Doing it their way

May 12,2008
Professor Mom
Aliki McElreath( )

Aliki is a writer and college English teacher. She lives in North Carolina with her husband, two children (ages seven and ten), a dog, a cat, a rabbit, and too many fish.

T. has her own way of doing everything. You can show her the "right" way--or the way YOU think things ought to be done--but then she'll turn around and give the task her own personal trademark spin. If I give her a plastic bag, for instance, and ask her to help me empty the bathroom wastebaskets, she'll dump the trash onto the floor first, then spend her time picking it all up off the floor and placing it into the bag. I've shown her many times the better way to do this--the way that doesn't involve actually having to TOUCH the trash, but she looks at me and nods and then goes about doing it her own way. In the end my fussing comes to nothing because she always presents me with an empty wastebasket and a plastic bag filled with trash.

"See!" she'll tell me, with that I-told-you-so look on her face. I think I know where she gets this from...

If you were to peek in on our bedroom right after my husband has tackled the laundry, you'd find the bed littered with neat little stacks of folded clothing. He folds everything first and stacks it all according to garment, then leaves it in little piles on the bed to put away later. If you were to peek in after I'd finished the laundry, you'd find the bed empty, and the clothes put away in all their proper places--because I put them away as I fold. "Doing the laundry" by MY definition involves not only the washing and drying, but also the sorting, folding, and--this is important--the immediate putting away of the clothes. I like the folding part, but the putting away part is tedious. Scott will sometimes put away L.'s clothes, and sometimes T.'s clothes, but for some reason, in all our married years, he has refused to open up my drawers and closet and put away my clothes. When I ask him about this, his explanation is that he's afraid to put something in the wrong place. My dresser drawers are to him mysterious places--especially the underwear drawer. I'm not sure I've EVER seen him open up that one. He's afraid that doing so will violate some unspoken boundaries in our relationship.

(Long parenthetical aside: This fear is transferred also to my purse. If he's looking for the checkbook and I tell him that I think it's in my purse, he'll go and find my purse and then bring it to me to look in. "Just look in it yourself!" I'll tell him, exasperated. And then when he does, he pokes through it with a scrunched-up face, as if he's afraid he'll stumble across some sacred and disturbing female item--perhaps the same one he thinks is lurking in my underwear drawer.)

All this doesn't really bother me much, but it does make me think, from time to time, about our different approaches to tackling household chores, and about how, over the almost 12 years we've been married, we've managed to achieve a pretty solid symbiotic balance, as far as the housekeeping goes. We didn't think much about this when we were first married--the jobs just naturally ended up divided between us. Stereotypical though it may be, Scott's always handled the bills and the banking (I hate anything to do with math and numbers), I cook, he does the dishes and the trash, and we share the laundry and the cleaning. When we were first married, we went through three apartments without a dishwasher, and Scott's job, which he tackled in good spirit for six years, was to wash the dishes. He'd wait until 11:00 or 12:00 at night, then roll up his sleeves, crank the music up in the kitchen, and get to work. At first this irritated me. As I've mentioned before, I'm one of those anal cooks who cleans the kitchen compulsively as I cook. So having to put up with the piles of dirty dishes and pots really niggled at me. One of our first disagreements, in fact, was over the timing of the dishwashing; in the end, though, I realized that my need to have them washed ASAP was my need, and that if he was going to take on that task every night then that's what mattered, not so much when they were done.

We've never really battled over who does what, but we have butted heads from time to time over how it gets done, and over how to go about setting the best example for the kids to follow. In the end we both usually end up agreeing that while we may disagree on the methodology, what's important is that the job gets done in the end. I am learning to squash my urge to follow the kids around while they try to help out--the urge to step in and teach them the way I do things, without letting them try to figure out the right way themselves. Around here there are few tried and true ways to get anything done--sometimes it feels like everything we do is a work in progress; other times it all runs smoothly, like a well-oiled machine.

Realizing all this has made me feel very grown-up lately; made me think about how multifaceted a marriage needs to be. Certainly the necessary ingredients are love and responsibility, and of course romance thrown in here and there (have you noticed how some weeks/months/years marriages have more romance than other weeks/months/years; other times you coast by on the love part? And still other times get by on the we-have-kids-together-so we-better-pull-this-off bit?). But to be successfully married, you have to negotiate through the mundane parts, the divvying up of household chores and responsibilities, and learn to let your partner--and your kids--do their jobs creatively the way they can, not just the way you think they should.