All of life is labor of one sort or another.
It's good to share the work with someone else. The wedding vows don't include the words "for cleaner, for dirtier, in laundry and recycling," but they should. The division of chores is a balancing act, and each marriage has to achieve its own precarious equilibrium.
Now that he and I have been married more than 40 years, it's impossible to remember how it came to be ordained that I cut the grass and he scrubs the floors. I do remember him trying to learn to iron and my determination to understand individual retirement accounts. Both were epic fails.
He likes to say, "We find our niches in life." Yet part of me rebels against that. I like to think we can be and do whatever we choose, simply by dint of will.
Surely if we put our minds to it, he could remember birthdays and the names of that couple around the corner, and I could repair the dryer and estimate the taxes.
I like to think of this in the same way I like to think I will still learn to in-line skate or speak Russian. (Another of my roles in this union: designated optimist.)
In the giddy early days of marriage, so much was up for grabs. Who went to the laundromat and who to the grocery store wasn't set in stone. He might shovel the snow. I might grill the chicken. In the beginning, chores were like a game. We were still just playing house, and buying a garden rake was romantic.
I will say this: It's fine with me, however it evolved, that I deal with cat fur and he with cat vomit.
Having children complicated things. Speaking of labor. There was no question whose job this was going to be, and yet he enthusiastically prepared to be my coach.
We went to all the classes together, and he was beside me in the birthing room, armed with ice chips and encouragement. When it came time to push, he grabbed his official Lamaze manual and began to read me the directions. Or at least I think he did: My field of vision washed a murderous red.
Suffice it to say, the next two times he quietly hovered on the sidelines, conceding this task to me.
Changing diapers, scrubbing pureed peas off the wall, helping construct dioramas or memorize Spanish vocabulary, driving to track meets and music lessons, and working to pay for it all — we divvied up those chores as best we could.
Now that the girls are adults, we split the ongoing task of worrying. I brood over their relationships, whether they're happy, get enough sleep and eat enough protein. He frets about their careers and whether they're paying more rent than they can afford.
After all these years, have we come out even? Have we divided the labor equally? I'm pretty sure I've done more work than he has. I'm even pretty sure he would agree.
For all the goodwill and best intentions, there have been plenty of times I fumed over the endless, never-done details of housekeeping and child-rearing that fell, somehow, to me. (I'm pretty sure I still worry more too.)
For anyone keeping track, statistics support that despite all of society's changes, wives and mothers still do more of the daily work than husbands and fathers. How this continues to be the case is a dismal mystery. Let us pause for a communal sigh.
Yet I'll go out on a retro-limb and say keeping score is sometimes a mistake.
Years ago, when the girls were still very young, I came down with the flu. Part of a mother's job is never getting sick, but I was laid so low all I could do was creep into bed and moan.
I remember the girls coming to say goodbye before they left for school. They had milk mustaches and their hair stood on end. The littlest wore her pajama top and shorts. They patted my cheek and smoothed my blanket, delighted to turn the tables and be my nurses. He appeared in the doorway, late for work, bearing a mug of tea.
I was sure the girls didn't have their homework, and who knew what was in their lunchboxes. The cat was no doubt lapping the milk from their cereal bowls, which any second now would clatter to the floor.
Didn't somebody have a dentist appointment today?
But there was nothing I could do except lie there, letting them tenderly minister to me.
That day, my side of the work equation was a zero. Our rumpled family went forth into the world and later rushed home to see how I was. He shepherded the children away so I could rest, then brought me fresh pillows and more tea.
Later I heard their distant voices around the dinner table, the splash of bathwater, his voice reading stories. I drifted back to sleep, knowing all would be well.
That day, and every other time I've needed him to, he did it all. As we grow old together, knowing we can count on one another to be there, no matter what, is beyond any reckoning.
It is what's called the labor of love.