How does the labor gap work for lesbian couples?

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There’s been a lot of talk with Melinda Gates talking about the gender wage gap during her speech at the UN, and you might have heard, in your women’s studies classes, about something called the “second shift.” Essentially, what all these folks are talking about is the second jobs most women take on after being at work all day—the unpaid labor that women are saddled with, making homes livable, making sure everybody has something to eat and shoes to wear. And that’s to say nothing of the emotional labor of cultivating relationships.

The women they are describing, in theory, are the prototypical working women with children who are partnered with men, whose partners fail to cover the gap. Studies show that most men think that they are picking up their half of the “chores and babysitting,” but, in fact, they are not. Times like these are when heterosexuality sounds to me like the worst thing that could happen to a person.

So how does this work for lesbians? Lesbians certainly have kids, and while there may be higher rates of equitable labor in housework and caregiving, it doesn’t mean that there doesn’t wind up being somebody who carries more of the burden. It also isn’t clear exactly who this shake out to be. While there are lots of femmes who feel like they are the Wendys to their masculine-of-center partners Peter Pan (and they wouldn’t necessarily be wrong), there are opportunities for people to take each other for granted all up and down the gender spectrum.

As usual, this is what’s more complicated and potentially interesting about being queer—the usual bullshit doesn’t apply to us, which makes it harder to say what is an average problem and to generalize about the what and why of people’s bad behavior.

What couples counselors/researchers say: If everybody feels like they are doing 70%, then it’s likely that you’re handling things in an equitable way.

Another thing to keep in mind is that equal and equitable labor is not the same thing. A lot of lesbians–who have a lengthy context for wanting things to be 50/50—are of the impression that, in order for things to be fair, you cut them right down the middle. The reality is that most of us don’t come from a place of having the exact same quantity of resources or knowledge.

So what does this mean? In some relationships, people with disparate incomes divide things by percentage rather than concrete numbers (if she makes $30k, and she makes $100k, and they live together, it isn’t actually equitable for them to pay the same amount of money for rent). In other cases, some people have very scarce time, and the other partner will use their more generous time to run errands/pick up around the house/take the dog out. In all these cases, somebody who is scarce in time and money can be a significant presence of emotional support and validation, and this is also really important in relationships.

So here’s what to keep in mind:

Don’t get into a rut.

All of these different setups are ones that can be negotiated, but will need to be re-negotiated over time. Nothing stays the same, and things need to be re-negotiated.

You get to set limits about what you’re willing to negotiate.

Some things you’re willing to share—financial resources? A certain percentage of your free time? Connections with work?

Everybody contributes something.

Whether it’s emotional support, tidying up around the house, money, cool date ideas, what have you. Everybody should be on deck with contributing what they can, but most people don’t begin relationships with the same resources.

So don’t be afraid to negotiate in your relationship, and don’t worry if your set-up doesn’t look like your friends’. Aim for fair over even.

Maria Turner-Carney is a therapist and writer in Seattle. You can follow her at seattlefeministtherapy.com/blog.

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