Monday, March 18, 2013

Alix Kates Shulman

A Marriage Agreement
by Alix Kates Shulman Redbook, August 1971.

When my husband and I were first married, a decade ago, keeping house was less a burden than a game. We both worked full-time in New York City, so our small apartment stayed empty most of the day and taking care of it was very little trouble. Twice a month we’d spend Saturday cleaning and doing our laundry at the laundromat. We shopped for food together after work, and though I usually did the cooking, my husband was happy to help. Since our meals were simple and casual, there were few dishes to wash. We occasionally had dinner out and usually ate breakfast at a diner near our offices. We spent most of our free time doing things we enjoyed together, such as taking long walks in the evenings and spending weekends in Central Park. Our domestic life was beautifully uncomplicated.

When our son was born, our domestic life suddenly became quite complicated; and two years later, when our daughter was born, it became impossible. We automatically accepted the traditional sex roles that society assigns. My husband worked all day in an office; I left my job and stayed at home, taking on almost all the burdens of housekeeping and child raising.

When I was working I had grown used to seeing people during the day, to having a life outside the home. But now I was restricted to the company of two demanding preschoolers and to the four walls of an apartment. It seemed unfair that while my husband’s life had changed little when the children were born, domestic life had become the only life I had.

I tried to cope with the demands of my new situation, assuming that other women were able to handle even larger families with ease and still find time for themselves. I couldn’t seem to do that.

We had to move to another apartment to accommodate our larger family, and because of the children, keeping it reasonably neat took several hours a day. I prepared half a dozen meals every day for from one to four people at a time – and everyone ate different food. Shopping for this brood – or even just running out for a quart of milk – meant putting on snowsuits, boots and mittens; getting strollers or carriages up and down the stairs; and scheduling the trip so it would not interfere with one of the children’s feeding or nap or illness or some other domestic job. Laundry was now a daily chore. I seemed to be working every minute of the day – and still there were dishes in the sink; still there wasn’t time enough to do everything.

Even more burdensome that the physical work of housekeeping was the relentless responsibility I had for my children. I loved them, but the seemed to be taking over my life. There was nothing I could do, or even contemplate, without first considering how they would be affected. As they grew older, just answering their constant questions ruled out even a private mental life. I had once enjoyed reading, but now if there was a moment free, instead of reading for myself, I read to them. I wanted to work on my own writing, but there simply weren’t enough hours in the day. I had no time for myself; the children were always there.

As my husband’s job began keeping him at work later and later – and sometimes taking him out of town – I missed his help and companionship. I wished he would come home at six o’clock and spend time with the children so they could know him better. I continued to buy food with him in mind and dutifully set his place at the table. Yet sometimes whole weeks would go by without his having dinner with us. When he did get home the children often were asleep, and we both were too tired ourselves to do anything but sleep.

We accepted the demands of his work as unavoidable. Like most couples, we assumed that the wife must accommodate to the husband’s schedule, since it is his work that brings in the money.

As the children grew older I began free-lance editing at home. I felt I had to squeeze it into my “free” time and not allow it to interfere with my domestic duties or the time I owed my husband – just as he felt he had to squeeze in time for the children during weekends. We were both chronically dissatisfied, but we knew no solutions.

After I had been home with the children for six years I began to attend meetings of the newly formed Women’s Liberation Movement in New York City. At these meetings I began to see that my situation was not uncommon; other women too felt drained and frustrated as housewives and mothers. When we started to talk about how we would have chosen to arrange our lives, most of us agreed that even though we might have preferred something different, we had never felt we had a choice in the matter. We realized that we had slipped into full domestic responsibility simply as a matter of course, and it seemed unfair.

When I added them up, the chores I was responsible for amounted to a hectic 6 A.M. – 9 P.M. (often later) job, without salary, breaks or vacation. No employer would be able to demand these hours legally, but most mothers take them for granted – as I did until I became a feminist.

For years mothers like me have acquiesced to the strain of the preschool years and endless household maintenance without any real choice. Why, I asked myself, should a couple’s decision to have a family mean that the woman must immerse years of her life in their children? And why should men like my husband miss caring for and knowing their children?

Eventually, after an arduous examination of our situation, my husband and I decided that we no longer had to accept the sex roles that had turned us into a lame family. Out of equal parts love for each other and desperation at our situation, we decided to re-examine the patterns we had been living by, and starting again from scratch, to define our roles for ourselves.

We began by agreeing to share completely all responsibility for raising our children (by then aged five and seven) and caring for our household. If this new arrangement meant that my husband would have to change his job or that I would have to do more free-lance work or that we would have to live on a different scale, than we would. It would be worth it if it could make us once again equal, independent and loving as we had been when we were first married.

Simply agreeing verbally to share domestic duties didn’t work, despite our best intentions. And when we tried to divide them “spontaneously,” we ended up following the traditional patterns. Our old habits were too deep-rooted. So we sat down and drew up a formal agreement, acceptable to both of us, that clearly defined the responsibilities we each had.

