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Division of Labor and Caramel Sauce

This morning I opened my pantry to find the caramel sauce sitting upright beside an empty jam jar. A flicker of recognition passed through my brain because this discovery confirmed my long-held belief about couples fighting over household division of labor.

My belief is based on different people’s predisposition to notice visual details. In other words,

“Who didn’t put the caramel sauce back where it goes – in the jam jar?”

bottle of caramel cleverly stored upside down

The bottle is almost empty and, caramel sauce being such a viscous liquid, we store it upside down so the caramel will be easier to pour. Because the bottle has a pour spout, it’s unable to balance on its lid. Thus the jam jar. The caramel sauce lives upside down, nestled in the jar which keeps it perfectly upright and ready to be poured. It’s a genius solution if I do say so myself!

I don’t use the caramel sauce. I’m more of a hot fudge lady. But the other members of my family do and before we discovered this upside down storage trick, I witnessed them shaking and squeezing the bottle, waiting for the thick syrup to make its way to the opening of its bottle. Waiting is annoying and storing the bottle in a jam jar saves them a little bit of heartache during a moment which should be pure joy – preparing their perfect ice cream sundae!

Who cares about a bottle of caramel sauce?

Good question. 

Neat vs Messy

This bottle helps illustrate my suspicion that your housemates aren’t sabotaging your organizing efforts on purpose! Just because the men in my house are the ones who eat the caramel sauce, who benefit from its being stored upside down, and who exclusively handle the sauce, doesn’t mean they will remember to put the bottle back into its home in the jar. Even when the jar is RIGHT BESIDE THE BOTTLE on the shelf.

This realization may frustrate you a lot if you are carrying the mental load of all the housework and trying to keep your home tidy. But I’m presenting it as a way to find a positive perspective about the messy people in our lives. They have other strengths. Putting things back where they belong every time isn’t one of them.

Their deficit in this area doesn’t mean they never have to put their things away. It means if you are a tidy person, you may be called on to offer them grace when they miss something. 

A person who doesn’t notice details is not going to see the clutter I see. They just aren’t. So instead of being frustrated at them for overlooking items which seem obvious to me. I remind myself that the items aren’t bothering them. They are only bothering me. So if I want them picked up/straightened up/organized I can do it myself, for myself. Or I can leave their stuff out of place and move along.
Sometimes I can do that, no problem. Sometimes I can’t. Sometimes I just can’t leave the mess because of my own needs for order and cleanliness. And that’s when I pick their stuff up even though it’s not my mess. In the case of the caramel sauce, flipping the bottle over and placing it in the jam jar took about 1.2 seconds of my time.

Whichever path I chose is my decision. Take ownership of this fact. Be aware of your own mood and workload. Do what feels right for you right now. Don’t do something because you should, or because you are resentful, or to fan the flames of your own unhappiness. Take care of yourself so you can have love for the people you live with as well.

Division of Labor Decisions

When the chores of household labor are being divided, people must be allowed to choose tasks they are naturally good at. Tidying up is not a great choice for people who aren’t detail oriented. They can do it, sure. But I find it less distressing for everyone when the person with the highest tidiness standard does that chore. Otherwise, that tidy person will go behind the other person, re-doing it the way they want and both people will feel grumpy. 

This doesn’t mean I do everything. It means I do the detail-oriented chores. There are PLENTY of other things to be done! Communicate with your housemates and establish systems where everyone has ownership of projects they are skilled at noticing, remembering, starting, and finishing. The same is true when it comes to doing creative household labor tasks. One adult in your family is probably more skilled at finding solutions to problems than the other adult. Let them take charge of those chores! 

Dividing the labor of running a home is worth the time and effort. Getting mad about your roommate walking over a pile of clothes on the living room floor is normal – AND justified. But fighting and nagging them to do something they aren’t predisposed to notice is a recipe for heartache.

Examples of Chore Division

Regular, objective maintenance items are things on a set schedule or with a set routine like: 

  • oil changes in the cars
  • Making breakfast every morning
  • Making coffee for everyone
  • changing filters and smoke detector batteries 
  • taking out the trash every night
  • doing their laundry every Sunday 
  • emptying the dishwasher every morning
  • Paying bills or your hired household help

On the other hand, detail-oriented chores look like: 

  • finding all of the dirty dishes to load into the dishwasher 
  • going around the house picking up stray toys and clothes 
  • making a grocery list 
  • tidying the bathroom counters 
  • Scheduling health appointments 
  • Scheduling household help

Creative labor also needs to happen. Here are some examples:

  • Planning trips and vacations
  • Meal planning
  • Preparing dinner
  • shopping for groceries
  • Buying gifts
  • Financial planning
  • Clothes shopping for children
  • Finding coaches, tutors
  • Hiring household help

Take Stock and Make a Plan

If you are routinely frustrated by your family or roommates’ lack of action around the house, take a look at the division of labor and see how you can work together to give everyone responsibilities at which they are likely to succeed. 
Once you’ve settled into your roles, hopefully a little thing like caramel sauce being in the wrong place will upset you less.

Thanks for reading.


Have you seen Fair Play, a movie by the Representation Project about ALL THE THINGS women do to keep a home running. It’s very, very good.

Read more about chores for your kids in my 5-part series.