What to pick up when you drop the ball

img_2613Even 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.





36 thoughts on “What to pick up when you drop the ball

  1. Love this idea- it is one that I seem to keep bumping up against. Just this month I had a pity party for myself because my husband was sick, yet again. And bc he was sick I had to do kid and house duty and miss out on some personal time on the weekend. He said I should go out on Sunday, he could hold the fort down for one day and he would be feeling a little better by then. But no, I said it wouldn’t be fair to the kids bc when he doesn’t feel well he is grumpy and the kids don’t deserve that… and I always feel more guilty when I hear how frustrated he was when I return.
    He then told me that I was grumpy and yelling at everyone already… so what would be the difference. Hmm. good point. And there was the possibility that everything would go well, but I assume it wouldn’t. Hmm. Another good point. And then he pointed out that I always ask ‘ How were things while I was gone’?’
    There will always be something to complain about or something that doesn’t go well, so he made the final point: If you ask I will tell you, but I am not just randomly complaining. Maybe you shouldn’t ask for the details, as long as all is well when you get home.’
    He has previously made a good point about helping out around the house; certain things don’t bother him like they bother me- but if I ask for help, he will help. That really did open my eyes to the fact that we ALL have different perspectives and we shouldn’t expect other people to read our minds: just ask.

    1. @Angela- I think a key realization is that there are no points for martyrdom. Also, it’s OK for a partner to be a little grumpy about things sometimes. I mean, chances are the other party gets a little grumpy too! I forget where I read that when men truly don’t want to do something, they will flat out say no. Whereas grumbling is just a way of saying it’s not my preferred thing but I will most likely do it. Probably Men Are From Mars….

      1. Yes! there are no points for martyrdom- I completely agree! why does it seem so hard to ask for help, especially if we are the type of person that would help anyone and everyone if they need it?
        These books and conversations are so key to changing our ideas of parenting and relationships!

    2. YES, re: asking for help. When I get all frazzly, my husband will just point-blank ask me what I need help with because I didn’t actually ask him, I just grumped around the house 😛

  2. Excellent post, as it made me think. I actually think that like Kojo, Josh does a ton of ‘behind the scenes’ *&@#* that I tend to not even think about.
    “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”. I attended a potentially career-advancing meeting yesterday, feeling horrendously guilty because I sent A to the dr’s with our nanny yet again. She has strep again, but big picture – she’s fine, and hopefully won’t be scarred by me not coming to unexpected appointments for minor illnesses. I think I made the right choice. But that narrative had me questioning myself as it was happening.
    Finally, 8 hr sleep – I could easily get that if I didn’t care about working out or having time to myself in the AM, but I do. I subscribe to your philosophy of no magic number – get the minimum to be functional and catchup when needed, you’ll KNOW when that happens!

    1. @SHU- not everyone needs 8! I’m pretty sure I don’t. But yes, in general, I think questioning narratives is a good idea. Some serve us well and some don’t, and they can totally cripple us when we believe bad ones. Tiffany was going to find it hard to travel if she was telling herself she had to remind her husband to feed their kid breakfast, lunch, AND dinner.

  3. Oh this is so timely as just last weekend we had a discussion about roles and who is doing what. It came because my husband suggested I learn to mow the grass and I said, “Not in a million years. I do enough around here.” And he was like what would you do if something happened to me and I said, I would hire someone. Anyway, I haven’t been asking for help so I need to do that more. And I’d like to make a list of things as suggested above, I do recognize that my husband does cut the grass and shovel the snow and handle car maintenance which is helpful however it seems those are more seasonal/sporadic duties whereas I handle the grocery shopping EVERY WEEK and the bill paying and the appointment making. We’re in a bit of different situation since he mostly stays home with our girls (He works a part time job in the early morning) while I work full time. Anyway thanks for this – very much needed read today.

    1. @Alissa – you should totally read this book. I just started today and am halfway through and it’s AMAZING. I think you’ll like it, too.

