Thoughts on “you owe me”

I chose the title quote of this blog in a more socialist stage of my life. I was excited about applying generosity to personal relationships, to my finances, and to policy in general.

There’s an ideal of marriage in my mind, based on novels like I Take Thee, Serenity, of old people enjoying a lifetime of selfless love. At a friend’s wedding, an older married woman gave her the advice, “Don’t count. It will always seem like you’re doing more. Give and give and give thanks.” I loved that. I hung the last line in our first apartment.

Then I had kids, and now I definitely count. 

Jeff and I have done several rounds of time tracking, including at least one where I was quite sure I was the put-upon wife. Embarrassingly for me, it turned out he was doing quite a bit more work. But now we know that.

The idea of people truly not minding their generosity to their spouse is appealing. At the same time, treating women’s time as valuable is a major victory of the 20th century, and the gains are not complete. Excerpts from the mothers’ group I’m part of:


Note that this isn’t purely a gender thing — there are similar stories from moms with a female partner, or from moms who acknowledge being the weak link in the household.

Now that I’m familiar with the kind of “partnership” that many of my peers experience, it amazes me now that so many people read The Giving Tree as a heartwarming story of selflessness. I read it now as being about annihilation. No matter how much she gives, it never makes him happy, let alone grateful. He does not even enjoy wrecking her. Maybe it’s meant to be about parenthood more than partnership, but I wouldn’t let my children treat me like that either.

After seeing a bit more of real life, my guess at what works best is now something like:

  • Be aware of the work your partner does, and express gratitude.** I do recommend a few days or weeks of time tracking as a way to realize what this looks like — I had forgotten whole categories of work that Jeff does, and tracking made me more aware of the full picture. It might also help make clear how much time is spent on invisible planning-type work (arranging with the babysitter, making the shopping list, reading about how to fix the drain).
  • Don’t expect perfect equality on a daily or weekly basis, but try to even things out over time. (I’m particularly happy that Jeff now deals with the kids’ night wakings after my years of night feedings.)
  • Recognize that things may not even out. People vary in their need for sleep, in the tasks they hate, and in physical and mental health. Maybe the reality of your partnership is that one of you will consistently put in more than 50%.
  • If one of you has your heart set on a career that will leave little time for helping with household and children, get on the same page about whether that’s something you can both live with.
  • Freeing each other up to do special things occasionally — to go out with friends, to sleep in — can go a long way even when you’re both handling a lot.
  • If you’re dividing work in a traditional fashion, double check that this is really what you both want.
  • Recognize that society may not allocate responsibility evenly between you. If the baby is in dirty clothes, if the table is set wrong at Thanksgiving, if your kid does not bring a good present to their friend’s birthday party, society will not be even-handed in assigning blame between a mother and father. If you’re both cool with saying, “to hell with society’s expectations,” great, but recognize that society already assigned all these expectations to the mother and she is the one who had better be cool with disregarding them.

*A second note of irony is that years after falling in love with Daniel Ladinsky’s translation of Hafiz, I realized they are not translations at all, but 20th-century riffs on Hafiz’s 14th-century poems. No wonder they sound so modern.

** Thanks to Jeff who is putting the kids down for their nap as I write this!

1 thought on “Thoughts on “you owe me”

  1. ilemhadri

    The Gift book really seems beautiful. Any specific poems you enjoyed the most? I am sure you could make a blog post about it and I’d enjoy reading it.



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