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Division of Labor: How to Keep a Household Running While Your Spouse is In Training

By Amy Rakowczyk, SDN Staff Writer

One of the biggest challenges that arises during medical school is actually all of the non-medical school “stuff”: namely, household duties and chores. How much help can you expect from your spouse in this regard, and how will you divide up the duties?

Each partnership is different, and what works for one couple may not work for another. To figure out what you and your spouse need, ask yourself the following important questions:

1. What are your priorities for your life and home?
2. What are your expectations for how the household will function and who will be responsible for each task?
3. How do you want to spend your time with your spouse?

Take a moment to think about what your expectations are, what you want or don’t want to be responsible for, and who you think should be in charge of the various tasks. Often, you aren’t actually aware of what your assumptions and expectations are until you sit down and think about it!

Question #3 is of the utmost importance. It will shape your day to day life as a med spouse. The time you have with your partner will sometimes be in short doses with just an hour here and there. With the time they have at home and with you, is it important to you to see your spouse giving service to your home through chores, or do you want to enjoy an activity together without thinking about the household stuff?

After you’ve asked yourself these questions, come together with your spouse to discuss expectations and the division of duties together. Try writing down a list and assigning the duties. That way, you both know what needs to be taken care of and who plans to do it. Please be aware that whatever is decided, and whatever duties your spouse has agreed to take on, you will need to be flexible. Sometimes your spouse will be able to help, and other times they won’t.

Here is the hard truth: regardless of whether you work or not, you will probably end up being in charge of most, if not all, of the household duties. This may include cleaning, cooking, grocery shopping, finances, laundry, phone calls, car maintenance, childcare (if you have children), and other things like organizing trips, social outings, and special events. It’s an incredible amount of responsibility and can be overwhelming!

Beyond the actual chores and duties, there is also the intangible stuff that keeps it all organized. A term called “mental load,” has started to circulate around the internet and you may have seen some articles on this topic.

Here is one article that sums it up nicely.

The reality is that if you and your spouse divide and assign household chores, you may spend a lot of time reminding your spouse to do what’s on their list, and getting frustrated that they haven’t completed the tasks or haven’t completed them in the time frame you have in mind. Keeping track of whether they are following through can actually add more to your plate than if you did it yourself. However, it is also important for both parties to be invested in caring for your home and for the needs of each other. One person cannot take care of all these things and it’s not fair to ask them to!

So, what do you do? You will need to make a system that works for your partnership, in your situation with the personalities you both have.

As a personal example, when my husband was in medical school, I worked full time and during second year, we had our first child (more on having kids in med school HERE). I can recount many moments when we both were so frustrated with each other in regards to household duties. I felt like I was constantly nagging my husband to do things around the house and couldn’t understand why I was automatically responsible for all these things. My husband felt overwhelmed and like he needed to focus on school and not on chores. We tried to have regular assigned duties, but it just wasn’t working for us.

With those challenges in mind, we changed our strategy at the start of residency. I was pregnant with our second child and we mutually decided that I would stay home with the kids. Someone had to run the household while he could focus on residency, so I accepted the job. We clarified our expectations. I said that I would take care of all the things household, kids, family, and friends related and he would focus his energies on work.
He does have dinner with us and helps with our kids’ bedtime routines as much as possible. When he has a block that is less demanding with better hours, he helps more around the house. Additionally, when time permits, he stays with the kids one evening a week so I can have time for myself. (I use this time to attend a local Side By Side group.)

I was very nervous about taking on the role of homemaker and stay-at-home mom. I am a modern woman who enjoys being out of the home. Years of social conditioning hammered in that I not only could do anything I wanted to do, but I should. Add that pressure to our society’s confused notions that the status of a job directly correlates to the worthiness of the person, and I was having a hard time feeling jazzed about “staying at home.”

However, in the same breath, when I sat down and made my list of priorities, the priorities were most feasible with me staying home. For me, when I was working full time, running the house, and doing all the “kid stuff,” I was stressed and felt like I was being pulled in too many directions with too many roles to fill. I was actually incredibly relieved when I didn’t also have to contribute financially to our home.

We are now in PGY-2 and for my family, my staying at home was the best decision we made. Of course, the financial hit is hard, but we have adjusted our spending (more on finances HERE), and it’s worth it for us because our quality of life is so much greater.

I am NOT advocating that others do the same as we have done. You can absolutely work and be a medical spouse. In fact, for some people, volunteering or working to generate income might be exactly the right thing to boost your feeling of self-worth and maintain sanity.

The point is that you have to be honest with yourself about what you need. I’m just offering some realities and some perspectives so that you and your spouse can find something that works for you both. Please find some time to get real about what you both expect and need from each other. Clarify how all the household duties will get done, and how you both need and want to spend your time.

Next month, I’ll share some specific “life-hacks” to help you get from planning and organizing to actually getting stuff done, while minimizing the time you spend. It’s sure to help ease the burden and add some breathing room into your life!

About the Author

Amy Rakowczyk is a medical spouse, mother, writer, singer, and former voice instructor. She currently resides in Galveston, TX with her husband and two young daughters. She enjoys helping other spouses navigate the world of medicine and actively participates in support groups and activities. Her husband is a Family Medicine resident at UTMB Galveston and did his medical training at The Ohio State University. 

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Amy Rakowczyk is a medical spouse, mother, writer, singer, and former voice instructor. She currently resides in Galveston, TX with her husband and tw...