  4. I just added this book to my Kindle to read while on our upcoming vacation. Thanks for the review!

    Something I’ve noticed is that now our girls are 4 and 7 and everyone generally sleeps through the night, we have a lot less of the resentment/fighting about chores, kid care, etc. And what’s even more amazing is that I work full time now, when previously I worked either 25 hours or not all. So for me, I’m pretty sure that conflict came A LOT from not getting enough sleep and generally having self-care way at the bottom of the list.
    +1 on the exercise thing too. I’m working out about 3 times a week, which isn’t much, but for me, it’s the first regular exercise I’ve gotten since 2009 (!) and I feel so much more at peace with the world despite the fact that we’re actually busier now, quantitatively.

  5. Like ARC says above, getting enough sleep definitely takes the edge off resentment and conflict!
    My husband is gone a LOT, so our division of labor looks more like, “I do everything when he’s gone, he does everything not food-related when he’s home,” than a regular split. He also does more tidying, as that bothers him, and I handle the actual cleaning, as that bothers me. Over an entire year, it means I probably do 70% of everything, but it’s not like he’s just napping on the couch! I’m also a huge, huge believer in my kids doing lots of chores (they’re 4 and 6).
    I used to really resent when my husband WOULD nap on the couch on weekends instead of run around taking care of chores, and then I started napping on the couch instead too, and guess what? We both ended up a lot happier!
    I tend to get pretty grumpy about his work/her work narratives, because I feel like while they may be mostly true across the board, it’s more because of socialization (we see our parents do certain gendered work/they teach us gendered work) than anything else. I have two boys, and am a huge believer in teaching them how to take care of everything, both so they can do it as grownups and so I don’t have to do everything! I know that’s not the whole point of this piece, but it’s definitely an undercurrent in comments and seemingly the book (haven’t read the book, so just going off your review).

    1. She talks a lot about what you’ve written here in the book (I’m raving about it because it is SO awesome). Also, at one point her hubby is working internationally so she talks about the logistics/division of labor with that, which you might find helpful?

  6. I was pretty horrified to realize that my husband actually did need a reminder to serve my daughter lunch on the days they’re home together and I’m at the office (he’s on a medication that greatly suppresses his appetite and is generally less schedule-oriented than me). However, the reminder didn’t need to come from me; when our daughter got whiny and started begging more snacks and complaining, he’d realize he’d never given her any lunch. After a few days like that, he did get better at remembering.

    One challenge for us has been figuring out what fair labor distribution looks like when our respective employment situations shift. (Busy season, job loss, the vagaries of per diem employment, etc.) I found it especially hard when he lost his job and even though he was taking on some responsibilities we’d been outsourcing with two incomes (some childcare, lawn care, etc.) I didn’t shift anything I was doing over to him, I think partly because I didn’t want to get into a “new normal” that would hopefully change at any time. Similarly, when he doesn’t work a regular schedule, it’s hard to shift over any of the tasks that need to be done on a predictable schedule, but then I wind up feeling like I’m doing more than my share.

  7. As some have mentioned, I think part of getting this right is remembering to re-negotiate arrangements when situations change. Recently, my husband has had a short period without work, which fortunately aligned with me having a short period in a full-time role with higher pay (and more stress). It took one weekend resentfully mopping the floors for me to realise that we hadn’t actually discussed how household responsibilities would shift during this time – by the next week he was the one mopping. I think it’s also helpful for everyone to do the tasks they prefer where possible – or at least the things they are more likely to be annoyed by if left undone! My husband really likes gardening and doesn’t even count mowing as a chore (although I try to remember that he does it when reflecting on who does what) On the other hand, I’m quite happy to do the laundry as I’m particular about how it’s done and realise he can’t be expected to have the same standards.

    1. @Lily- in a brief review I didn’t go to all the specifics of the story, but one of the reasons their situation came to a head is that he lost his banking job during the financial crisis (before finding a new one a few months later). During that time, they didn’t change their childcare arrangements, so Tiffany felt like he had some time on his hands, which he was not of his own accord using to clean their bathrooms. Often it is a change in situations that sparks a big change.

  8. Maybe you could write a piece on situations where the husband actually does more than the wife, because she word more. Current narrative: anything less than 50:50 is the woman being lazy, lucky, or selfish (and usually all three).

