I am thrilled to introduce this partnership between The Rumpus and VONA/Voices of Our Nations Arts, the only multi-genre summer workshop for writers of color in the US. Founded by Elmaz Abinader, Junot Díaz, Victor Díaz, and Diem Jones in 1999, VONA/Voices is committed—like The Rumpus—to creating spaces where people come to be themselves through their writing, to tell their stories or speak their minds in the most artful and authentic way they know how. And like The Rumpus, we nurture writing that’s challenging, brave, passionate, and true (and yes, sometimes very funny).
In our seventeen years, VONA/Voices has helped integrate the literary landscape by mentoring 2,000 writers from around the globe, birthing more than 200 books, and launching the careers of countless writers, some of whom, like Olivia Olivia and Soo Na Pak, were published for the first time at The Rumpus. Their commitment to creating outlets for diverse voices is critical to our work. In March, The Rumpus published an important Roundtable on Writing, Editing, and Race, whose members spoke about the role VONA/Voices played in their careers. We are eternally grateful and extend special thanks to Mary-Kim Arnold, Marisa Siegel, and everyone involved in this joint venture.
My wife and I have been together since 2004, married since 2013. We fight frequently about doing the dishes. Not as in ‘I always do them and you are lazy.’ Because we are two women who’ve been steeped in gender norms for the past three decades, we fight to do them.
“Let me do them, you did them last night.”
“Let me do them, you cooked.”
“Let me do them, I’m faster. You sweep, I’ll do this.”
I consider myself lucky to be married to my wife, my college sweetheart. We were married at the City Clerk’s office by the man himself, surrounded by our immediate family, and it was one of the single best days of my life. Our story is one of thousands across the country, of love recognized at last, the promise of equality realized. But a wedding is just one day.
Lots of space gets dedicated to the strengths and pitfalls of straight married life, but as waves of new people enter into this institution, including me, I’m more interested in what happens after the wedding, how two people share their lives and work, and how this makes for a happier, more satisfying life.
I wasn’t always so generous with offers of housework. When my then-girlfriend and I moved in together in 2008, living together was not paradise. She is by nature more tidy and a planner. To repurpose Aesop’s Fable, I’m more Grasshopper than Ant. Why put off pleasure? I’d rather go see a movie right now. I can do dishes later, fold laundry later.
I had started grad school part-time while continuing to work full-time. She was great about taking on more cooking and cleaning, but time after time I would get gentle pokes.
“You need to do more around the house,” she’d say, and inevitably I’d cry about my workload at work, school, and home. We’d adjourn on the issue, but it would come up again.
My mother famously tells a story about me when I was a child. One day I came home from school and saw her vacuuming. I asked, “Are we having company?” As if no other reason would exist for cleaning. She tells this story with measures of embarrassment and pride, the latter for being more Grasshopper than Ant, too. She does what she wants most days, letting the ironing pile up and the windows go unwashed.
My mother-in-law, on the other hand, cannot sit still. Whenever I’m in her home, she’s cooking or cleaning or planning. An exemplary Ant. She makes me exhausted just to watch her, but also envious of how much she gets done in an hour.
My father, late in his sixties, still works long hours at his job, and brings work home. This doesn’t stop him from cooking all meals on the weekends, doing laundry, and cleaning the house. He does these things, then falls asleep on the porch with a newspaper draped over his face. What’s notable about my dad, though, is what he taught me—or rather, didn’t teach me—about gender norms.
Japanese men are not known for their homemaking skills, but as someone who lost his father as a boy, my dad had to learn how to cook and take care of himself, skills he brought into his marriage. While some of their life together seems to fall along traditional gender expectations—my mom stayed at home and did most of the child rearing—neither of them made me think that anything specific was “women’s work.”
Of course, it’s not only parents who teach us about gender roles. Sometimes it feels like we’re absorbing them with our first gasps from the womb. We swap lessons with our little buddies, mimicking or judging what they do, codifying the ways to live as a girl or boy. We watch movies and television, listen to music, and read books that feed us rules and roles, so thoroughly internalized they seem invisible.
(Except maybe this: my mom always said the television show The Jetsons made no sense to her: “This is supposed to be the future, but the wife and mother alone is responsible for the household?”)
There’s no doubt it’s getting better. Even commercials, usually the domain of outdated norms, are showing men involved with housework and childcare. Studies are positive, too.
“Mirroring trends in industrialized nations around the world, men’s participation in housework in US families has nearly doubled in the past 40 years, and their amount of time spent on childcare has tripled,” said one recently published book on the subject that was excerpted in the Atlantic.
I didn’t think I would marry. Despite my example of a stable, mostly equal marriage, I didn’t think highly of the institution. It seemed stale and suffocating, bogged down with rules. I never wanted to do something out of duty, or because I was someone’s wife. That all changed, of course, when I found someone to share my life. That she’s a woman also sweetened the idea of getting married, knowing that our lives together would resist at least some gender-related expectations.
When writing this piece, I came across the book I mentioned above. Like much of the existing scholarship, it speaks exclusively to heterosexual family dynamics, and highlights an inconsistency with the sea change in household work. Despite men doing more work, their female partners still need to ask for help. If one partner is telling the other what to do, I wouldn’t trumpet the call of equality quite yet.
Another study released in 2015 by the Families and Work Institute examined how “differentsex” as well as “samesex” couples handled housework and childcare responsibilities.
When charting satisfaction with the division of this work, women sharing households with men were the least satisfied. The other interesting takeaway of the study were the tasks people in differentsex couples would take on.
For all the effort men are taking on in the home, it’s still quite gendered. Overwhelmingly, the female partner takes on what are traditionally considered feminine tasks: cleaning, cooking, laundry, and buying groceries. Men are more likely to engage in outdoor tasks and home repairs.
