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David Baxter PhD

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Marriage: Dividing the Duties
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Use these tips to begin figuring out what's fair and how to share the burden of home and family.

Can two working parents truly share the burden of home and family? If you're willing to spend time talking about each partner's needs (and don't forget the children and the house), you may come pretty close. You can begin figuring out what's fair - and who should do what - with the tips below.

Rethink your goals
If you're both working, you and your mate are probably charting new territory, as most of us didn't grow up in homes with two working parents. How does a dual-career couple maintain balance at home -- get dinner on the table, do laundry, feed and bathe the kids, and catch up on each other's day? Before answering that question, think about what exactly you both want and need. Rather than aiming for a straight 50-50 division of labor, try to find a way to simply balance the load and keep both of you feeling happy, productive, and appreciated.

List your current tasks
What are your current household responsibilities? Keep a one-week-log of everything you do for the house and family. Then compare your list with your partner's. How do you each feel about the items on your list? Do you want to change anything? Is there any task you intensely dislike? Can you swap it for another chore? This exercise can be eye-opening: Don't be surprised if one person's list is very long and the other's isn't. With lists in hand, try reassigning responsibilities and finding compromises.

List your baby's needs
Start talking about the division of labor before your baby arrives. Make a list of all the tasks involved in raising a baby, from diapering to choosing childcare. If you're having trouble coming up with a list, consult friends and family members who have recently become parents. Talk about how you should split up these new tasks (and whether you should divide the chores you did before the baby differently). In the early days of a newborn's life, for example, many couples find that because Mom spends hours breastfeeding, Dad ends up on diaper duty the minute he walks in the door. Seems fair. You both need to adjust to the idea of doing things on your baby's schedule rather than your own.

Begin sharing immediately
A new father often feels left out of the mother-infant bond and unsure of his new role. If he feels he has nothing to contribute he won't pitch in as much at home. Everyone loses in this situation. One solution: paternity leave. If you can afford it, having Dad take time off -- a few weeks if you can swing it -- can help you start figuring out how to be a family together. Keep in mind that paternity leave doesn't have to be taken immediately after the baby is born. In fact a new mom can need more help after the first month or so when the baby is awake more.

Shed traditional expectations
To truly share the load, you and your partner may have to do a little soul searching, and look at your own motives and fears. It's easy to fall back on safe but limiting traditional roles. But doing so can leave Mom feeling resentful and Dad left out in the cold. As a mother, do you say you want your partner to take an equal role in childrearing -- and then feel threatened by his involvement? As a father, do you want to be involved but feel clueless with no role models -- and a hovering wife? Try talking to each other about these feelings so you can move past them. And even if your family does fall into traditional patterns -- for example, Dad makes significantly more money than Mom and takes on fewer household and child responsibilities as a result -- it's still important to discuss that decision and ensure that you both feel good about it. If one parent resents the other's involvement -- or lack of it -- everyone, including the kids, suffers.

Make room for two experts in your house
Mothers and fathers bring different parenting and nurturing styles to their children, and these differences are important gifts for each child. But parents sometimes have a hard time respecting and valuing those differences. Rather than criticize your mate about how he dresses the baby, simply accept and respect that he dresses, bathes, or feeds her differently than you do and that's okay. If your partner is constantly criticizing your efforts, you'll be more reluctant to help with the baby.

Anticipate and communicate
It's crucial that you tell each other what you want and need. Try to express yourself clearly and specifically, without blame. For example, if you need help, tell your partner exactly what you want ("Can you play with the baby so I can cook dinner?"), rather than how you may feel at the moment ("I have to do everything around here!"). If you fight over household responsibilities, set aside some time -- when you're both calm -- to figure out what the real problem is and to look for solutions.

Make a schedule
There's so much to do with a new baby in the house, on top of all the other household chores that just don't go away. But with a little planning and communication you can tackle the new responsibilities together.

What jobs do you like to do? What jobs do you hate? Are you a morning person? A night owl? With your preferences in mind, you and your partner can divide up the household responsibilities: One of you can take morning breakfast duty and the other can do the evening bath. Or try days on and off: One of you cooks dinner and cleans up on Tuesdays and Thursdays, the other takes Mondays and Wednesdays -- and you order takeout on Fridays. Take turns sleeping in on the weekends, or getting up with the baby in the middle of the night.

And keep talking about these chores so that you can be flexible. Keep an open dialogue so you can deal with situations as they arise. Who was up all night with the baby or who's not feeling well? Who just pulled an all-nighter to meet a deadline? Figure out who has the energy and ability to take care of things, and switch nights or chores. Once you realize all these tasks are up for negotiation, you'll be amazed at how much saner life gets.

Consider hiring help
It's a luxury that only a few can afford. But if you can afford to hire someone to clean the house once a week or twice a month, it can really make a difference. Rather than cleaning the bathroom, you can read to or play with your baby, and spend time with your partner.

Take advantage of timesaving technology
Dishwashers and washing machines saved time for early generations. For us, there's a whole crop of gadgets and services that can free up our time to spend with family. Here are a few examples: Get online (if you're not already) so you can telecommute -- an excellent way to stay close to home! Sign up for automatic bill-paying through your bank, or subscribe to a grocery or dairy delivery service, if one is available in your area. Buy a digital camera and download and send shots of your kids to family and friends.

Lower your standards
Your house doesn't have to be spotless all week long. We've talked to lots of parents whose stress level went down when they gave up trying to keep their house impeccably clean. Discuss with your partner the minimum level of cleanliness you can both tolerate, and then do what you can together to keep it that way. Save the big cleanups for weekends -- or the housecleaning service. If you think you can keep your house to pre-children standards, you're fighting a losing battle. It's only going to get worse as your kids get older.

Reward yourselves
If you agree to work together, you can play together later. Try scenarios like this: "If you take the baby to the park Saturday morning, I'll spend that time paying the bills. Then we'll have the rest of the day free."

Remind yourself of the advantages of your dual involvement
Everybody in the family benefits when parents work together on maintaining home and hearth. When both parents have jobs, men tend to be more involved in childcare, which is great for the kids. The children also benefit from the positive role models they are given: They see that men and women can have satisfying careers and can take substantial roles in family life as well.

For more information:

The Good Marriage, by Judith Wallerstein & Sandra Blakeslee. ISBN: 0446672483
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