Friday, March 10, 2006

Division of Labor

You guys got me thinking; especially the part of ‘you guys’ who have flooded my inbox these last few days (what do you have against just leaving comments directly on the blog, BTW?). This is dangerous. It means that I get all philosophical.

You brought this on yourselves.

Specifically, I was taken with how many people felt that regardless of what the task was, the husband and I should be splitting the chores right down the middle. See, I think that's mental. Utterly mad. Highly inefficient, fraught (fraught, I tell you!) with the peril of having things taking endless hours to do poorly.

There is one basic assumption I think needs to be addressed right up front: that he’s sitting on the sofa drinking beer and playing backgammon with his buddies or something, while I slave away like an indentured servant.

{!BUZZ!} Oh sorry, No! But thank you for playing!! In point of fact, even while I was staying at home the division of labor didn’t change. My husband having done the stay at home dad gig for a while, he never considered my staying home to equate to a ‘woo hoo, now I get a free ride when it comes to household chores!’

While I’m ironing, he’s hedging. While I’m organizing closets, he’s rebuilding the infernal fence. While I’m folding the laundry, he’s putting knobs back on cabinets, recaulking the bathrooms, acid-washing the driveway.

It’s a Divide and Conquer method; the only chores we share right down the middle are the things we both hate and/or suck at doing equally. For those, we have the advanced technical method of ensuring equal misery called, ‘I did it last time!’ This simple phrase ends all argument when it comes to things like poopy diapers, sweeping the kitchen floor, dealing with crying children in the wee hours of the night, and so on.

But I'm digressing.

I was actually pondering division of labor, and the application of same to the plain vanilla world of the Household.

Division of labor has been around for as long as civilization. Adam Smith pointed out its benefits in his Great Work™, The Wealth of Nations back in 1776.

“The greatest improvements in the productive powers of labour,” quoth he. “And the greatest part of the skill, dexterity, and judgement with which it is anywhere directed, or applied, seem to have been the effects of the division of labour.”

He describes at some length his observations of a pin factory, where one guy pulls the wire thin, another cuts it, a third sharpens it and so forth. At the end of the day, ten guys working in specialized concert, produce 48,000 pins per day; those same ten guys could not have made 20 pins apiece in the same time period if they had made each pin from start to end by themselves.

Judging from the emails I’ve been getting lately…I suspect a few folks were out sick the day we discussed this in Econ 1A. Either that, or you’ve all married lazy jerks who need horse-whipping. If your partner is one of those types who considers his/her list to consist of “earn a paycheck” and “surf the Internet”…well…may I suggest one of these? Or perhaps this might suit the bill. (In any case, it might get their attention…)

But I digress (again). I’m sorry. I’ve just always loved bullwhips…yeeeeeeeeeeHAW!! {!CRACK!}

Efficient division of labor is a major force underpinning the generation of wealth. It works for nations, for business large and small…and households, too. When each of us works to our best blend of interest and strength, we prosper. When even one of us decides to slack off, we falter.

To attempt to split all chores, regardless of what they are, is to remove the layers of efficiency we currently enjoy. Removing efficiency is removing wealth – here defined not just as money, but also time and overall life satisfaction.

It seems a piss-poor exchange to me, ‘utter equality’ for ‘quality of life’. I’d rather do all the ironing, every last hankie of it, every week, than have to trim the hedges even once a month. He’d rather be up on that unspeakable ladder cleaning out the gutters every single day than do the ironing even every other week. Seems like a pretty easy call to make: you handle that stuff, I’ll handle this. We’re both happy, and it all gets done.

The work, I’ve noticed, doesn’t really care who does it, as long as it gets done.

Maybe I’m just missing something. I’m sensing a lot of seething resentment in the emails I’ve been getting, like a lot of people feel they’re somehow getting the short end of the stick. I don’t know what the cure would be for that; I don’t have that feeling around here. The way things have fallen out for us, each of us thinks the other one has the “harder” set of tasks.

It’s either that we’re Mutant Alien People™ (which would explain a lot about our kids, actually), or we’ve hit on something that is sorely needed Out There.

Communicate your needs and wants. Discuss them. Come to an understanding. Share the overall burden equally, but also with an eye to your individual preferences and skills. We’ve had our ‘I can’t handle all this, I need you to handle {tasks}’ discussions, and it’s gone both ways. My husband has had times when he asked me to pick up a few of “his” tasks, and I’ve had times when I’ve asked him to pick up some of “mine”.

It’s not a fight. It shouldn’t become a fight. It’s about pulling together. Be thou a shield unto my back, and I shall be one unto thine…

Lift up your eyeballs from the stupid list, and look at each other. You may be a team, but you’re also individuals. You have individual hopes, dreams, skills, preferences, and interests. Play to those strengths. Leverage them. If you can maximize the household efficiency, you both win. Smash the efficiency to bits in the name of ‘perfect equality’, and you both lose.

I think sometimes we get so caught up with trying to force life to be fair that we forget it’s short. Very short. Way too short to be busting our spleens over who takes out the garbage and whether or not that makes his list 0.08% shorter than mine.

And entirely too short to waste it trying to make hedging my job. Because I can spend two hours trying to make two tiny little hedges look vaguely round and end up with a pair of hacked-up hedges, a rash all up and down my forearms from the hedge-juice, and a husband who is lying on the driveway rolling in helpless laughter, tears streaming down his face.

Oh well. At least I’d get my laughs in when he went off to work wearing a shirt with multiple creases ironed into it…until I found the scorch marks on my blouses, anyway…


Moira said...

Okay so I am laughing very hard about the do it yourself deviorce site... LOL too funny...
For the record your DH does his share! If he didn't you would kick his....

21st Century Mom said...

It wasn't me - I swear. But we know this because I don't have anyone to get annoyed with except kids and they never pull their weight, the little sods.

I agree - splitting everthing 1/2 1/2 is insane. When I was married I always cooked dinner and he always did the dishes and I liked that just fine because I like to cook but I don't like to clean. I did most of the laundry and he did all of the yard work. It was a great system (but not such a great marriage).

Myownigloo said...

DH and I have never had to discuss it. If something needs doing, we do it.

We being the operative word.

This only gets a little problematic when one of us who is prone to guilt over undone chores wants to watch TV (who shall remain nameless but whose initials are MOI) and the other one starts doing dishes.

And rattling them and running the water and generally making so much noise it drowns out the TV.

Anonymous said...

I posted a comment about dividing the labor 50/50. That does not mean each does 50% of each chore! That would be really silly, but the time/energy used/wasted on chores should be equal. If trimming hedges takes 2 hours to do, then you should have a chore that you're good at that takes the same amount of time (approximately). My DH is an excellent cook, but so am I, so we each cook on different days. (i.e. he cooks, I put dishes in dishwasher and clean kitchen and vice versa). As long as both partners are happy with the arrangement, that's what's important!