My wife and I try to divide our household chores equally: She cooks, I do the dishes. She buys groceries, I do the laundry. My easiest chore is setting the table. It takes about one minute and she has to remind me every time.
Photo by Toby Bochan
The problem isn't the task itself; it's keeping it in mind. If she doesn't remind me ahead of time, I'll only notice at the last minute and get in her way, squeezing by her to grab the silverware while she plates the food.
French comic artist Emma describes and addresses this problem in "The Gender Wars of Household Chores": Among straight couples, even when men do equal work carrying out household chores, women still disproportionately bear the "mental load" of keeping track of those chores. This creates a kind of continuous partial attention that takes up energy and raises stress. It also creates an invisible hierarchy where men feel like employees running afoul of the boss.
Men often fail to appreciate or share this invisible management job. If you can help carry the load, you can relieve your partner's stress and feel less like an underling.
Part of the solution is simply raising your awareness. Don't just "do the laundry" -- monitor the hamper and take the initiative to run a load. Examine when your tasks usually need to be done, and plan ahead for them.
I'm learning to set the table an hour ahead of time. And my kind and patient wife is learning that if she says, "Don't worry, you have plenty of time," she's just enabling me to avoid that mental load.
Write it down
I have a short attention span and a bad memory. Thankfully, I also have a smartphone. I make calendar events for the rent check; I keep a grocery list so when my wife asks what we need, I have an answer. Writing down the most minuscule chore is still better than forgetting, and it's the first step to learning how to simply remember.
Turn your phone into your manager and eliminate the mental load altogether. Add alarms to those calendar events. Set location-based notifications that remind you, when you're passing the drugstore, to stop in. Move regular shopping trips onto Amazon Subscribe & Save.
A wave of apps has made it even easier to outsource chores like laundry and dog-walking. Depending on your budget, consider a housecleaner -- but pay attention to who's responsible for hiring, managing and paying them.
Learn the skills
Some chores end up in one person's domain according to ability or interest. My wife loves to cook, so I never learned. Usually this works, but when she's sick or busy, the system breaks down. On those nights I take over and handle the food delivery service order, but to really reach some kind of equity, I have to learn to cook.
Next time your partner handles their chore, ask them to teach you. On your second try, have them step back and simply advise, while you carry out the physical task yourself. At first this will slow you both down, but from then on you'll be a more reliable "backup" -- and you might discover that you're just as interested in the chore as they were.
Transfer the resources
A lot of chores rely on access to specific resources, especially logins or files. Just because one of you provides the health insurance doesn't mean the other can't manage it. Sit down with your partner and exchange logins for everything that affects your household, like shared bank accounts, insurance, doctor portals, your children's school portals or shared mobile plans. Most popular password managers provide shared vaults for all this data.
Prepare to handle phone calls for each other too. Depending on your comfort level, share identifying info and check if your doctor or accountant will let you talk to them on your partner's behalf. (Some require a signature in advance.)
Share the login for streaming services so you can manage family playlists and queues. If you can bear the intimacy, share calendars so you can get a feel for each other's availability and workloads.
Hold a family meeting
A lot of mental loads stay invisible until the responsible partner speaks up. Unfortunately, that often happens during a fight. Fend off conflict by regularly discussing upcoming responsibilities in a friendly, info-sharing context. Sunday evening is a great time to discuss your upcoming week and swap certain responsibilities. Even when the conversation doesn't lead to any specific action, it builds your awareness of each other's mental loads. Then when there's a discrepancy to address, you'll have much less work to do, and less chance of using your responsibilities as ammunition.
Put the kids to work
Kids should help with chores as soon as they're able, but they often need management. Hand off some mental load by teaching them to self-manage. Lifehacker writer Beth Skwarecki asks her kids to "be the boss of cleaning the table", telling her what to pick up while she does all the work. "They love their little power trip but I love that they're actually paying attention to what the mess is and how to clean it." This management-only outsourcing even helps kids learn how to cook before they're old enough to do dangerous tasks themselves.
Prepare for major changes
The most crucial application of all these techniques is during a major life change: A job loss (or gain), an injury or having a kid. This is when unrecognised mental loads, which take more time to transfer or outsource than physical chores, blow up. The more flexible you are with your partner, and the more chores you both feel comfortable swapping, the more you can handle in a crisis.