My husband likes to tell people that he pulls his weight at home and does his share of the family chores and daily housework. The problem is that he always seems to do the jobs I actually like to do, and leaves the less pleasant, usually harder, jobs for me. I will come downstairs after a shower and he will say: “Honey, I just wrote little personal messages on the Christmas cards—now if you can only address them… and make sure the addresses are up-to-date. You might want to do some cross-referencing. Oh, and get stamps.”
Or he will announce that he has emptied the dishwasher—which leaves me to sort and scrape and prewash all the dirty dishes and load them, and then do the pots. After these announcements he will pause so I can thank him. It makes me crazy. He will strip the bed with a great flourish, but has never been known to remake it. He will run our cool new vacuum on the rug, but will never do the corners of the room or move anything—not the rocking chairs, not even a pile of magazines. He’ll just vacuum around them so that, if you pick up the pile, there will be a magazine-shaped patch of dog-hair-covered rug where they used to be. He will spend an afternoon making us some exotic roast en croute from a recipe he found online, but has not cleaned a toilet since we moved in together five years ago. Help me!
—Impatient in Indianola
I think you have a few fairly common husbandly behaviors at work (or not at work) here—or perhaps I should say “spousal behaviors,” since the sample I’m working from is small and there may be wives who act the same way in some orbit beyond my own. Anyway, I see at least three related gambits: cherry-picking chores, leaving multi-stage work unfinished, and doing such a bad job that it seems easier for more-exacting people to just do it themselves next time.
As for the cherry-picking, the simplest solution is for you to jump in ahead of Sammy, either by actually doing your favorite chores before he gets to them or by calling dibs on them, as in “How about you do the addresses this year and I’ll write the messages? I really like sending personal notes.” All he can do at this point is say that he likes that part, too—in which case you can point out that, in that case, it makes sense to switch every year, or to divide up the note-writing. This kind of solution is hard to argue with—which is a problem with calling dibs: you may get stuck negotiating an equitable compromise; whereas, if you just go ahead and write the notes every year, the burden is on him to raise the subject.
On the other hand, if you actually talk about the issue you may find out that Sammy has little or no stake in being the note-writer, and chose to do that part of the job pretty much at random. Then you are set for years: you can institute a tradition. (In that case, hide the cards every year until you’ve reminded him that the tradition exists.) In fact, you might try being more explicit with Sammy, in a general way, about which chores you like best. He may not know. At the very least, you will make it harder for him to claim ignorance the next time he chooses to do one of your preferred tasks.
These stratagems may make it easier for you to do the jobs you like, but they may not go very far in motivating Sammy to do the ones you (or all rational beings) hate, like scrubbing the toilet. For this you may have to resort to lists and schedules, with the work fairly apportioned—or, if you can afford it and are comfortable with the idea, some paid help.
How does Sammy feel about charts? Visuals can really help when people are supposed to remember who does what but would really rather not. I would go with something colorful, up on the fridge. (Some people find computer spreadsheets easier and more efficient. I find this hard to imagine—given the proper tools, I think I would prefer light toilet-scrubbing to spreadsheet-management—but hey, that’s what makes a horse race.)
As for not completing work he’s begun: this can be especially annoying because starting a job often makes finishing it more urgent than it would have been if matters had just been left alone. Going another day or two without washing the sheets is a bit different from sleeping on a bare mattress. Emptying part of the dishwasher, which someone I love has been known to do, just creates confusion, with coffee sludge dripping down onto clean plates, leading to despair and a semi-permanently full sink. And some half-finished jobs, like taking down the smoke detector to change the battery without promptly doing so, can actually kill you. So, for the moment, there is more work to be done, presumably by you, unless you want to go without sheets, mess up your clean dishes, or risk death.
I wish I had an easy answer to the half-finished work issue. Talking about it with Sammy might help—maybe not in a global way, if he is a sensitive fellow, but case-by-case, as in: “I don’t know about you, but I don’t feel like making the bed today, so let’s not strip it.” Or: “I can’t tell which dishes are dirty—I hate it when that happens!” (Okay, that’s a little passive-aggressive.) Or: “Thanks for taking the smoke detector down. Can I hold the chair while you put in the new battery? Don’t have one? Here, take my keys, I think the hardware store closes early on Sundays.”
Or, I suppose, just break down the tasks he half-finishes and add each of the segments to your chart, if you have one. All this may sound like about as much work as vacuuming up that magazine-shaped patch yourself, or even making the bed a bit earlier than you would have liked. But you need to think in the long term.
Which leads me to the third issue: dealing with partners who manage to avoid certain jobs by doing them so badly you race to get to them first. One classic area where this happens is laundry. Between the sorting, washing, drying, and folding (or not folding), opportunities abound for subpar or even disastrous results: crumpled no-iron shirts that now need ironing, long-damp sheets that stink of mildew and have to be rewashed twice, shredded underthings and car registrations, shrunken sweaters, lost socks, dark clothes with white bleach splotches on them, light clothes with dark dye splotches on them, skirts that cling to you and ride up your legs, tablecloths marbled with candle wax, and solid knotted lumps of miscellaneous clothing held together by bathrobe sashes, pulled threads, and little bits of chewing gum. I am not sure whether poor laundering is one of Sammy’s failings. But I will note that, although it also has elements of both cherry-picking jobs and leaving jobs unfinished, Sammy’s vacuuming style is probably also an example of the half-assed job gambit. Proper characterization depends largely on your point of view: has he done half of the vacuuming reasonably well, or has he done all the vacuuming, but badly? (Realizing that questions like that were becoming my habit is part of what led me to abandon the study of analytic philosophy at an early age. But I divagate.)