    1. @OMDG- those couples definitely exist, and yes, the narrative often is the “oh you’re so lucky” as opposed to it possibly making sense given the work split. But one of the most telling statistics I’ve seen is that in couples where she earns more (not always correlated with working more, but it can be) she still does more housework.

      1. Hmmm. I’m one of those women, and I’m 99% sure my DH does more around the house than I do, though I still do plenty. I’ve noticed an assortment of things, for example, it’s really important to me (but not to him) that we have a dog, so I end up doing all the dog work (well, 95% of it), but he thinks of that as unnecessary and thus, effectively, my “hobby,” whereas I think of having a dog as a basic feature of a happy household (for me) and thus, essential (and the work that goes with it as housework. On a positive note, I love walking the dog, even though I don’t love every dog walk, so am generally happy to have that on my to-do list). OTOH I’m way, way more blasee about house mess than he is, so he does a lot of the cleaning. He wants me to be the one who does most of the cooking (we have never hashed this out — he is not the “hash that out” type, so much, though I wish it were), but I have recently embraced the “drop the ball” approach here and simply keep prepared food or tremendously simple food around (think mac-n-cheese, Costco lasagne — though it’s not all pasta! Cooked peeled shrimp and cooked mussels are readily available, too), so that if he hasn’t cooked, I can just pull one of those things out and have supper ready in 10-15 minutes, preventing him from taking us out as the solution (which is fine as far as it goes, but time- and money-consuming and really not something I want to do more than, say, once every other week. It’s been tremendously cheering, actually, just to tell him that I’ve decided I’m not dealing with cooking meals while I’m working full time, and he can either eat the prepared food I buy, or cook himself. He’s doing more of the latter than he did before I adopted this strategy, which makes me happy.

        1. @Alexicographer – I think that fits right in with the “drop the ball” approach. You won’t starve (thank you Costco!) so he can cook or not and you’ll still eat something decent. I’m kind of with your husband on the dog thing. My husband wouldn’t mind having a dog, but unless he’s willing to arrange to do all dog care, which I think would involve him retiring, it’s not happening any time soon.

          1. We have totally had this conversation. I do NOT NOT NOT want all the work associated with a dog, and since I work from home and my husband works at a regular job, guess who would end up doing all the dog work?
            Not him! 😉

            So I told him, hey, when you’re retired, you can feel free to have a dog because then you can do all the work! Until then, I just can’t say yes. I know I’d end up being resentful over it.

  9. Thanks for the review of the book, Laura! I love the idea of “dropping the ball”. I think, depending on personality types, some may find this harder than others. The mom would not just be doing less – she would be giving up control.

    I find it very hard to compare how much housework/kidwork my husband and I do. We both do a lot around the house and with the kids. Occasionally, when we are very tired and are running behind on things, we start squabbling over who does what… That’s a sign that we both need to just sit down and relax. Forget the laundry. Also, an “equal” divide is not necessarily a “fair” divide.

    The four “go-tos” from the book – that’s excellent! I never go to happy hours, but I could if I planned ahead and asked my husband to pick up the kids (and let the kids skip some of the after-school activities, for once).

    1. I think you hit the nail on the head. Our division of housework is probably unequal. I tend to do more, but I think a lot of that is I’m a bit of a control freak. I have had to remind myself that when I’m feeling overwhelmed and want to be martyred I often choose to do the work out of my own need to control things rather than “no one helps around here.”

  10. This is an issue that comes up over and over again with friends. My husband and I are both professionals and we have 4 young kids. We farm out a lot of housework. However, we definitely divide and conquer what isn’t farmed. He does that morning before school and I do the afternoons (this is just our work schedules). He does the finances and I do the meal planning. I shop for the kids clothes. He deals with the cars. It is a somewhat traditional division of labor, but not on purpose–he does the finances but he has an MBA (they teach nothing about money in med school BELIEVE me!), just as an example. But when friends ask us about how we divide things up we, both routinely sight an ability to understand (without asking) when the other is feeling overwhelmed and we need to step in and help out. We also check in frequently about scheduling, at least once a week. Recently my husband saw me flailing under a crazy afternoon schedule and urged me to extend our nanny hours. We both take kids the the pediatrician depending on our schedules (as the medical parent it is a relief to not have this all fall on me) It doesn’t always work perfectly of course, but most of the time it works for us.

