Better Life Lab

Thanksgiving Took Me and My Marriage to the Brink. Here’s How We Came Back From It.

Photo illustration by Lisa Larson-Walker. Photos by Thinkstock.

A few years ago, I spent most of Thanksgiving dividing up the furniture in the house for when the divorce came. My husband had just walked out the door with a six-pack of beer to hang out with a friend, leaving me with a kitchen explosion of vegetable peels and uncooked dishes, a scatter of recipes and cookbooks, a table yet to be set for 18, and one gigantic, raw bird. He could have that fucking blue-leather couch.

To say I was livid would be a gross understatement. Before we got married, we’d both promised each other we’d be partners and share our home responsibilities equally. As I furiously chopped Brussels sprouts, flung cranberries and miniature pumpkins on the table in a failed attempt at a Martha Stewart centerpiece, and jammed homemade stuffing into the turkey, my mind kept spinning: How had we gone so far off the rails?

Because it wasn’t just like this at Thanksgiving. We both worked full time in demanding jobs. Yet at the time, my husband didn’t know who the kids’ dentist was, had never made summer camp plans, never bought toilet paper, or filled out all those damn school and Girl Scout forms. He’d never clipped baby fingernails, nor had he been the one to frantically figure out how to get work done when a snowstorm, strep throat, or unexpected barf threw the whole jerry-rigged system of work and child care into disarray.

It’s not like I was alone. Or that this exhausting, out-of-whack division of labor is uncommon. Time-diary analysis and a host of other studies show that women, on average, still do twice the housework and child care that men do, even when working full time or even when they bring home more bacon. (Wives earn more than husbands in 1 out of 3 U.S. marriages.) That unfair division of labor at home is a big part of what keeps the division of labor at work so unfair, why women are stuck in middle management, too tired to concentrate on big projects, or trapped in crappy, low-paying jobs, knocked off leadership tracks, or out of the workforce altogether. Unlike in other developed countries, women’s labor-force participation in the United States has been falling since 2000—even though women’s wages account for the majority of family income increase since 1970. How can they find time to work these crappy jobs when they’ve got so much work to do at home?

And it’s a big reason why many marriages don’t last. One study found that women initiate 69 percent of the divorces in heterosexual marriages, and another found that unfair divisions of household labor are a big reason why. (Same-sex couples fare better: Research has found that, without traditional gendered expectations, couples tend to talk more, adapt to changing circumstances, and negotiate fairer deals.)

The intense expectations that women should be responsible for creating the perfect holiday only whips all that low-level radioactive sludge of resentment that builds up over the years into a frenzy. If coming home to another workday of housework and child care is the second shift for women, as sociologist Arlie Hochschild called it, holidays like Thanksgiving are the third. Women are still largely expected to do the “kin work” of keeping family together, planning and organizing the holiday magic as well as being responsible for taking everyone’s emotional temperatures, and soothing ruffled feathers. Sometimes this means paying attention to the little things, like including people in conversations so no one feels left out and doing whatever’s needed to keep family gatherings on an even keel.

It wasn’t until I experienced the holidays as a mother that I began swirling around the house in a sleepless flurry, barking at the kids, worrying about making the day special. My stress levels rising, I’d snap when my husband told me to just calm down. That’s when I realized I was acting just like my mother at the holidays. As teens we used to make fun of her, I’m ashamed to say, at how wound-up and bitchy she could get: She’s such a martyr. She’s ruining the day. Why can’t she just calm down?

But looking back, I realize now she was cooking, cleaning, polishing silver, washing wedding china, directing her bored and snarky daughters, and managing crises like broken dishwashers, while my dad watched football, asked for another scotch and water, and wasn’t expected to do more than cut the first few slices of turkey. (Mom did the rest.) I’m not sure she ever ate a hot meal on Thanksgiving or got more than a few hours of sleep. She certainly didn’t get any thanks.

Schulte family.

Peter Heimberg

On that miserable Thanksgiving a few years ago, when my husband returned sans beer, I said through gritted teeth that I wanted to enjoy the evening. But tomorrow, we needed to talk.

We went on a long walk, and I did the only thing I knew to do as a reporter when I don’t understand something: I brought a notebook and began asking questions, not only of my husband, but myself. Why had my husband never taken paternity leave? Why did I feel it was my responsibility to rush around the house frantically cleaning up so it would look nice before he got home from work, like my mom did, even though, unlike her, I’d had an exhausting day at work too? Why was I stabbed with guilt at the thought that I was a bad mother if I let him take the kids to the pediatrician? Why was I so consumed with performing what looked like the perfect Thanksgiving? Who was watching? The Housewife Police?

What we began to realize on that long walk is that we’d both gotten ourselves to this point where I was physically and mentally depleted and wanted to divide up the furniture for good—that, without even realizing it, we’d both fallen into the traditional gender roles we’d seen our parents inhabit, though I was also cramming full-time work into the mix. And if we wanted to stay together, and if we hoped for something different for our kids, we had to figure out how to change.

So we started small. We sat at the table and figured out how much work it takes to run the family, came up with common standards, and divided up the chores based on what we liked doing, not our gender. I like yardwork, so I do more of it. He likes cooking, so I gratefully eat whatever he puts on my plate every night.

We came up with rules, so we wouldn’t have to keep renegotiating or arguing: Last one out of bed makes the bed. In the morning, I empty the dishwasher, he loads. And if he doesn’t do it, I don’t rescue him and do it for him. Early on, I’d take out my iPhone, snap a photo, and text him, “Really?” He grocery shops. I do laundry. The kids do their own. We both fill out forms. We both make kids’ dentist, doctor, and other appointments and take turns taking them. The kids’ summer camp plans have turned into summer jobs, driving lessons, and college planning, and we share the load there, too.

And I had to leave. I hadn’t traveled for work since the kids were born, both because I didn’t want to, and because I felt I couldn’t or shouldn’t. But I had reporting trips to do for what would become my book about time pressure and the still-powerful pull of traditional gender roles: Overwhelmed: How to Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time. It was only in physically removing myself that I realized my role as a loving wife and a good mother didn’t have to be defined by the chores I did but by the quality of the relationships I had and the time we shared. My husband, too, developed the confidence and competence not only to hold down the fort but to forge closer bonds with our son and daughter.

It isn’t perfect. I still somehow wind up being the one who buys toilet paper. But it’s better. And Thanksgivings are different in our house now. The first thing we think about as a family is not how the table would look if Martha Stewart dropped by with a scorecard but how we want the day to feel. Then we figure out the work that needs to be done to make that happen and divide the chores fairly. My daughter makes mashed potatoes. Our son handles the bread. I roast vegetables. Tom makes the turkey and stuffing (usually Stove Top, and I no longer care). All the neighborhood kids come over to bake pies and play charades. We eat. We laugh. We all do the dishes, and we all go to bed. It’s no longer just me—we are all responsible for creating the holiday magic. And that stupid blue couch? It’s been moved to the garage.