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Rebalancing the workload

Unfair division of labour takes its toll on farm couples

Even though more than 80 per cent of women now work outside the home, the bulk of child care and household chores still fall to women. The most recent stats show that women are doing twice as much child care and one-and-a-half times as much housework as men.

Is it really so different on the farm?

Across Canada, women also carry the bulk of the mental load when it comes to raising children. They tend to be the ones responsible for booking dentist appointments, getting the costume for the school play, booking day camps for summer child care, making sure there is milk in the fridge, and the myriad other duties that come with raising a family.

Throw in the added burdens of farm life and the financial strain and it’s easy to see why this is a path heading toward stress, burnout and resentment.

Many women are tired and looking for change, says Boissevain, Man. farm family coach Elaine Froese. “There is a need for role clarification in 2018.”

Froese urges women to lead an intentional life. “Be clear about the choices you make and how you live your lives.”

Speaking at a conference recently, Froese told participants it was okay not to have a vegetable garden. After the presentation, several women thanked Froese for giving them permission to let go of this time-consuming task while admitting their husbands would need to be convinced too.

There’s a lot of emotion around the farming lifestyle that gets tangled up with the farm business, says Froese. “People have a hard time separating these. And there’s a lot of guilt that goes along with unreasonable expectations.”

Froese urges couples to discuss what are reasonable expectations and how to handle the ones that aren’t reasonable. “Different isn’t wrong, it’s just different.”

London, Ont. clinical psychologist Dr. Guy Grenier agrees. “Don’t accept having jobs foisted upon you. Everyone gets to sail their own race,” he says.

A lot of the child care and domestic work falls to women automatically even though there are no gender specific tasks other than breastfeeding, says Grenier. To make matters worse, he says women are tired of everything they do being taken for granted.

This is a common source of conflict for couples seeking Grenier’s counselling services. Grenier says recognition and gratitude are the first steps to resolving the issue.

Grenier assigns the following gratitude exercise to clients struggling with the division of household labour. Find 20 things to thank the other spouse for each day. “When people start to look for things to say thank you for, they start to appreciate the other person,” he says.

Grenier says sometimes feeling appreciated is enough but if there is still conflict, renegotiation of roles is the next step. Sometimes we fall into patterns based on expectations or assumptions about the roles of men and women, he explains.

It’s important for couples to discuss the various jobs and determine a fair distribution of the workload. Is a load of laundry equivalent to a sink of dishes? One parent-teacher meeting is worth how many early morning hockey practices?

There is no right answer, says Grenier. “It’s about what feels fair to the couple. Equal doesn’t mean the same.”

The final step in this renegotiation process is to do an assessment after three to six months. Is the redistribution working?

There may also need to be negotiation around how things are done, says Grenier. “It’s important to remember that neither person is right or wrong.” However, if one person has really strong feelings about how a job is done it may be best for him or her to continue with that task while the other person does a different job.

Grenier also cautions against falling into the trap of the “tyranny of a clean house” syndrome. “It’s a mistake to believe that a clean house makes you a better person,” says Grenier. “You’re never going to find the meaning of life in a clean house.” Grenier says women continue to be the prime sufferers of this social malady although sometimes men are afflicted. His recommendation is to put housework into a more appropriate context. “Spending time with people who love us and who we love really is the meaning of life.”

Communication is key to sorting out roles and creating a fairer distribution of domestic labour, agrees Froese, who urges couples not to make assumptions or think their spouse can read minds. Be specific about what you need. “Use key language like “I think, I feel, I need, I want.” Avoid using absolutes like “You never, you always, you must, you should.”

Philadelphia author and time management guru Laura Vanderkam agrees with Froese and Grenier about the importance of being intentional about what you take on. If you feel like you are shouldering the biggest burden when it comes to childcare, there are a few ways to solve the problem, she says. “One is to get your partner to do more. The other is for you to do less. One of these is a lot easier to make happen than the other.”

Vanderkam says that while some men may be shirking their duties, in some cases they may believe women are doing things that don’t need to be done, or don’t have to be done to that particular standard.

Vanderkam gives the example of a mom who thinks the kids need a bath every night while the dad thinks twice a week is sufficient. Dad does the bath routine once a week, half of what he thinks is necessary, and Mom is seething because she’s doing it six times a week. Perhaps they could compromise and give the kids a bath three times a week. If she does it twice a week, and he does it once, magically Mom has just gotten four nights back.

Like Grenier and Froese, Vanderkam believes discussing the issues is essential. Perhaps there are other solutions such as hiring a cleaning service, getting a babysitter or eating take-out more often, she says.

Froese also encourages women to practice self-care. “Self-care is not selfish,” says Froese.

“What are you doing for yourself? You have to build up your energy and strength to manage all of the things you have to do as farm women.”

W(h)ine Time to Maintain Connection

Dr. Guy Grenier says good relationships don’t just happen, they are created and nurtured by putting in the time. This is especially true after couples have children and the focus shifts from connection to production. To maintain their connection, Grenier recommends couples have w(h)ine time.

Sit down for 20 minutes every evening with a glass of wine or a cup of tea. Then each of you take 10 minutes to talk about your day. Teach the kids not to interrupt during this time unless the house is in flames or someone is spurting blood. “W(h)ine time saves marriages,” says Grenier.


The 10 Conversations You Must Have Before You Get Married (and how to have them) by Dr. Guy Grenier (Key Porter Books, 2007)

This is excellent reading even if you’ve been married for years. In addition to the 10 conversations you should have before you get married, Grenier details the 15 Rules of Good Communication, something all couples will benefit from no matter how long they’ve been married.

The How of Happiness: A New Approach for Getting the Life you Want by Sonja Lyubomirsky (Penguin Books, 2007)

This book provides scientific evidence that gratitude increases happiness, plus other ways to increase your life satisfaction.

Drop the Ball: Achieving More by Doing Less by Tiffany Dufu (Flatiron Books, 2017)

In Drop the Ball, Dufu recounts how she learned to re-evaluate expectations, shrink her to-do list, and meaningfully engage the assistance of others, thereby freeing the space she needed to flourish at work and to develop deeper, more meaningful relationships at home.

I Know How She Does It: How Successful Women Make the Most of Their Time (Penguin, 2015)

Case studies and interviews document how women make time to advance in their careers, enjoy family activities, and pursue their own passions. Based on these strategies, I Know How She Does It offers a framework for anyone who wants to thrive at work and life.

About the author


Helen Lammers-Helps

Freelance Writer

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