  11. My husband and I have always been equal partners in life and parenting. I think it helps that we have equally demanding jobs (I’m a scientist in a research lab and he’s a software engineer at a start-up), and we each know our strengths and weaknesses. He takes care of paying bills on time (which I am terrible at), coordinating house repairs and other services, cars, taxes, and insurance. I tackle the more detail-oriented things like planning the social calendar, vacations, parties, grocery and meal planning. We parent equally based on our work schedules (and moods!). I feel incredibly lucky that I’ve never had to make a chore chart for my adult husband!

  12. This is a very nice article, and I agree with most of the premise but I did find the idea of the things her husband was doing as being on par with what she was doing on a regular basis pretty laughable. How often are people planning vacations, taking the car in for repairs, or reprogramming a laptop? If those are his strengths, and he enjoys those tasks than they will come more naturally to him, but there is no way those can be considered on the same level of the nitty gritty that it takes to run a home. My husband is great at taking care of the garden, as he loves planting and tending to his fruits and vegetables. Because he is interested in this, he remembers to go buy new soil, or a special fertilizer, but remembering that with two dogs, vaccuming has to happen on a pretty frequent basis just somehow never occurs to him. I am not trying to complain, I just don’t understand why there is usually someone in the relationship, and in heretosexual relationships it appears to most often than not be the man, who just doesn’t care as much about having a clean, orderly, and smoothly running home, at least not to the point where they will actually on their own accord take care of things on a regular basis. It is biology? I have no idea but there has to be some underlying thing as to why this dynamic keeps playing out in homes all across this country.

    1. @Monica- I agree that programming a laptop is not a recurring event (one hopes), but the husband in this story was getting up with their toddler in the night. I would do a LOT of laundry to have that off my plate, if that were the choice I was presented with!

  13. I’ve heard this sentiment a lot over the years, and have tried to take it to heart. So my husband is in charge of:
    bedtime for the older kids (they rarely brush their teeth, and stay up too late so it’s always hard to get them up in the morning),
    taking out the trash and recycling (he forgets approximately half the time, and the stinky mess taking up half our tiny kitchen doesn’t seem to bother him),
    taking the first grader to school (she is 5-10 minutes late most days)
    Basically, I can’t give him any responsibility that I don’t mind being done half-assed. I should add that I’m pretty laid-back too, so we already aren’t bathing the kids very much or keeping the house very clean. But at the end of the day, I don’t think my kids should suffer because my husband can’t be bothered to remember things.

    1. Tory: same, same, same!
      some tasks I just cant even consider delegating bc his way just wouldn’t work, i.e.: food choices. He gets processed crap at the store which costs more and he refuses to cook and would rather go to a drive thru or order a pizza. I’m trying to raise healthy people, they need to see a vegetable some time!
      And yes same about the trash. He does trash and recycle but can’t be bothered to go through the house to collect it – so if I want to empty the cans before hand that would be my job. and he mows the lawn- and every year we have a patch of tall weeds on the side of the house bc he can’t be bothered to take care of them. So now I have to add these items to my list. I love my husband and he is great- but he is a 40+ yr old man that still wants to live like a teenager.

  14. I really love these 4 things to pick up! Really good reminders re: the networking & visibility (I’m already down with the sleep & exercise part). I do find some of this narrative about Men vs. Women and assuming that the difference in ability to notice and execute household tasks is somewhat biological to be…tiring and outdated. #1: YOUR HUSBAND acting like xyz is not “men” and #2 Its probably impossible to dissect the cultural/social influences that men have been subject to since birth. You’d have to look at a culture that expected men to do household work for the past 50+ years, or look at our grandchildren, should we and our offspring insist on equal sharing of household chores.

    1. @Ana- I do think there’s an interesting aspect to the influences men have been subject to since birth. A big one: they are supposed to provide for their families, full stop, and solo if requested. For all the talk of men resisting equally sharing tasks on the home front, I suspect a number of women don’t really want that full-on earning pressure.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *