Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Marriage is Healing, Part III --A Truce on the Housework Wars

(Make sure you read part one and part two first.)

(Special note: everything contained in this series of posts are pre-approved by my husband. It's hard to find the narrow way when speaking about your marriage on the internet. I didn't want to come across as a glib "we're perfect and have no problems, isn't God great?", but I didn't want to disrespect my husband's and my real need for privacy either. I tried to find the middle way. God's healing mercy is real. My prayer is to give Hope)

A surprising thing happened when Jon went on his first retreat last May. I'd pre-paid for a weekend at a nearby Benedictine Monestary for his 40th Birthday Present back in February. (Pre-payment is very important when making a retreat. It keeps your commitment). When I made the reservation, I was still pregnant and full of Hope and Charity. I didn't want this important milestone brushed under the rug in the choas of having a new baby.

Then the new baby came--and she had colic.

I sort of bravely shoved my reluctant husband out the door on his retreat weekend. He was leaving me for 72 hours with the following

a colicky seven week old newborn
a teething toddler
a non-sleeping through the night five year old
a seven year old
an nine year old
a dog
and a cat.

When I shut the porch door behind him, I told myself "Let go of the housework this weekend! No expectations! As long as I keep everyone breathing for the next 72 hours, I get to count that as success.

I pictured him coming home on Sunday evening to miles of dirty dishes, unwashed laundry and a listing dog that hadn't been walked properly in days.

Here is the shocking part. Housework was easier when he was gone. I was busy on that solo weekend, but I felt better. Everything went into two piles, either I did it, or it didn't get done. Here's the pile that wasn't open---"leave it for Jon to do when he gets home." It was amazing how much I could get done--and how much peace I had when things didn't get done--when I was alone.  

Each night, I went to bed tired--but in a clean room, with a candle burning, fresh flowers on  the windowsill and clean sheets on the bed. I had time to chat with my honey on the phone, read a good book, and chat leisurely with my daughters. That's an abnormal outcome for me.

While I was cleaning up on retreat weekend, God told me "I want you to do all the housework when Jon comes home." 

Like a true daughter of Mary, I said "that is impossible!"

Then, I said reluctantly, "Okay, I'll give it a trial period of two weeks."

When Jon came home, I told him he couldn't help me with housework. He was sort of shocked. He felt uncomfortable. I kept telling him "it's only two weeks."

You see, I thought I was doing this experiment FOR ME.

I have incredible problems with housework. I have ADD-Indecision, so housework is hard for me. I hate making back to back decisions. Guess what cleaning a house is--a trillion little back to back decisions. Often, I start working on one project (the dishes), and then I go off on another (organizing the plastic lids) before abandoning the entire purpose to go sort the clean clothes from the dryer. For an extra layer of challenge, I'm a gifted student who remains a horrid perfectionist. So in the middle of housecleaning I start beating myself up over not doing this "right" or "well." (By the way, my perfectionism is so bad, for years I didn't think I qualified as a perfectionist because I didn't do anything perfectly!) On top of everything, I have low stamina for stress, anxiety and I have anger issues. So rather than feel depressed when I'm upset at myself--I start yelling at everyone else--it's THEIR fault that our house is messy. 

Housecleaning and me equals recipe for disaster and a quick descent into serious sin.

Now contrast my attitude with my husband. My husband was raised by a mother and grandmother who ran a Sea Side Hotel in New Jersey. He learned how to keep a house clean from professionals. He also served in the Army Reserves. The man has a calm, orderly nature that actually finds steam cleaning a living room, and polishing shoes relaxing!

So if we were sitting down in marital counseling, a priest or therapist could easily say "divide the chores according to likes and ability" and Abigail would say "not it" for housecleaning, and Jon would say "my pleasure!"

The reason why Marital Life is so exciting is that God does not hand out life experiences based on what we "like or dislike." God hands out tasks that are "good for our soul."

So for two weeks in early June, I told Jon he couldn't do housework. He couldn't clean the table for Saturday dinner. He had to sit around while I did the pancakes. At first it was so cool. He said "What do I do?" I said "pull up a chair and talk to me while I cook."

I realized that this is what I really wanted while I did my domestic tasks. I didn't need his help. I needed his company.

After a few days of this, he said "Well..... I guess I'll go check on the dehumidifier...." There was another shock. When I didn't burden Jon down with all of my unfinished "wife" concerns, he was free to do tasks around the house that were bothering him. This was a surprise. 

We had just bought our first house and were moving from apartment dwelling "call the landlord about it" to "Man, guess I've got to figure out how to fix this myself." My husband had all kinds of new concerns and worries about how to keep us safe and comfortable in the new house. When I stopped unloading my own to do list on his shoulders--help me move that, I didn't get this finished today because the baby was crying--then my husband started fixing big worries on our family. 

Turns out, my husband has his own To Do List from God that often includes things that are completely off my radar. For example, we have an original oil heating furnace from 1950--with the oil drum storage inside our basement. My husband figured out how to install ceremic electric heaters this winter, so it appears that we won't have a $200 a month heating bill. Do you know how relaxing it is to NOT leave in fear of the cold weather coming this October? 

That is a BIG HELP my husband handed me--all because I didn't ask him to set the table for me every night before dinner.

Another funny note, my husband changed tons of diapers when our first two kids were born 18 months apart. He actually developed a terrible allergy to diaper wipes and dish soap. We tried all kinds of new soaps and different wipes. Nothing works. It's so hard because he can use a wipe or soap twice or three times without a reaction--but if he tips the balance this incredibly painful eczema starts. It takes months of expensive prescription steroids to fix.

When everything was falling apart during Baby Abigail's colic I told my husband "You can not change even one diaper!" Everything was so hard, I knew we couldn't handle even one break out of his eczema. It was far easier to change every diaper than live with the consequences of even a mini-break out, like what happened with Miss Tess.

