“How can I help” is a stupid question

This post was inspired by the comic “You should have asked” which addresses division of labor in the household. The problem isn’t unwillingness to help: it’s not even noticing that things need to be done.

Now, saying “what can I do?” is is absolutely acceptable in the workplace when you’ve finished all your assignments. Or, it should be, because the person you pose that question to is your boss. And your boss gets paid more than you do to think about what you should be doing and when. Asking this of a spouse or significant other implies it’s their job to know all the household tasks and their priorities. Do they get paid more than you for housework? No. No one except the outside help gets paid for that. So it’s equally your responsibility to not only do the work, but to figure out what needs to be done, and when. Funny thing is, it seems that often, people who are blind to basic household details like “the compost needs to be taken out” are actually quite good about being proactive at work.

Anecdote time! I knew a guy who constantly checked his phone for alerts from work. He even did this when out at dinner with his girlfriend. His girlfriend asked him whether he would be constantly checking his phone for texts from her if he were out to dinner with his boss or CEO. He said “no.” She told him “Then don’t do that when you’re out with me.” His response? “Do you pay me?”

Maybe that’s the solution to this problem of “emotional labor” that often falls more on the woman’s shoulders. It seems that men are usually good about being proactive at work. Because they spend time thinking about what needs to be done. They spend time figuring out what is important to keep track of. They notice changes and they know what should be done in response to those changes. They should treat their home life as a job. No, not because their wives or girlfriends pay them, but because it is as much their responsibility as anyone else’s to clean the toilet or pack sunblock and swimsuits for a beach day.

Here’s an example: menu planning. It may seem that the spouse who says “I’m cool with whatever, I won’t complain about whatever you make, I’ll eat anything” is already great. However, think about the person who says that in a planning meeting at work. “I don’t care what I work on. I have no ideas. I’ll do whatever.” Is that acceptable? As I said, it should be more acceptable at work because there is someone at a higher pay grade whose job it is to think about tasks and delegation. But at home, that’s not the case. Most of those who shrug off this responsibility at home would say that you can’t go into a work meeting and give a response like that because it shows you don’t care about your job and you’re slacking. Or worse — that you are a weak team member who doesn’t even understand what your job entails.

The fundamental issue at play is that many men still do not consider their home life as being as critical or important as their work life. So they ignore it and dedicate very little time to thinking about what needs to be done to keep the home running smoothly. This may be fine, if the division of labor is agreed to and accepted by both parties. But if there’s tension or stress at home, a good starting point can be to think of domestic duties as a second job that’s just as important.

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