Reader question: How do I ask my partner to share home and kid tasks?

We have another reader question! I wrote recently about “parent-work” and when it needed to happen. This reader asks “Do you have any suggestions or best practices of how to communicate with your spouse about sharing parent-work, household, or other common responsibilities?”

This reader reports that “I have established a pattern of just doing too much myself. This is not because I think I am the only one who can do things the ‘right’ way. I think it mostly stems from my desire to avoid conflict!”

Here are my thoughts on getting a partner to share the load. I also welcome suggestions, particularly from those who’ve had success in re-negotiating roles.

First, take an honest look at what each of you is doing. In many situations we don’t adequately credit other people’s contributions, because we’re not there when all of their work happens, but we’re present for everything we do. One party might not automatically empty the dishwasher, but always changes the light bulbs the second they burn out. The point is not that this person is doing half, but he/she isn’t doing nothing either.

After you’ve taken stock of this, ask whether everything you’re doing is necessary. If you’re packing lunches daily, but the other parent thinks sending lunch money is fine, and the kids are fine with buying lunch, then you’re in for quite a slog in asking the other parent to do half the packing. In general, the easiest way to even a load isn’t to ask your partner to do more. It’s to do less yourself.

But let’s say you’ve looked at those questions and we’re not talking extravagant parent-work. We’re talking making doctor and dentist appointments and taking kids to them, or texting sitters, or remembering to ask a forgetful child about homework and permission slips, or realizing a kids’ pants are too small and he needs new ones. How do you bring this up?

In general, people are best convinced of things when they are framed in terms of their interests. So you can broach this topic any time there is a good opportunity for your partner to get what he wants if he’ll do X, Y, or Z. For instance, if your partner has seemed allergic to the idea of finding and booking a sitter, and he says “hey, we should try that new steakhouse,” you can say “I would love to. What night? Great. Would you please find a sitter for that night and then we’ll be all set.”

Don’t expect this first request to be easy. You will wind up forwarding him sitter contacts several times and checking in, creating far more work than it would be just to book someone yourself. But if you are serious about changing the distribution of labor, then do not back down. Just keep smiling and putting the work back on your partner’s plate. Eventually he will figure out that it is not that hard.

I am assuming here that our reader’s desire to avoid conflict does not stem from her partner being emotionally (or otherwise) abusive. If that is the case, we have a far different situation. But if it’s because of worries about normal conflict, then there are a few things to keep in mind for framing the discussion and for specific phrases.

First, conflict is hard to sustain when the other person is calm and reasonable. There’s no fuel for the fire. Hard as it might be, try to refrain from yelling “I’ve been doing everything around here for 10 years!” Or “I didn’t think I married a *#[email protected]* Neanderthal!” Approach this issue as there being a problem in your life that both of you can work together to solve.

Second, if you’ve been doing everything, your partner genuinely may not know what needs to be done. Why would he? So for a while, you’ll have to request help and suspend any thoughts that a competent adult should be able to figure these things out. Be very specific, and let your partner know about what you’re doing. Use this sort of script: “I just booked our children for their next dentist appointments. They also need their annual well-child check-ups. Would you please call their pediatrician’s office to schedule that for a time you can make?” Follow with silence. One of the more useful tips from Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus is that grumbling is a sign the person is considering the request. Let the grumbling work itself out.

Another useful tip from that book: “Would you?” is better than “Could you?”

I’m not sure there’s any point in a giant sit-down discussion of this topic. While the over-arching problem may be a big and real one — I feel overwhelmed, and I feel that someone who truly loved me would want to lighten my load — the solutions are practical. So focus on those. Let your partner take a child shopping for clothes and accept whatever they come back with. Criticizing the person’s choices is probably the fastest route to everything winding up back on your plate again. I know of what I speak. I was not willing to make a home repair decision for years after my husband criticized the light switch I let a contractor install. They had to call him at work.

What do you suggest for re-negotiating a division of labor?

18 thoughts on “Reader question: How do I ask my partner to share home and kid tasks?

