calendar (including the address so we both have that information), and we figure out who will drive our child, especially if there are any scheduling conflicts that day with other activities. That means the day of the party my husband knows where and what the present is, whose birthday it is, and we will both be equally prepared to help our son get the present wrapped and the card made. The list made room for my husband to be involved too.
Now, when either of us runs across something during the day that we know needs to get done, or even just shared with the other person, we pop it on the shared to-do list right then and we’re sure to remember to talk about it at our weekly to-do list appointment.
A shared to-do list is a very simple thing, but it can go a long way towards finding more equity in handling what adds up to be a huge chunk of the work involved in raising kids and running a household. And you may find that your spouse is more than willing to help, they just haven’t been able to figure out how to insert themselves into your system. A shared to-do list makes your system more transparent, and you may be surprised by how much help you can get once it’s clear what needs doing. You may also be surprised by the awesome birthday present suggestions your spouse has that never would have occurred to you!