A Bit of Dish Division: Advice on Household Chores

One of the biggest questions M.C. and I get asked regarding graduate life is “How do we balance household chores? I work full time, he is in school full time. How should we make this work?”

I grew up in a very traditional home when it came to chores. My Mother took care of everything inside the home; my Father took care of everything outside the home. This arrangement suited them well, so they’ve continued this way for the past 40 years (although my Dad is quite handy with the vacuum today).

Naively, I thought it would look exactly the same when I married. However, I didn’t factor in working full time, commuting, or a husband who would attend grad school.

In the weeks leading up to our wedding, we were having dinner with some friends, and they shared a piece of advice with us when it came to household chores: we were to pick a chore we hated, then switch.

I hate vacuuming.

He hates grocery shopping.

For the past 10 years, he’s vacuumed and I’ve shopped for groceries, and our little once-a-week arrangement has worked. There have been times we’ve had to step in and help each other out (especially during grad school), but there’s never been a doubt who owned that particular chore. We have balanced other household chores between us.

I know every relationship is different, so our little arrangement would not work for everyone. However, I’ve included some helpful tips below that I’ve picked up from various grad school wives:

What is your priority, and what are you willing to compromise? – Is having a clean house the most important thing to you? Is he a neat freak, and you’re the one with clutter? Are you still cleaning at 2am? You have to decide what is important for your family, and what you can compromise, then stick with it. A friend of mine in graduate life who stayed home with her children decided when they were young she would do one deep clean of her home a month. The rest of the time was spent maintaining, and she often had a messy home; but her trade-off was spending more time with her children. She felt absolutely no guilt for her messy home, as it was obvious where her priority was. I admired the way she owned her choice!

How do you communicate?- This may seem like an obvious one, but do you discuss your chores? I have a friend who worked full time while her husband was in grad school. While he helped out occasionally around the house, she did most of the household work. After awhile, she grew incredibly resentful because she felt like he was taking advantage of her. She finally convinced him to sit down to chat about it, and he grew defensive when she said she felt like she was doing everything. They managed to come to an agreement: for one week, they would keep a chore chart of every household chore completed for which they would earn one point. At the end of the week, they compared points: She had 25, he had 7. Believe it or not, several years later, they still do this, and now it’s easy for them to say to one another, “I’ve done the dishes 5 evenings this week, do you think you could do it for the next few evenings?”

Have you tried chore charts? – Chore charts (like these on pinterest) are incredibly popular, but they didn’t and wouldn’t work for us. Our schedules were always all over the place, so I’d always end up doing Monday’s chores (along with the rest of the week!) on Saturdays. :) For friends of ours living in shared graduate housing, they found chore charts to be essential, since they needed to communicate with more than just one other person. They would have a once a month meeting in the house to determine who was doing what chores for that particular month, and then the chart was hung in the kitchen for all to see.

Please don’t nag me! –  Back when we switched our hated chores, I found myself telling him how and when to vacuum. (He’s a GROWN MAN with a PhD, y’all. He knows how to run a vacuum). Two weeks into it, he said to me, “If you’re going to constantly nag me about this, I’m not going to do it.” Point taken. Remember that compromise thing? I accepted that it was no longer my responsibility to point out how and when his chores would be done – he already has a mother. :) We agreed he’d vacuum once a week, and I left him to it.

The graduate season tends to be a bit disorganized – there’s dissertations to write, exams to take, fellowships to engage in, and rounds to make. I know there will be times we’ll have to pick up the slack. The last year of my husband’s dissertation was also the first year of our son’s life. My husband was trying to finish his PhD, carrying a large teaching load, and trying to be a good husband and father. He had no capacity for anything else. For that year, I stepped up and did most of the household chores. After he submitted his dissertation, we reevaluated how we would manage chores going forward (especially since our home now contained a very fast, messy toddler).

How do you manage chores in your home? Do you find it to be a struggle? Would you give us any of your helpful tips in the comments below?

And remember, if all else fails, you could do what some friends of ours recently did after bickering for months around cleaning schedules, study schedules: they reviewed their budget, and decided it was worth their sanity to hire a cleaner. Oh the dream!

Happy cleaning,



8 thoughts on “A Bit of Dish Division: Advice on Household Chores

  1. I’m new to your blog (referred by a friend) but just thought I’d comment! In our house I’m both the postgrad and the wife, so it’s a bit different, but chores is something my husband and I have constantly had to reassess since we got married. You know, I was always of the mind that it was best to assign roles and then leave each person to be responsible for their own tasks; when I’ve lived with housemates this definitely worked the best. (Without a system it never worked!) However, for some jobs my husband actually doesn’t seem to like that system. He would actually rather that I tell him what to do and when!

    I so much prefer to be left alone to do things on my own time (no nagging, as you say), that I have a hard time figuring out why my husband isn’t the same, because he is very organised and generally proactive. But with cleaning, he forgets, and then feels bad for upsetting me by not cleaning, because of course I remember! It actually works better if I just tell him what needs doing, and he always does it almost immediately, and seems happy that way.

    The only thing I can figure is that the reward of cleanliness doesn’t motivate him at all the way it motivates me, whereas the reward of pleasing me he treats as a good reason to clean! This is an occasion where I’ve really had to learn that the system which I think works best simply doesn’t work as well for someone else, and be flexible to adjust.

  2. We’ve tried several arrangements. I hate dishes more than anything, at one point we arranged for him to do the dishes and me to do everything else (not as bad as it sounds, no dishwasher but a tiny place to sweep) but eventually he let them stack up in the sink, the counter, AND on the table, GROSS! The next arrangement involved me getting an extra bit of “allowance” each month to do them (we each get an equal allowance in our monthly budget of guilt-free spending money) however I couldn’t keep up with them after working and doing all the other chores. Well, we haven’t found the perfect combo yet but the important thing is to keep trying until you do. I also think a lot of the problem is that women (for the most part) have a higher standard of clean , so while it seems to all fall on their shoulders, it’s because the men just don’t care or notice how “dirty” the place is.

    1. It’s always a work in progress, isn’t it? Especially when you move, change jobs, have kids…it’s all about finding a rhythm. I know that in our house, my husband is the more tidy one…and I tend to be a bit more cluttered. We constantly have to work together to make sure we aren’t annoying each other!

  3. My spouse is currently in school and I work full time. We have recently argued over “who does more.” He feels it is his responsibility to make the grades and he doesn’t have to do any extra chores. I feel taken advantage of. Here I am, working, paying all the bills, keeping the house clean and the laundry done. I’m really struggling with this. Any advice?

    1. Ouch. I think what it boils down to is that you are both busy and therefore the housework should be shared. When I worked and he was in school we had methods of splitting the work. When he was in school but I was unemployed I took over the housework because I was home and not exhausted from work. When I was doing a bunch of overtime he stepped up and did more because I flat out wasn’t around to do it.

    2. Hi KL, I know any time I started to feel like this, I would sit down and have a conversation with my graduate – but in a non-defensive manner. Instead of doing it in a way to attack him (i.e. You’re NOT helping, You’re NOT doing, I am NOT your mother, etc) I would say, “Have you thought about…? Could we come to an agreement on…?”..etc I would also acknowledge the enormous pressure he feels to ‘make the grades’ – that’s some serious pressure, especially when there is a family behind him supporting it – but it does not preclude him from responsible adulthood. If you’re struggling with handling it all (and my goodness, who wouldn’t? I know I would!), then admit that. And come to an agreement with him (maybe he does laundry every other week, dishes 2 nights a week, whatever works for you both). And..during his busier times, you step in to do more to help him out – and vice versa for you at work! Hope this helps!

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