I don’t mean to brag, but my wife and I have got the egalitarian parenting/division of household labour thing pretty much down pat. We alternate kitchen cleanup and child bedtime duties. She deals with the litter boxes, while I mow the lawn. I dig out garden beds, and she plans and weeds. She’s in charge of garbage; I do recycling and compost. And because I would rather chew off my own leg then slot acceptably healthy, acceptably delicious, nut- and seafood-free food items into tiny containers five mornings a week, Rachel makes school lunches, in exchange for which I do all the household laundry.
It’s a system we’ve fine-tuned over years. Every so often, one of the other of us gets whiny about some aspect or another of it all and insists that we’re doing more work. And then we go over the list of chores and — more often than not — discover that, in fact, we’re both pulling our own weight and that really it just takes a lot of work to maintain a household.
Which is why I have of late started to insist that the kids help out a bit more. They were already regularly setting and clearing the table (whenever Isaac is annoyed with his brother, which is often, he makes an X with Rowan’s fork and knife) and making their own beds, but after one particularly irritating Sunday afternoon in December, when everyone was a bit stir crazy and the boys seemed to move from room to room, dumping out toys onto the floor and unmaking beds and leaving half-eaten muffins and bits of popcorn strewn throughout the house, I’d had enough. “You,” I told them, “are going to kick it up a notch around here.”
We did a lot of cleanup that day, including picking up toys and muffin crumbs and popcorn and remaking beds. Then, we tackled the dishwasher: Isaac was put in charge of putting away the cutlery, while Rowan was tasked with plates, mugs, and bowls. “This is your job now,” I told them. “You’re getting bigger, you eat, and you need to help.” Then I unceremoniously dumped two clean loads of laundry onto the living room coffee table: “Find your stuff, fold it, and put it in your drawers.” Miraculously, they did.
And that’s what we’ve been doing, more or less, ever since. It’s not a perfect system: they’ve both, for example, discovered that they don’t really need to actually fold their clothes — both have reverted to simply shoving T-shirts and pants, socks and underwear, into their respective drawers. Sometimes, Rowan could use a bit more finesse: the sleeves of T-shirts will be hanging out of his drawer, which makes it looks like they’re trying to escape. When he empties the dishwasher, I often have to leave the room to avoid being driven mad with anxiety as I watch him carefully stack crockery on the floor or set plates down just a little too hard on the granite countertop before climbing onto the counter to place them, balanced precariously, on the shelf. It’s nerve-racking. But I don’t care because it gets the job done and I don’t have to do it. (Even though I would do it faster and better and with less fuss, but of course that’s not the point.)
Of course, they sometimes (OK, often) protest their chores. “Again?” they’ll say, when I remind them that there are clean clothes or clean dishes to put away. “But we just did that yesterday!” “Yes,” I say, “that’s what happens when you eat every day and wear clothes every day. That’s what it means to live in a house.” And they sigh and get to it.
And I sigh and remind myself of how gracious I’ll be when their future partners thank me.