Who Does the Chores?

Housework in polyamorous families

Posted Apr 07, 2016

Housework is a challenge for most families – a disgusting and thankless job, no one really wants to clean the bathroom or mop the floors. As a nation we are doing much less housework than we (meaning women) did in 1965,[i] in part because we hire people to do some of the work for us and in part because we have lowered our standards of housekeeping. Social expectations of cleanliness have decreased to a more reasonable level since the days when we expected to able to see our (again meaning women) faces reflected back in the perfect mirror surface of our sparklingly clean kitchen floors.

Distributing Chores

While there are a number of ways to divide up these onerous chores, three of the most popular are gender, chore charts, and practical considerations like skill and preference.

Gender

As a nasty form of unpaid drudgery, housework remains firmly in women’s sphere even when those women are working the same number of paid hours (or more) as their male partners. Research shows that, while their involvement in housework has increased in the last 50 years, men still do at most one third of the housework.[ii] Women, in contrast, do two thirds of the household labor on top of their paid labor. Unhappy about this lopsided workload, women who perceive an unfair division of domestic labor are more likely to seek divorce.[iii]

By László Németh (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons
Source: By László Németh (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

Chore Charts

For some households – especially those who are visually-oriented or disorganized – having a chart that lists all the chores, the time frame, and who is to do them can be a useful family management tool. Using a spinner or roll of the dice to distribute the chores each week can be a fun family game, or at least help to spread the chores around in a hopefully equitable way.

Practicality   

Other households use practical considerations like members’ skills, preferences, and availability to organize the housework. Because availability and needs shift over time, poly families tend to change roles in house care as the years pass and members shift from student to part time or full time work, self-employment, or working from home. My research shows that this flexibility allows for family resilience.

Poly Families

In many ways, poly families are like other blended families in that they learn (in various degrees) to accommodate new family members and reshape family interactions and traditions to include the expanded family. The larger the group, the more complex feeding, housing, clothing, and transporting them becomes. Some large families—polyamorous or not—need busses to carry the whole kinship group. Planning who will do what and when takes more and more time and coordination as the group gets larger, and that planning can take on epic proportions when it includes juggling multiple partners’ dates with child care and limited funds.

Community Discussion

The added layer of sexual and emotional connection among the adults can exert a special influence on family dynamics. Sometimes this comes out as concern about chores. In a recent online discussion of chores among poly people, Noel Lynn Figart, the Polyamorous Misanthrope, commented that:

Your household chores are a barometer for your household's cohesion at 
any given moment. If people are chill about a chore chart, mostly 
checking stuff off or being chill about discussing household chores, 
you're doing well.

When that starts to slip, there is a good chance that there's a 
relationship problem going on as well. Chores show up power struggles 
in particular like NOTHING else. They're a GREAT proxy for the real 
issue.

Rather than the form of the chore chart or verbal agreement, it is the intent and cohesion of the relationships that influence how people do or abstain from chores. While Figart’s poly family was doing well with each other emotionally, the chores went smoothly and a visual system using colored highlighters to mark who had done which task worked well. Eventually, though, the smoothly functioning household division of labor dissolved: “That went by the wayside as the relationships deteriorated. (Didn't *cause* it; we had other issues, but it was an interesting barometer).”

Research

In my research, I found that it was often women who not only filled those planning roles, but also completed much of the traditionally female work of housework and child care. Some of this was economically driven – women still consistently make less money than men – how much less generally depending on race and immigration status.[iv] It made sense to have the lower-waged worker stay home with the kids and keep the higher-waged worker in a paid position. Even so, I was struck by the apparent gender traditionalism in families that were decidedly untraditional in other ways. In addition to gender, my research respondents mostly divided their chores by proclivity and practicality. I wanted to know more about how they made choices and carried them out in the household day to day, but my research was focused more on children’s experiences so I put the domestic division of labor away for some other time.

Luckily, someone else has taken up that strand and there is new research under way. Alicia McCraw, doctoral candidate at Tulane University, is conducting research in order to better understand how polyamorous individuals divide up household labor in their relationships. Individuals are eligible for participation if they are over the age of 18 and are in a polyamorous relationship. Participants do not need to live with their partners. Respondents’ identities will not be shared in any published or dispersed materials. If you are interested in learning more about her research please contact Ms. McGraw either on her cell phone at (504) 450-8652 or via email at: amccraw@tulane.edu. You can find the first survey here.

[i] Bianchi, S. M., Milkie, M. A., Sayer, L. C., & Robinson, J. P. (2000). Is anyone doing the housework? Trends in the gender division of household labor.Social forces, 79(1), 191-228. http://sf.oxfordjournals.org/content/79/1/191.short

[ii] Bianchi et al. (2000).

[iii] Frisco, M. L., & Williams, K. (2003). Perceived housework equity, marital happiness, and divorce in dual-earner households. Journal of Family Issues,24(1), 51-73. http://jfi.sagepub.com/content/24/1/51.short

[iv] Blau, F. D. (2012). Gender, inequality, and wages. OUP Catalogue. https://ideas.repec.org/b/oxp/obooks/9780199665853.html