Nov. 5, 2019
Getting everyone to share the load at home fairly is not something one person can do on their own. Making changes stick takes buy-in and active, ongoing participation from all members of a household. So how do you convince resistant family members—be they your partner, your kids, or some other family member or housemate—that experimenting with the way you share the load is worthwhile? And how do we ensure that trying Better Life Lab Experiments (BLLx) doesn’t become just one more thing that the family’s chief get-it-done manager—usually a woman—has to worry about, plan and do week to week?
Chances are, you’ve come to BLLx because you are shouldering the burden of most of your household’s labor. Why do we assume this is the case? If you’re a family member or household member who is carrying less than their fair share of the load, you probably aren’t looking for tips on how to change things up. As our BLL innovation manager Haley Swenson admits of her own role at home, when you’re secondary tidier in your relationship, things look pretty good, overall. After all, the work is getting done, the food cooked, the laundry folded, the kids cared for, whether you do it or not.
So what do you do when the family members you need to step up, push back against experimenting with sharing the load?
First, try to identify every individual’s underlying motivation for experimenting. Without underlying motivations, these experiments are just chores you do because someone told you to. And over time, they’ll likely become chores you don’t do.
For you, your motivation for being here is probably obvious: “I want to experiment because I am tired of having to do everything for everyone.” For others, the motivation might be less obvious, but it’s probably there beneath the surface once you start digging. For Haley, the stress the unequal dynamic causes her partner and the conflict it can create in their otherwise very happy life are motivation to change things up and share the load more fairly at home.
Your partner may not want to throw a Laundry Folding Party or take a turn as Social Secretary, but you might get them to agree to something like: “I am willing to experiment because I don’t like it when you’re mad at me about the laundry all the time,” or, even, “I will try experimenting because you’ve told me it would make you happier if we do it together.”
Maybe for a kid at home, self-interest can be tapped: “I will experiment because I am tired of you telling me I can’t go out because my chores aren’t done.” But there are loftier reasons that might make kids want to participate too, such as: “I will experiment because I want mom and dad to be less stressed out and have more time for fun.”
Any time someone pushes back against a new experiment or against following up and finishing one, remind them of their underlying motivations for this and your own underlying motivation for it. You’re not asking them to experiment because you want to punish them. You’re asking them because you think it will help all of you to better realize your own visions for what you want your home life to be like, for what you want your life to be like, and for what you want the world to be like.
For many, however, even these motivations might not be enough to create sustained action and a commitment to sharing the load over time. After all, as you know, the work of keeping a home and family running can be grueling. It’s easy to lose sight of your motivations and go back to old habits without meaning to.
So, if you find that you’re still getting pushback, here are some tips from psychologist and couples therapist B. Hibbs:
When partners are really stuck, Hibbs suggests talking through or writing out a three-person perspective-taking story about the problems: My story. Your story. What an objective and caring third person would observe. My story might be: “I’m overwhelmed and need help juggling it all.” And your partner’s story might be: “I’m tired too and I don’t know how much more I can offer!” If you just stop there, you’ll remain stuck. The key is taking that next step: What would a caring and objective third person say about our predicament? Probably that if you’re both so tired and overwhelmed, then something needs to change!
With children, depending on their development stage, they may protest your asking more of them, with, “It’s not fair!” Try not to react with a “Life is not fair” retort. Instead, use the protest as an opportunity to inquire and enlist a child’s help with problem-solving, such as, “Let’s all give ideas for what would be fair, so your ideas are included.”
Adult partners can often get stuck in competitiveness, score-keeping, and cross blaming in chore wars. Oftentimes, a lot of the mental load one partner carries may be invisible, or infrequent chores the other partner does go unremarked. Making visible all the work that it takes to make a household run, and agreeing to standards, can go a long way in creating a spirit of cooperation, appreciation, and feeling supported. Taking an inventory, like in the Shared Parenting Assessment experiment, can go a long way in creating that awareness and discussions around how to share.
But for those who don’t have the time or bandwidth for that Ninja-level task, try forging ahead with the experiments even while you have partial buy-in or even outright skepticism, in the hopes that trying it and finding it works or isn’t so bad creates even more buy-in. Use these experiments to start conversations about how you would really like to share housework and caregiving. They can be an opportunity to discover your strengths and likes or develop them.
Hibbs also says acknowledgment and appreciation go a long way in creating goodwill around sharing chores. As does making clear who “owns” certain tasks and when. Making fair trade-offs. Letting go of the role of chore monitor-in-chief. And having regular check-ins about how each partner experiences their chores or tasks as a burden, and problem-solving together for better, fairer solutions. We’ve tried to incorporate all of those elements into each of our experiments.
But no two families or households are totally alike. Maybe we haven’t found a way to solve your particular buy-in challenge just yet, but BLLx is here to give you more than just experiments. We’re here to offer some hope that things really can change, especially if we put as much time into experimenting with fixes for the problems at home as we do for the problems we encounter at work. So stick with us, and keep giving us feedback about what’s working and what’s not working. This is how the scientific process works: Recognize a problem, design experiments that might solve it, try them, assess, and repeat. And we’ll be here ready to iterate, whenever you and your family are ready to join us.