Even as women make great strides in the workplace, many feel like they shoulder an unequal percentage of the work at home. And so, discussions on balancing work and life often turn to a lament on “how can I get my husband to do more?”
Tiffany Dufu’s new book, Drop the Ball, proposes another suggestion: you could try doing less. Lower your standards. Don’t gate keep or assume you know best. Expect competence from your partner, framed with incentives that matter to him, and don’t rescue him. Go ahead and drop the ball. Odds are good he’ll pick it up.
As you can imagine, I’m a fan of this message. Dufu, who’s led various non-profits, and her husband Kojo, an investment banker for much of the book, have two kids. Early in their parenthood journey, they fell into the usual stereotypes: heroic, resentful working mom. Incompetent, lazy husband — or at least that’s what Dufu thought. All of it seems a bit rehashed at the beginning of the book, the same “recitation of dark moments” prevalent in much can’t-have-it-all literature, but then Dufu rescues the narrative through enlightened self-deprecation. For instance, in her new mom fanaticism, she reports that she actually created a list for Kojo on “Top Ten Tips For Traveling With Kofi” (Kofi being their son). It included items such as “Don’t forget to feed Kofi breakfast, lunch, and dinner!” As she notes, why on earth did I need to tell my husband that? “I see in this list clear evidence of why I felt so overwhelmed: I was juggling so many balls myself because I didn’t trust my husband to hold any of them.” At one point she created a sticker chart of chores for her husband (seriously), and he got a sticker when he did the task during the time frame she deemed appropriate. The kicker? She never actually gave any of the tasks a deadline. He was just supposed to know when she wanted them done. But of course he didn’t know, and at one point expressed bafflement as to why he received stickers seemingly at random. Clearly, this incentive system wasn’t working.
Eventually, Dufu realized they needed to try something different. So she made a list of all the things she did around the house, and created a “Management Excel List” with a column for Kojo and a column for her (and a column for no one – which turned out to be a key breakthrough). She presented this list to him, smug, to show she was doing 95% of the work. But then he started pointing out all the things that weren’t on the list. It started small (changing the filters on the Brita) and then went on for there. It turned out that Kojo was always the one planning vacations, including booking family airfare and rental cars. He listed “Botanist” as a role and pointed out that Tiffany had not watered a plant since 1996. He put “Chief Technology Officer” down and asked who had programmed her phone and laptop. Kojo also turned out to be dealing with their retirement accounts, the car, and when pressed, Tiffany had to confess that she didn’t even know the building super’s name. Then there was this one: “Kofi Night Nurse.” Tiffany complained that this didn’t count because Kofi slept through the night and Kojo said “No, you sleep through the night, and it’s because of me.” Ooooh. Looking at the list, Dufu had to acknowledge that her husband was doing closer to 30% of the work, which while not half, is not 5% either.
They agreed to split up the gap more equitably, which led to some interesting discoveries on Tiffany Dufu’s part. For instance, she had been doing the dry cleaning pick up. After assigning it to her husband, she heard the doorbell one night, and there was Martin from the cleaners. It turned out they delivered — something she hadn’t asked in 2 years of patronizing the place. With her husband responsible for finding sitters for extra events, she marveled that he could always get one inside 30 minutes. She learned that he’d created a group text with all their regular sitters, and would post a job, and the first person to respond got it. She cringed a bit at the concept, but given that this is how a lot of small businesses staff extra shifts it’s not a bad idea.
Analyzing herself and others, Dufu discovered that women often hold themselves back professionally with the narrative that they have to do everything at home, because it has to be done a certain way. Asked to join the board of a non-profit she believed deeply in, she thought about turning it down because the meetings were on Sundays. No, it wasn’t because she needed to spend Sunday with her kids (she could bring her kids to the meetings — it was that sort of non-profit!) It was because Sunday was her meal prep day when she got dinners together for the week so they could be defrosted. Oh dear. Her husband pointed out the idiocy of this — that if they needed to meal prep for the week, he could do it once a month — and she took the board spot. We all view the world from our perspectives, but the things that matter to us don’t necessarily matter to other people, and if you’re in a heterosexual marriage, there are probably differences between how each of you approach things. That’s part of loving someone of the opposite gender! My favorite example: as the Dufus were trying to improve their marriage, Tiffany was writing long letters of gratitude to Kojo, which was how she would like to be thanked. But when she once asked him “how have I expressed gratitude to you in the past that’s meant the most to you?” he told her “the hot pics you text me when you’re traveling.” Texting scantily clad photos of herself took a lot less work than writing letters, and he liked it more. More time saved!
One you “drop the ball” at home, Dufu recommends four “go-tos” to use that increased bandwidth. First, exercise. It’s not about the fitness so much as the stress relief, and believing that you deserve to have time for your own care. Second, go to lunch — that is, have meetings where you network one on one with people in your organization and outside of it. Often working moms work through lunch to get everything done, but it’s more likely to be relationships that help you advance than crossing every t. Third, go to events. Being visible at industry events every week or two helps you make contacts outside your company so you can seamlessly transition into a new job should you need it. There’s no rule that working mothers can’t go to happy hours. Don’t believe anyone who tells you that. And the final “go to” is to go to sleep. Getting enough sleep (coupled with exercise) gives you enough stamina to make it through the rest of your life.
The good news there is that, as I found in I Know How She Does It, many professional women with kids do get enough sleep. According to the American Time Use Survey, working moms in general get a bit over 8 hours, so this situation is less dire than it’s often presented to be (Dufu uses some 5 hours a night number for working moms, which she is citing from a Daily Mail article, which got its number through problematic methodology). But in any case, with her newfound approach to dropping the ball, Dufu felt far more relaxed. She tells the story of going to MAKERS in 2014 (where I was too!) and having the flights to the east coast canceled for snow. My flight took off and made it to Philly, but she managed to score an extra spa day in the resort out of it. Knowing all was fine on the homefront, she enjoyed being able to chill. Nice.
Have you ever shifted the division of labor at home? What jobs do you take vs. your spouse?
In other news: My review of Donna Freitas’s The Happiness Effect ran in the Wall Street Journal earlier this week. The WSJ requires a subscription, but sometimes not for reviews. If that link doesn’t work for you, try going through the link I posted on Twitter; there are exceptions sometimes made for social media links.