When those around you do a questionable job at some housekeeping task, the best course is usually to save what you can (hide your delicates!) and just let them plow along. If they are actually trying to avoid work, you will have faked them out. And if they are willing to work, but honestly ignorant or inept, experience combined with the occasional word of judicious advice from you should help them improve.
So: jump in there to do the fun stuff, try to be patient with the half- or poorly-done stuff, and consider discussing or even organizing your chores. And keep your sense of humor. Sammy sounds like a basically nice guy, but you are still probably going to need it.
I have been so upset lately. It’s partly that the holidays are over, I think. But also this election. I will tell myself that I have finally gotten a grip and then there will be some new horror on the news. I am worried or sad or angry about everything from global warming and nuclear war to my grown daughter’s reproductive care and my own job and health insurance. (I’m an academic trying to survive by juggling four adjunct positions.) I think I am also just plain lonely now that my kids are gone. Anyway, yesterday I came home and turned on the TV and I got so mad I kicked my poor dog Jocko. I have always thought there is a special place in hell (or would be, if there were a hell) for people who are mean to animals. Am I turning into a monster? Should I get help?
—Big Meanie in Belmont
Dear Belmont friend,
I would say “probably not” to the monster question and “yes, anyway,” to getting help.
I can’t tell from your letter what, exactly, you did to your dog. It is one thing to come upon a quiet beast and kick it just to inflict pain or express rage. If that is what happened, you need to talk to somebody soon and start learning how to manage your anger so that you are NEVER tempted to inflict pain or injury on an animal for no good reason. But I suspect that what happened was something more like this: the TV was blaring, Trump was lying and/or sneering, Jocko kept jumping up on you, you kept pushing and nudging him away, he jumped harder, and the next thing you know your leg shot out too fast, he yelped in surprise, you came to your senses, and Jocko got a rawhide treat. An incident like that is certainly not stellar pet-owner behavior, but it is easier to understand, and hardly monstrous.
Monster or not, it sounds as if you need some professional advice and help. I am the last person—or, to be more precise, I am currently one of 60,000,000 or so Americans tied for last place in this regard—to suggest that there’s anything unreasonable about being worried about our country’s future and how it will affect each of us. Nor is there anything extraordinary about post-holiday letdown or empty-nest issues. Even so, based on your short letter, you sound more fragile and unhappy, and your life sounds more stressful and exhausting, than it has to be.
So see somebody. If you do not like that person, see somebody else. I know that therapy can be costly, but it sounds as if you have insurance, and all insurance has some sort of mental-health coverage, at least for now. You might also talk to your pastor, if you have one, and to friends.
In addition, or as an alternative if you oppose or feel you cannot afford therapy, make an appointment with your primary care doctor, who can advise you and prescribe medication if warranted. You may have one or more underlying problems of the kind we think of as more purely medical, such as a vitamin deficiency or hormone imbalance, or even an infection of some sort.
Therapy and medical treatment aside, there are several actions you can take to help regain your sense of control and experience some joy. See your friends—if doing this ad hoc doesn’t work, set yourself a weekly quota, like one movie or three phone calls or two coffee dates.
Get enough sleep. I actually have no idea how you will manage this with all those papers to grade and classes to prepare, but try to be strong. If, unlike me, you can succeed in keeping your electronics out of your bedroom, I strongly suggest doing so.
Be sure to exercise. In my experience, exercise really does increase energy and improve mood and concentration. Include your dog some of the time. At the very least, lengthen Jocko’s walks. And, when you can, take him out to fetch or run or swim, or socialize with other dogs, or just toddle around the park, as befits his breed and temperament. You will both be happier if you get outside more often just for fun, and I am sure these jaunts will more than atone for your lapse in Jocko’s eyes, which I am guessing are generous and forgiving. (A thought: is there an affordable dog club or training class near you? These can be fun for both humans and dogs, and might have the additional benefit of teaching Jocko some doggie boundaries to help ensure that things never get out of hand again at home.)
It sounds as if you are horribly busy, what with juggling all those jobs in different places and trying to make ends meet. But I nevertheless suggest that you make at least some time—15 minutes every few days would be much better than nothing—for activism. Purposeful activity is a great antidote to fear and anxiety. And if you can take a bit more time than those 15-minute bouts, you could try engaging in some concerted action with like-minded people, which would cut into your loneliness.
I hope you’ll be able to do each of the things I’ve suggested: get help, get moving, get sleep, see friends, play more with your pooch, and take political action. You owe it to yourself—to say nothing of the dog.
Cleaver’s in-house advice columnist opines on matters punctuational, interpersonal, and philosophical, spinning wit and literary wisdom in response to your ethical quandaries. Write to her at [email protected]. Find more columns by June in her attic.