Division of labor at home proves divisive

THE BALTIMORE SUN

"My husband Josh is such a baby," sighs Jackie, 28, the mother of two boys, ages 4 and 2, and a part-time X-ray technician in a large hospital. "If he objects so much to my working, why didn't he say so before?"

Jackie says life with Josh had always been a guessing game. In six years of marriage, he rarely expressed an opinion. But now he's full of them. He used to adore her cooking and affectionately called her Julia Child. Now, he refers to her as the "hamburger-and-French-fries queen." The house, he says, looks like a disaster area -- though she rarely sees him lift a finger to help. "And I'm tired of hearing that if I wanted to have children, I should stay home and raise them."

She says she's a better mother since she went back to work. The time she does spend with the kids is precious. And they've gotten to know their father better, because he's with them on weekends when she often has to work. But just as important, says Jackie, is the fact that working is vital for her self-esteem and confidence. "Josh thinks only about himself -- and who's going to vacuum and cook his dinner," she says. "I can't do it all, and I'm tired of hearing him moan about it."

The problem is that Josh, a 30-year-old insurance adjuster, has been miserable ever since Jackie went back to work six months ago. "Jackie is happy as a clam," he says, "but our household routine has been blasted. She parks the boys with a sitter during the week and expects me to be with them every weekend. Not to mention the fact that we hardly see each other anymore."

The other day, he complains, he got home from work, hungry and with a headache, to find the beds unmade and a bare cupboard. Their sex life, he adds, hardly exists. "Instead of being sexually responsive, the way she used to be, Jackie is now too tired or simply uninterested in sex." Josh can appreciate the fact that his wife wants to work, but he still expects her to take charge at home, too.

Love, honor, vacuum

In deciding who does what around the house, "Josh and Jackie have plenty of company," notes Mark Snowman, a New York marriage counselor. "Dividing up the responsibilities at home may seem trivial, but studies show that when spouses differ over housekeeping habits and expectations, marital frustration escalates."

While couples today share more housekeeping and child care roles than their parents did, gripes about who does what are still often ignored. If you and your spouse find yourselves arguing over domestic responsibilities, think about the following advice:

* Don't ignore your resentment. The longer you avoid the subject of how tasks are to be divided, the more likely it is that you'll feel angry or spiteful.

* Understand the underlying reasons why both of you feel upset. When couples argue about chores, they're really fighting about more than who does the grocery shopping or cleans the bathroom. Many husbands and wives are actually envious of, and competitive with, each other's situations. The working mother, for instance, may be furious that her husband assumes she should also take care of the majority of household chores, with his participation optional. On the other hand, if a husband grew up in a traditional home, like Josh did, he may unconsciously equate cooking and cleaning with love and nurturing and feel neglected and unloved when his wife has other priorities.

* Focus on what works for both of you in your relationship, not some preordained division of labor. How your parents divided the responsibilities at home will certainly influence your feelings, but it cannot be your sole criterion. Chances are your lives are very different from the ones your parents led. Talk honestly about how you both feel about order and tidiness. Is it important to you that the beds are made each morning, or are you the kind of person who figures you're going to sleep in it at night, so why bother? What expectations do you both have for your own as well as each other's roles? Be clear about what's important and what's negotiable. If your husband cannot seem to keep the XTC closets straightened, ask yourself if it's worth the continuing arguments, or can you live with the door shut?

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