  1. Speaking from the male perspective, another helpful tip is to catch him doing “right” (what you want, whether or not it’s part of what he’s already doing) — and praise him for it. Guys like to be helpful, despite the general “do nothing” stereotype. (We’re “fixers” by nature.)
    For example, let’s say that it’s his “job” to take out the trash. When he does, say something like “Oh, thank you, honey! I’ve been so busy doing [X, Y, Z] that I didn’t notice it was getting full. That’s a load off my plate.” It doesn’t have to be “exactly” that (obviously), but it should be genuine appreciation. The unspoken truth here is that you’re stroking his ego — and he likes that kind of thing. 😉 SO, he’s more likely to not only continue doing “what he should”, but he’s also more likely to look for OTHER ways he can get praise. So if you listed X, Y and Z, maybe he thinks he can tackle one of them to help out. (Be sure to *praise* his attempts, per Laura’s last paragraph.)
    And I will admit to being vulnerable to certain “incentives”, but be mindful that if you promise something, he’s going to remember what it was — so throw the man a bone if that’s what you’ve promised. 😉 (Sadly, I think my wife knows all of my buttons — that is, my “do something for me” buttons — that she could play just about any tune she wanted. 😉 Thankfully, though, she doesn’t abuse her power.) 😀

    1. Eric. J, you took the words out of my mouth. As a woman who frequently praises my partner, it works wonders if you STICK WITH IT. Don’t do it once or twice and then throw your arms up in frustration that it ‘doesn’t work.’ Make it a habit to show (genuine!) appreciation:
      “Thank you so much for grabbing the garbage on the way out the door this morning – it was so helpful.”
      “I really appreciate you grabbing that load of laundry. Would you mind helping me fold it and put it away? That’s the hardest part for me and you’re so quick at it.”

      Be honest, be patient and be appreciative. It goes a long way!

    2. @Eric – I think everyone enjoys praise! It is probably a hard mindset to get in when a person is annoyed that she feels her partner is really not doing enough to praise little things, but it is probably effective.

    3. This goes both ways, too. I treasure the compliments I get from hubby on parenting-related stuff. In the day to day slog, some of the courtesy gets lost, so I try to actively practice thanking people for doing stuff around the house (hubby and kids) even if it’s technically “their job”.

      1. @ARC, you’re absolutely right! I didn’t mean to make it sound like it was entirely one-sided… I was mostly responding in the same manner of (what I felt was) the “one-sided” tack from the article: get the guy to do more things.
        It’s my job (as the husband) to make my wife [and family] feel that she is loved, cared for and protected — and it’s often the “little things” (like saying thank you, etc.) that go a long way towards that. I appreciate that she cooks the vast majority of the meals — and I tell her so. I try to never take anything for granted — though admittedly my score is less than perfect in that regard… I do the best I can, and when I notice, I try to do better. 😀

    4. Thank yous are good, but I have recently tried and am finding I get much better results by actually doing or specifically telling DH that I will do something nice for him shortly after he has done (or while he is doing) something I want him to do “around the house” (etc.). I am very careful not to make this an explicit tit-for-tat, but e.g. whereas maybe it used to be the case that if he was, say, folding the laundry, I’d think, “oh, since that’s taking up his time I should make sure DS’s soccer equipment is loaded up in his car for tomorrow or whatever,” and then do so quietly now I actually say something to him (“Thanks for folding the laundry honey! Lest we forget, while you’re doing that I’m going to put DS’s ball/cleats/shin guards in your car so they’re ready when you get him from school tomorrow and take him to practice!” Or, shortly after he’s done the folding, “I’ll walk DS to school tomorrow so you don’t have to get up so early.”). It’s pretty Pavlovian, but it seems to help.

      1. @Alexicographer – this is an interesting broader point about getting credit for activities that aren’t seen. As I noted in the original post, it’s easy to assume one is doing more than someone else because you see your own contributions, and don’t see theirs. So one approach would be to make sure the other person knows. I see women coached to do this in professional situations to make sure they are getting credit for contributions.

  2. I’m interested in the difference between “Would you” and “could you” – I’ve never heard that before.

    I also find that when I’m at the “overwhelm” stage, actually having a calm chat about it with my husband DOES motivate him to help out, without me having to nag or freak out, which never works. We sit down and have a chat where we lay out all the things we have to do and pick and choose what needs to be done, what we’re going to skip, and who’s going to do each thing.

    Once I figured out hubby wasn’t a mind-reader, things were much easier 😀

    1. @ARC – I’ll have to dig up John Gray’s discussion of it. I think “could” is asking if you’re capable of it, and no one likes to have their capability questioned. “Would” is a matter of choice.

