How I Solved the Gender Labor Imbalance

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I told myself I would never fall down the “wife trap rabbit hole.”

My mother and father both worked outside the home, but like many women of their generation, my mother was in charge of keeping the home and caring for the children on top of her paying job. When my boyfriend and I moved in together, I made sure not to take over the housekeeping. We both cooked and cleaned and knew how to operate the washing machine. Home maintenance was either a joint effort or jointly neglected.

Like so many egalitarian efforts, our domestic parity was lost once we had a baby. Everyone probably has a story of how it happened to them. In our case, my husband fell into a depression. On top of that, our 2-week-old baby needed surgery for a stomach condition called pyloric stenosis, and he came out of the operation weak and underweight. Along with the love I gave him, I went into a tough-broad-who-gets-everything-done mode. But I never came out of it.

And so our patterns formed. I took care of the baby. I took care of the house. As my son grew older, I managed everything: food, medical appointments, preschool reconnaissance, after-school activities, birthdays and wardrobe and transportation. We had a second child and we constantly renegotiated the terms of our labor division because neither of us wanted to be stuck in those stereotypical roles. But though my husband had emerged from his depression and I from my tough broad mode, we never got our gender equality groove back despite our efforts.

Then, two years ago, my husband took a job in Luxembourg, where the lingua franca is French. He’s fluent in French, whereas on a good day, I speak it like a 5-year-old. Suddenly, the entire dynamic between us changed.

A few months after our move, I received an email from the school reminding parents to make their annual payment for “English Section Teaching Materials.” Once upon a time, I had either paid all the school and home bills or delegated their payment, but since we’d moved to Luxembourg I’d never even seen one. The online banking system we use is in French, as are the bills.

That night, I mentioned to my husband that we needed to pay the bill.

“It’s done,” he said. “And I sent record of payment to the teachers.”

So efficient! And not even unusual, as my husband makes at least half of the school arrangements now. He’s generally the one who communicates with the French-speaking secrétariat pédagogique.

The “invisible” labor around medical concerns has also been redistributed between us. When my daughter broke her arm a few months after we arrived, he found out where we should take her and then monitored the treatment. While finding doctors in a new country can be daunting and stressful, I had a partner who did as much as I did, if not more. He’s just as likely to go to the pharmacy as I am, and he’s often the one to get information about opening hours and appointment scheduling.

I can’t pretend I’m not doing almost all of the cooking and the laundry, which makes sense as he’s now in an office every day, whereas we used to both work from home. Nor can I delude myself about the nature of our redistribution. Much of the labor he’s taken over — money, medical, communication with the outside world — traditionally fell to men as part of a sexist construct that women have been working very hard to dismantle. But once the construct started to crumble, women tended to take over everything rather than “smash” the system of inequality at its roots. And here we are.

I can only evaluate the state of my own marriage, however. Since I was the one who had managed all those “male” tasks for years, I have no insecurity about surrendering them now. I love the new balance in our lives, and it’s not just a matter of the actual time commitment each of us makes to the home and kids. Our equilibrium was reached because of the psychological relief that I experienced after we moved. No longer was I in charge of everything. In a country where I communicated like a 5-year-old, I could hardly be the one to supervise.

It was a relief. I wish this deliverance from the wife trap rabbit hole on all women. The emotional burden of carrying the mental load is a practical one — because women expend their time and energies on unpaid labor — but as the term implies, within a marriage it’s an emotional one as well. In the end, what really changed for me was the feeling that I could depend on my partner, just as he has depended on me all these years.

Of course, the agent for change was my own lack of language skills. That’s hardly a goal for any woman. It can’t be that the decision before married women is to be either super-managers or clueless dingbats.

But if I can extract what actually changed between us, it was two things together: My husband stepped up his game because he had no choice, and I had no choice but to let go.

I presume that most people with this domestic labor imbalance reside in countries where both partners are fluent and can’t pretend they have no choice. Perhaps they can choose a realignment nevertheless, for the same reason we make any positive change to our relationships.

The patterns we fell into after our baby was born didn’t serve either of us. Our move shifted the paradigm.

We haven’t resolved everything; we’re married, after all!

But we have a marriage that more closely resembles the one I imagined, decades ago, when I saw my mother carrying so much of the load.

I’ll start a French language course soon. I can’t pretend I’m very motivated.