So here is the funny part, now that I change each and every diaper (okay --sometimes he still pitches in using paper towels), but now that I change almost every single diaper for two little girls--I don't notice diaper changing duty anymore. It has disappeared from my day. It's invisible work. What I used to do was thing "Oh, this is a nasty one." "Uh, should have left that messy one for Jon." "Why do the awful messes always happen when he's at work?" Now that it's firmly my job, the nasty thoughts are gone!

Also, dish-washing duty. We have a new dishwasher that the seller unexpectedly added to our house during the sale (God at work!), but many times dishes still need to be washed before Jon cooks a special dish like Nutella crepes. (Oh, you mean you always finish the pots and pans after each and every meal? Well, I'm a terrible housekeeper. See notes above). So there is this funny moment when my husband has to ask me to clean a pot for him. I can tell its hard on him. 

It is this beautiful --I need you to wash my feet for me moment-- inside our regular Daily Life. When my husband was a bachelor, he could wash the dishes himself. Since he's not, he has to ask his wife for help. I think its good for us to practice such an important act of humility on something as mundane as doing the dishes.

We're now about four months into following God's advice that "Abby does all the housework." We're still tweaking it. For example, my husband is much better at doing the deep cleaning. I think he's getting a pattern at getting our house "fixed" each Saturday. So I think we are drifting from clear black and white rules, to a more relaxed pattern. Still, I think the general gist is "don't divide the chores 50/50".

The crazy part about this truce is that fighting about housework was 90% of our weekly fights. Once we stopped fighting about housework--it was a little scary, because suddenly we started fighting about THE BIG STUFF. (When I say "we were fighting", I mean me. I'm pretty sure that I'm the one who starts 99.9% of the disagreements in our marriage). 

Once I stopped feeling put down because I did all the housework, or overwhelmed about the housework, or depressed about the housework--I could start looking around with clear eyes and see what truly needed to be fixed in my soul, in my life, and in my marriage.

I stopped asking my husband to set the table.
I started asking him to write me love letters.

That transition, honestly, was a little scary. There were a couple of days during the Ugly Time when I said "I wish I was fighting with you about the housework." Fighting with my husband about housework is safe and limited. Fighting about "Do you let God truly Romance Your Soul" is vast and frightening. Yet guess which intense discussion is more likely to matter in heaven?

So that is my challenge to you lovely Christian wives. Stop fighting about the housework. Wash the dishes yourself. Then ask your husband to fix a broken speaker so that you can slow dance to Pandora in the living room tonight. At least for me, I learned that I need my husband to to be my protector, my provider and my hunky dancing partner a heck of a lot more than I need him to be my fellow "maid of all work."

Notes From My Husband: Jon said he heard a Norwegian Study on NPR yesterday that said that couples who evenly split chores were more likely to get divorced.


  1. I am really enjoying this series. Thank you so much.

  2. This is so timely. My husband and I got into an argument last night about basically this exact same thing. I ask him to do things for me that I could really be doing myself, and I often "save" some of the less pleasant tasks for him (such as scooping the cat litter). I'll need to read this post a few more times, and reflect more on this. Thank you.

  3. ooo this gives me a lot to chew on.

    And I love Jon's two cents at the end :)

  4. Thanks for writing this - so timely.

  5. Thanks for writing this - so timely.

  6. I would rather be divorced than live with a man who didn't do half the housework, so perhaps there's something to that Norwegian study.

    But our situation is different. My husband is going to be transferred overseas for three years (possibly to the U.S.), and although we have the option of going with him, we're going to stay put where we are, and he will go alone -- and presumably do 100% of his housework.

    I am a firm believer in families doing whatever works best for them, and I'm glad you found what works for you.

  7. What works for us is sharing some tasks but I think of myself as being in charge of the housework.

    Dom does a lot of sharing of kid-related tasks: changes diapers and helps pick up toys at the end of the day and putting on pajamas and brushing teeth. He also often gets up and gets the kids breakfast and changes early morning diapers. And does many middle of the night wake-ups.

    We used to split doing the dishes but that led to a lot of fights. Now I do dishes during the day and he does them after dinner. I do my best to empty the dishwasher during the day and to get the breakfast and lunch dishes into it and to clean up as I go when cooking dinner so there isn't a huge pile (sometimes there is a pile though) I also clear my plate and sometimes put away leftovers. But he is responsible for filling the dishwasher and starting it. Having one person be responsible for that is sanity saving and having it be me is crazy because half the time I'm nursing a baby who has been waiting oh so impatiently while I made dinner and ate dinner and can't keep waiting while I do the dishes. (Often with rally little babies I have to leave in the middle of dinner.) When I was responsible for doing the dishes or no one was, then they often were left undone until after all the kids were in bed at which point both of us wanted to just sit and relax and neither of us wanted to be in the kitchen doing dishes while the other sat and relaxed. I'd often drift off while putting the kids down and wake up only to find a sink full of dishes and a husband who was relaxing in front of the computer. That led to lots of fights, you can be sure. Agreeing that he'd just do it but that I'd try to do my best to make the task easier has brought a lot of peace.

    Also, we have totally switched from using baby wipes to paper towels because all of my kids have super sensitive skin that leads to constant diaper rash, often with bleeding sores. Our pediatrician recommended using plain wet paper towels to avoid all the chemicals that are in even the "sensitive skin" wipes. WE still have a lot of rashes, but at least the wipes aren't adding to the problem any more. I but the "make a size" jumbo packs of paper towels at Target and when I have a dirty diaper grab a handful of them and get them wet in the sink. We keep a little plastic bag on the changing table for wipes that don't get used right away.