While I’m familiar with all of this through stories of straight female friends, it’s foreign in my practical understanding. In our house, my wife and I are specialists, taking on departments by temperament, skill, and interest. My wife is the chef. She likes cooking and experimenting, and saving money by eating at home. She is also in charge of money business, whether it’s paying rent or bills or investing our earnings.
She’s attentive to details on an ongoing basis, so she falls into that role.
She cleans the toilet. On the other side of the bathroom, I clean the tub because I don’t have the back problems she has, which is the same reason I keep the floors clean and carry heavy things. I run errands, take packages to the post office, return unwanted items to the store, buy birthday gifts—because I work in an area where I’m able to get to these places with ease. I take care of everything technology-related, because of patience and knowledge. I reluctantly kill bugs because my wife is too scared. I wrap presents. I repair everything from clothes to appliances. I decorate. I do food shopping most of the time, though not always, and we mostly share laundry responsibilities.
When I reread my list, I found it surprisingly long. It wasn’t always this way, like during grad school, but I do more now that my wife has a job that requires longer hours. I’ve taken on more tasks, because that’s what my marriage means to me: sharing our lives, and doing one more thing so my wife can do one less, despite still being a Grasshopper at heart.
Division of labor isn’t about an exact split—it’s about getting through floor sweeping, so that we can get back to the more meaningful business of binge-watching a TV show or sitting in the park.
Thinking about all of this made me wonder how it is for other queer couples, trying to make sense of being romantic partners and roommates, as I sought to put this in a larger context. Otherwise, this whole thing might come off as bragging. It is. It comes from a place of analysis, of weighing my life and love against a heterosexist culture that gives directions on how to be a wife. Two wives and no husbands or two husbands and no wives, for that matter creates an entirely different relationship dynamic.
To road test this, I posed three questions to my queer friends:
- What chores do you do?
- What chores does your partner do?
- Is the distribution of work equal?
In the interest of equality, I did talk to a few straight female friends, and even stacked the deck with women I knew to have sensitive, caring partners. When I asked two women with husbands if the division of housework and childcare was equal, they both immediately said, “No!”
They walked it back, thoughtfully considering all the complex ways both partners contribute. It strikes me as an issue of how something feels versus how it is. Perhaps labor is not equal in the house, but it feels even less so because it’s an area of contention with roots reaching back to what’s considered women’s and men’s work.
Another friend, with an eager-to-help, live-in boyfriend, says he probably does about 40% of the work. She thinks that “gender norms play into our housework here to some extent” but that “it’s hard to explain exactly how.”
My trans male friend told me that between he and his fiancé, “Chores are probably our number one hot button issue,” which they deal with in productive ways, like dropping off the laundry, or less productive ways, like trying to guilt each other into walking the dog. At the same time, when considering work distribution, he says it comes up a lot. “We usually try to support each other as much as possible (i.e. if she has a particularly insane work schedule for weeks, I’ll try to be on top of shit and vice versa).”
My queer female friends echoed systems similar to mine: an equal, or somewhat equal, distribution of work “pretty equal” were literally the words of two different women, “pretty even” from another. Everyone has their departments. Said one friend, “We split them based on what we are personally particular about and don’t hate doing.” Another friend said they “fell into our roles,” and another said the division of work “speaks to our strengths.”
But even with departments designed for efficiency, I found there to be a lot of task-sharing. My friends who’ve been together since high school, and are now in their early forties and have two children, said while they split most other duties, they do all childcare work together. They may not be “efficient” like other parents, but it’s how they’ve chosen to do things. Likewise, two other friends mentioned sharing tasks, either always shared or taken on to help the other partner. As one friend poetically put it, “We have been living together for seven of the eight years we have been together. As a result, we’ve got our dance down.”
It may not come as a shock to hear that, in a completely gendered way, two women in a relationship talk about housework. One friend said she insists on check-ins with her fiancé to make sure everyone is feeling okay with the distribution of duties (and her fiancé always begs my friend to stop talking about it). Beyond that, though, gender doesn’t seem to play a factor in distribution of work or conception of it. If anything, gender reveals itself in two people who’ve been taught it’s both their job to get the job done, or put another way, said my friend, “We are all about getting shit done.” Then again, the same friend confessed to being a “procrastinator who always gets more done when she is in the house with me. It’s a boost.” I can relate to that.
By this point, I’m sure everyone reading this will run out and be with a samesex partner. It’s utopia! Here’s the truth: Autostraddle surveyed over 3,500 LGBTQ women and found that women in samesex relationships are likely to fight about housework, fourth in a list, right below sex. The results also found that the longer you lived with your partner, the more likely you were to fight about chores. Though I personally haven’t found this to be the case, I’d be remiss if I didn’t share one friend’s narrative. An admitted “slob,” the only time she cohabited for a brief time, “it didn’t go well.” She said, “I wasn’t as clean and organized as she preferred and that contributed to our breakup for sure.”
While my friend and her ex-girlfriend were a mismatch beyond chores, it certainly didn’t help. Maybe there’s something deeper here, then, beyond mopping and dishes. My wife and I, and most of the people I spoke with, come to the proverbial table with our sleeves rolled up.
Housework and compromise are not the stuff of excitement, but they are integral to a shared life and home.
My wife and I are exploring having children. A friend, who is also a family therapist, asked how we imagined splitting the work of child-rearing, a question she asked delicately. Maybe it’s often a huge point of contention with couples, answers that speak to baggage and feelings of imbalance in their already existing shared duties. My wife and I looked at each other, the Ant and the Grasshopper who’ve learned to coexist. I am sure there will be many aspects of parenting that we will find daunting, but hopefully, sharing the work—and the pleasure—will not be one of them.
Images provided by author.