“A Marriage Agreement”— 1970

This iconic, and iconoclastic, argument — that a woman and man should share equally the responsibility for their household and children — was derided when it first appeared. Norman Mailer, Russell Baker and Joan Didion were shocked, affronted. The real shock is just how relevant Shulman’s Marriage Agreement is for couples today.

When my husband and I were first married, keeping house was less a burden than a game. We both had full time jobs, and twice a month we’d spend Saturday cleaning our apartment and taking our laundry to the Laundromat. We shopped for food together after work; sometimes we ate out; we had our breakfast at a diner near work; sometimes we cooked together, and there were few dishes to wash. Our domestic life was beautifully uncomplicated.

Then our son was born. I quit my job to stay home with him. After our daughter was born, domestic life, the only life I had any longer, was suddenly very complicated. We automatically accepted the sex roles society assigns. My husband worked all day in an office, while I took on almost all the tasks of housekeeping and child rearing. His life changed little when the children came, but mine was completely transformed. Keeping the apartment neat took hours of each day; I had to prepare meals for from one to four people at a time, and everyone ate different food; laundry became a daily chore. I seemed to be working every minute yet could not get everything done.

Even more burdensome than the physical work of housekeeping was the relentless responsibility I had for the children. If there was ever a moment to read, I read to them. I wanted to work on my writing, but there was no time. Later, when I took free-lance work in order to keep some contact with the world, I had to squeeze it into my “free” time.
My husband’s job kept him at work later and later and sometimes took him out of town.

The children were usually asleep when he got home, and we were too tired to do anything but sleep. If I suffered from too much domesticity, he suffered from too little.

As the children grew, our domestic arrangement seemed increasingly unfair. Why should a couple’s decision to have a family mean that she must completely change her life while he missed out on their children? When I finally began to see my situation through the new women’s liberation point of view, I realized that the only way we could possibly survive as a family was to throw out the traditional sex roles we’d been living by and, starting from scratch, define our roles for ourselves. Wishing to be once more as equal and independent as we had been when we were first married, we decided to make an agreement in which we could define our roles our own way.

We wanted to share completely the responsibility for caring for our household and children, by then five and seven. We recognized that we would have to be extremely wary of backsliding into our old domestic habits. If it was my husband’s night to take care of the children, I would have to avoid checking up on how he was managing, and if the babysitter didn’t show up it would be his problem. When our agreement was merely verbal it didn’t work, despite our best intentions, so we wrote it out instead.

Marriage Agreement

i. Principles

We reject the notion that the work which brings in more money is the more valuable. The ability to earn more money is already a privilege which must not be compounded by enabling the larger earner to buy out of his/her duties and put the burden on the one who earns less, or on someone hired from the outside.

As parents, we believe we must share all responsibility for taking care of our children and home — not only the work, but the responsibility. At least during the first year of this agreement, sharing responsibility shall mean dividing the jobs and dividing the time. In principle, jobs should be shared equally, 50-50, but deals may be made by mutual agreement. The schedule may be flexible, but changes must be formally agreed upon.

ii. Job Breakdown and Schedule

a) Children

1. Mornings: Waking children; getting their clothes out, making their lunches; seeing that they have notes, homework, money, passes, books, etc.; brushing their hair; giving them breakfast; making coffee for us. Every other week each parent does all.

2. Transportation: Getting children to and from lessons, doctors, dentists, friends’ houses, park, parties, movies, library, etc. Making appointments. Parts occurring between 3:00 and 6:30 PM fall to wife. Husband does all weekend transportation and pickups after 6.

3. Help: Helping with homework, personal problems, projects like cooking, making gifts, experiments, planting, etc.; answering questions, explaining things. Parts occurring between 3:00 and 6:30 PM fall to wife. After 6, husband does Tuesday, Thursday, and Sunday. Wife does Monday, Wednesday, and Saturday. Friday is split according to who has done extra work during the week.

4. Nighttime: Getting children to take baths, brush their teeth, go to bed, put away their toys and clothes; reading with them; tucking them in and having night-talks; handling if they wake and call in the night. Nighttime (and all Help after 6:30): Husband does Tuesday, Thursday, and Sunday. Wife does Monday, Wednesday, and Saturday. Friday is split according to who has done extra work during the week.

5. Babysitters: Getting babysitters, which sometimes takes an hour of phoning. Sitters must be called by the parent being replaced. If no sitter shows, that parent stays home.

6. Sick care: Calling doctors, checking out symptoms, getting prescriptions filled, remembering to give medicine, taking days off to stay home with sick child; providing special activities. To be worked out, since wife seems to do it all.

7. Weekends: All of the above, plus special activities (beach, park, zoo, etc.). Split equally. Husband is free all day Saturday, wife is free all day Sunday.

b) Housework

8. Cooking: Breakfast, dinners (children, parents, guests). Husband does weekend breakfasts, dinner on Sunday and when he’s on duty if wife is out. Wife does all the rest.

9. Shopping: Food, housewares, children’s clothes and supplies. Divide by convenience.

10. Cleaning: Dishes daily; apartment weekly, bi-weekly, or monthly. Wife does dishes Monday, Wednesday, Saturday; husband Tuesday, Thursday, Sunday. Husband does all house cleaning in exchange for wife’s extra childcare and sick care.

11. Laundry: Home laundry; dry cleaning (take and pick up). Wife does home laundry. Husband takes care of dry cleaning.  

A fuller version of this “Marriage Agreement” first ran in 1970 in the journal Up From Under and is adapted from A Marriage Agreement and Other Essays: Four Decades of Feminist Writing (Open Road Media, 2012).

Alix Kates Shulman’s new novel, Ménage, is also out this year (Other Press).