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Easing into a new division of labor

First, the good news for women. According to a recent study at the University of Michigan comparing the division of household tasks between men and women, men's participation has jumped 20 percent since 1965. Now, the bad news -- that brings their contribution up to only 30 percent.

Apparently, Americans are still laboring under the perception that, as author Letty Cottin Pogrebin puts it, ``mess belongs to mother.''

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``I lecture all over the country on different topics,'' Ms. Pogrebin said in a recent telephone interview, ``and at every single lecture, regardless of the topic, I get the same question -- how can I get my husband to help me? What that tells me is that these women feel no shame asking the question, because they know the woman sitting next to them is probably going through the same problem and feeling the same rage.''

A host of techniques for divvying up the dirty work have been suggested -- everything from approaching the task as college roommates would (``You wouldn't expect one roommate to do all the vacuuming and toilet scrubbing while the other reads the newspaper,'' says one advocate of this method) to writing down all the necessary chores and using an elaborate point system based on how much time and effort each chore takes and whether anyone likes to do it.

``But you're not going to be able to just sit down logically and divide it up -- it's too emotionally laden a topic,'' Ms. Pogrebin says.

At a recent Washington, D.C., workshop on careers and family, women talked of how they had dealt with the problem.

``I never thought I would have the courage to do this,'' said one participant, ``but about two months ago I had just had it, and I stopped cooking my husband's dinner, doing his laundry, or picking up his clothes where he dropped them on the floor. And it didn't take long for this man, who is a big executive and capable of doing many things, to start making the dinner and doing the laundry.''

Such stories ``show an extreme lack of communication in a marriage,'' Ms. Pogrebin says, ``but maybe that's what it takes in some marriages.

``In a loving, caring, open, communicative marriage,'' she adds, ``a good conversation will bring you off the dime.''

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Discussions should be ongoing and should take place in a calm atmosphere. ``Instead of making a simple, unemotional request for regular help in cleaning up the kitchen or getting the children ready for school,'' writes Ms. Washburn, ``women tend to wait until they are so angry and excited that their request turns into a threatening demand.''

``You should be able to sit down with him and say, Look, I can't hack it, there's too much on my shoulders right now,'' Ms. Pogrebin says. ``And then you need to redivide both the work itself and the remembering -- remembering to buy eggs if you're out, remembering to take the chicken out of the freezer, remembering to get your child to the soccer game on time. That's what I call the buck-stops-here responsibility.''

Such discussions also need to start with the assumption that, because everyone makes messes and benefits from housework, everyone is responsible for seeing that it's done. Pat Cundick, a time-management specialist near Washington, D.C., differs with this slightly, however, saying that it's ``inefficient'' for two people (husband and wife) to carry ultimate responsibility for the house. Many get around this by assigning particular areas of responsibility to different family members.

Finally, although a few couples have had some success with simple role reversal, most see this approach as equally unfair -- what Ms. Pogrebin calls ``perpetuating the same game with different players.'' The aim, rather than switching the abuse and drudgery, should be to get the work done in the most equitable manner, in a way all parties involved can tolerate.

Some of the assignments that have worked are:

Making a ``change list'' of household management responsibilities (grocery shopping, cooking, laundry) and writing next to each item who is currently responsible for it. This chart, conceived by Rebecca Sage Ashery and Michele Margolin Basen, makes inequities visible, and allows you to discuss and reassign areas of responsibility.

Splitting responsibilities either by area (e.g., I'll do the laundry, you do the cooking) or days (e.g., I'll take Monday through Wednesday and every other Sunday, you take the rest of the days). Variations of this include picking the chores you each do best and then rotating the ones everyone loathes (emptying the kitty litter box falls into this category on many lists) or splitting responsibilities between day and night (I'll take the kids through dinner, you cover baths and bed and cope on weekends).

Paying someone to take over certain chores -- anything from weekly surface cleaning to ironing or cooking. It's important, when making this choice, not to trivialize the work, Ms. Pogrebin advises. A man will hire a painter because he doesn't want to spend his weekends on a ladder, she writes in ``Family Politics'' (McGraw-Hill, 1983), ``but he `can't afford' laundry service so his wife needn't spend her weekends sorting, folding, and pressing.''

Most participants in these systems cautioned that changes needed to be eased in with a certain amount of tolerance and good humor, since in many areas the participants were learning new skills -- wives cutting grass, husbands learning to cook. They all reported some rebellion and grumbling as the shifts took place.

Still, as one woman quoted in Gayle Kimball's ``The 50-50 Marriage'' (Beacon Press, 1983) put it, ``I don't want to be in that kind of relationship where doing [my husband's] share of the work is the price to pay for being in a relationship with him.''

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