The family that rakes together… (iStock)

My husband and I got into a fight recently. About the laundry. It was a heated version of the fight we have been having for years now, since becoming parents, an argument that manifests with different melodies and harmonies but which always reduces to a variation on the same theme: our distribution of domestic labor. Who is doing what. Who is doing it when. And, of course, who is doing more.

A few weeks after this fight, I was asked what advice I might give to couples attempting to keep their relationship strong as they scale the frontier of new parenthood. Bearing in mind the exchange with my husband, I felt compelled to answer, with some emphasis: resist the urge to keep score. By which I meant don’t treat life after baby as a competition between you and your partner over who is suffering the most—from sleep deprivation, from the endless cycle of demands, from the vacuum-like suck of time.

And yet, as with virtually all parenting advice, this is easier said than done. For even though I am not the tallying type by nature, it is score-keeping with regard to childcare and household duties that has proved, more than anything else, the Achilles heel of my marriage.

A new Pew Research Center survey, which analyzes how working parents divvy tasks when it comes to raising kids and running a household, leads me to believe I am not alone. The report focuses, in part, on the way mothers and fathers perceive “sharing the load” with their co-parents. It does not address the actual amount of work being done by each partner nor how either feels about the perceived split.

In terms of the health of a couple’s relationship, however, the last point is probably the most important. The results of the survey indicate that mothers are still doing more of the domestic labor across the board, irrespective of whether they are employed full-time, part-time or are “stay-at-home” parents—and this is indeed noteworthy for our understanding of the state of marital equality. But what really matters to marital harmony (an admittedly different beast), it seems, is a woman’s emotional reaction to this fact.

No matter how wildly uneven the division of chores, in other words, if both partners are content with it, deep-down content, a more congenial dynamic will ensue, equality be damned. I know many women, for example, who work full-time and also do the lion’s share of the domestic duties—the infamous so-called “second shift”—but who genuinely prefer it this way for a variety of reasons. While it is an arrangement that doesn’t appeal to me personally, the truth is these couples have less tension in their marriages than I do, even though my husband and I have an objectively more balanced split.

The conclusion of a Norwegian study on divorce rates explains the phenomenon: “Sharing equal responsibility for work in the home doesn’t necessarily contribute to contentment.”

My husband and I have never quite been content on the housework front, at least not since we had children. We started our existence as parents with fairly well-defined roles: I was a stay-at-home mother and he was the full-time breadwinner. He paid the bills; I knew what size shoes our kids wore and when they were due for their next dental appointment. And still we fought. Usually when he believed he was doing too much childcare and cleaning and when I believed what he considered too much was tantamount to being an involved father and an egalitarian husband.

As a full-time mother, I reluctantly did the bulk of the housework, especially the chores that stemmed from the children themselves, e.g. tidying up toys. On balance, rightly or wrongly, I accepted this was a legitimate aspect of the “job.” When I became a part-time working mother, however, I found myself much more likely to query exactly where the intersection between childcare and housework lies: for while I remain mostly happy to be the “lead” parent in terms of spending time with—and organizing—our kids, I am far less amenable now to being the “lead” laundry doer.

The laundry is a particular sticking point for us. It is at once a very real thing (the amount of dirty clothes generated by four children is rather astonishing) and also a metaphor—substitute in here whatever domestic bone of contention flares up repeatedly between you and your partner. So too the money I make—or don’t make, as the case may be—as a freelance writer matters to my husband in this respect, as I imagine it does for many when they calculate which person in a couple is responsible for which duties.

According to him, because I earn less money (significantly less), I therefore have more domestic responsibility (significantly more), despite the fact that my career takes up a lot of my time and attention. Part of me sees where he is coming from; a larger part of me thinks it is a crude and unreconstructed way to conceive of our situation. This is what spurred our recent fight: the notion that I wasn’t “pulling my weight” around the house (still, apparently, my domain), in comparison to what he was accomplishing out of the house (in his domain).

It was an assessment that, of course, drove me crazy. And caused me immediately to begin compiling lists in my head, lists I wanted to shove down my husband’s throat, of all the unseen things I did that week (school forms, birthday presents, classroom events!), though the laundry might not have been one of them. Or of all the things I did the week before, even though the living room, right then, looked like a bomb site. In the heat of this frenzied score keeping, I couldn’t help but wonder: would my husband and I be better off if we logged every item and pitted them against each other in some sort of grand reckoning? Would that make either of us, ultimately, less resentful?

For some couples, the answer might very well be yes. At least as an initial vehicle for illuminating who is legitimately overstretched and in what capacity. But for other relationships, including my own, I am increasingly convinced it is our attitudes towards each other that need to change more than our to-do lists.

It’s easy to see where the desire to draw comparisons between co-parents comes from and why the Pew Research Center survey is important, especially with regard to gender equality and women in the workplace. On a smaller scale, though, I’m not exactly sure what the data mean for the quality of our individual marriages, with their manifold idiosyncrasies and unique gaps between perception and reality. And while it might feel unseemly, in certain scenarios, to condone an uneven domestic split, surely there is something to the idea, as one sociologist put it, that “in a good relationship people simply don’t know who does what and don’t particularly care.”

In an era when there will always be more tasks in a day than time in which to complete them, one thing the Pew report was clear on is that mothers and fathers are both wrestling fiercely with their work-life balance. Given this reality, the couples I know who are happiest are those who operate with a deep-seated sense of teamwork—whatever form that may take—and a steady stream of empathy. My husband and I have settled on a fix for the laundry, but our resolution goes beyond that. What we really need to do, it seems, is stop harping on what hasn’t been done by the other person—and start making every effort to appreciate all that has.

Lauren Apfel is a writer and mother of four (including twins). She blogs at omnimom.net and is the debate editor for Brain, Child Magazine. Connect with her on Twitter and Facebook.

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