  3. Ask for what you need and then get out of the way. My husband’s perspective is that if I ask and then manage over his shoulder, he will be too happy to just give it right back to me.

    One example for us involves the morning routine. I felt frustrated that I was getting up early and getting the kids going every morning. One evening I said “Hey, I’m going to sleep in a little tomorrow, so I need you to get the kids going. Then I’ll take morning duty the next day.” It was that simple. If I get up with him and the kids, however, it is too easy for him to ask me little questions that he is totally able to figure out by himself if I am not there.

    So- yeah. Ask. Then get out of the way.

    1. @Katherine – simply disappearing is a good strategy, especially for relatively low-stakes stuff (if the kids are late to preschool, the world does not end). Because yes, the million little questions are annoying. And if you’re there, it’s always tempting to intervene when you can see the other person forgetting/missing something.

  4. I agree with most of what you’ve written except for discounting the value of the “giant sit-down”. I actually think that if you have a reasonably good relationship with a partner who cares about you, then he will want to know when you feel overwhelmed and that there is a macro issue going on, not just a micro one. I find these sit-downs need to happen every so often, and if done properly (without too much blame or recriminations but just expressing how I feel), then they make a measurable difference quickly.

  5. Another vote for the sit-down, along with the admission that I despite John Gray and every Mars/Venus word he has written. It’s a bad idea, in my experience, to assume you know what someone is thinking or feeling or what they need from you. Read John Gottman instead of John Gray.

    It’s a bad idea to change the rules of engagement without having a conversation about that. We’ve renegotiated our division of labor repeatedly over our marriage (nearly 30 years married, nearly 15 as parents). And no, I don’t yell or accuse him of being thoughtless and inconsiderate, even if I feel like I’m not being considered. I use “I-messages” and observations. When our daughter was about 8, I was increasingly frustrated with doing all the doctor/dentist visits. When I asked about any specific visit, he said “no”, and there were always good reasons for that particular no. Finally I said “I hear you say you love the flexibility of your job because you can take time to do things for your family. I notice that you say ‘no’ every time I ask you to take E to the doctor. Why is that?” I said it one evening when we were out to dinner, and I said it calmly and with genuine curiosity. He thought about it and realized that he could do it if he had more notice – and from then on he took charge of all routine dentist and doctor’s appointments. I didn’t even meet the orthodontist until she’d been going for nearly a year.

    Also agree with everything everyone said about getting out of the way, and being calm and non-reactive. You can’t avoid conflict. The situation described isn’t “lack of conflict”. She’s already uncomfortable. Bringing this up wouldn’t be rocking the boat because the boat is already rocking. It would be sharing that discomfort with her partner.

  6. I also think the sit-down can be okay. And even though this may not be traditional, I have also sent emails (positive, loving ones!) that calmly laid out how I was feeling about these kinds of issues and it has helped — it also gives my husband a chance to think about things without having to respond immediately.

    I also try to be careful not to try to make things equal just for the sake of equality. Honestly, he works more hours than I do and has less PTO so there are some things I am happy to continue doing (dr appts, babysitter scheduling, etc). There are also things I hate doing/am bad at (coordinating home repair work). I try really hard not to keep the big picture in mind (what needs to be done and whether it can be outsourced) and not focus too much with adding up who is doing what. Everyone is happier that way 🙂

    1. Sarah, we have a similar pattern that has evolved in our home since the twins were born. My husband works longer hours, he has less control over his schedule, and he works farther from home. A twist in our system was that I was home for the last year after we moved. Now that I’m back at work some things are changing around the margins. We have 38 hours of child care a week plus three mornings of pre-school. Since I don’t have a commute (but did pay my dues on that front for 14 years), I predict I am going to have enough time to perform my job and some parent-related duties during the typical work week that just do not sync with my husband’s schedule.

      1. I think my post conveys that I’m thrilled and take no issues with this, which is not true. I’m trying to say that we seem to have similar systems, and, while not perfect, seem to be working better than the fits I used to have over said issues.

  7. You already know my tip, I think- when my husband and I need to do some serious rebalancing or have a conversation to understand why one of us is feeling taking for granted, we tend to do it over beers after the kids are in bed. That helps it be a conversation and not a fight.

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