It may sound a bit formal, but it has worked for us. Here it is:


I. Principles

We reject the notion that the work which brings in more money is more valuable. The ability to earn more money is a privilege which must not be compounded by enabling the larger earner to buy out of his/her duties and put the burden either on the partner who earns less or on another person hired from outside.

We believe that each partner has an equal right to his/her own time, work, value, choices. As long as all duties are performed, each of us may use his/her extra time any way he/she chooses. If he/she wants to use it making money, fine. If he/she wants to spend it with spouse, fine. If not, fine.

As parents we believe we must share all responsibility for taking care of our children and home – not only the work but also the responsibility. At least during the first year of this agreement, sharing responsibility shall mean dividing the jobs and dividing the time.

In principle, jobs should be shared equally, 50-50, but deals may be made by mutual agreement. If jobs and schedule are divided on any other than a 50-50 basis, then at any time either party may call for a re-examination and redistribution of jobs or a revision of the schedule. Any deviation from 50-50 must be for the convenience of both parties. If one party works overtime in any domestic job, he/she must be compensated by equal extra work by the other. The schedule may be flexible, but changes must be formally agreed upon. The terms of this agreement are rights and duties, not privileges and favors.

II. Job Breakdown and Schedule
(A) Children

1. Mornings: Waking children; getting their clothes out; making their lunches; seeing that they have notes, homework, money, bus passes, books; brushing their hair; giving them breakfast (making coffee for us). Every other week each parent does all.

2. Transportation: Getting children to and from lessons, doctors, dentists (including making appointments), friends’ houses, park, parties, movies, libraries. Parts occurring between 3 and 6 P.M. fall to wife. She must be compensated by extra work from husband (see 10 below). Husband does all weekend transportation and pickups after 6.

3. Help: Helping with homework, personal problems, projects like cooking, making gifts, experiments, planting; answering questions; explaining things. Parts occurring between 3 and 6 P.M. fall to wife. After 6 P.M. husband does Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday; wife does Monday, Wednesday and Saturday. Friday is free for whoever has done extra work during the week.

4. Nighttime (after 6 P.M.): Getting children to take baths, brush their teeth, put away their toys and clothes, go to bed; reading with them; tucking them in and having nighttime talks; handling if they wake or call in the night. Husband does Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday. Wife does Monday, Wednesday and Saturday. Friday is split according to who has done extra work during the week.

5. Baby sitters: Getting baby sitters (which sometimes takes an hour of phoning). Baby sitters must be called by the parent the sitter is to replace. If no sitter turns up, that parent must stay home.

6. Sick care: Calling doctors; checking symptoms; getting prescriptions filled; remembering to give medicine; taking days off to stay home with sick child; proving special activities. This must still be worked out equally, since now wife seems to do it all. […] In any case, wife must be compensated (see 10 below).

7. Weekends: All usual child care, plus special activities (beach, park, zoo). Split equally. Husband is free all Saturday, wife is free all Sunday.

(B) Housework

8. Cooking: Breakfast; dinner (children, parents, guests). Breakfasts during the week are divided equally; husband does all weekend breakfasts (including shopping for them and dishes). Wife does all dinners except Sunday nights. Husband does Sunday dinner and any other dinners on his nights of responsibility if wife isn’t home. Whoever invites guests does shopping, cooking and dishes; if both invite them, split work.)

9. Shopping: Food for all meals, housewares, clothing and supplies for children. Divide by convenience. Generally, wife does local daily food shopping; husband does special shopping for supplies and children’s things.

10. Cleaning: Dishes daily; apartment weekly, bi-weekly or monthly. Husband does dishes Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday. Wife does Monday, Wednesday and Saturday. Friday is split according to who has done extra work during week. Husband does all the house cleaning in exchange for wife’s extra child care (3-6 daily) and sick care.

11. Laundry: Home laundry, making beds, dry cleaning (take and pick up). Wife does home laundry. Husband does dry-cleaning delivery and pickup. Wife strips beds, husband remakes them.

Our agreement changed our lives. Surprisingly, once we had written it down, we had to refer to it only two or three times. But we still had to work to keep the old habits from intruding. If it was my husband’s night to take care of the children, I had to be careful not to check up on how he was managing. And if the baby sitter didn’t show up for him, I would have to remember it was his problem.

Eventually the agreement entered our heads, and now, after two successful years of following it, we find that our new roles come to us as readily as the old ones had. I willingly help my husband clean the apartment (knowing it is his responsibility) and he often helps me with the laundry or the meals. We work together and trade off duties with ease now that the responsibilities are truly shared. We each have less work, more hours together and less resentment.

Before we made our agreement I had never been able to find time to finish even one book. Over the past two years I’ve written three children’s books, a biography and a novel and edited a collection of writings (all will have been published by spring of 1972). Without our agreement I would never have been able to do this.

At present my husband works a regular 40-hour week, and I write at home during the six hours the children are in school. He earns more money now than I do, so his salary covers more of our expenses than the money I make with my free-lance work. But if either of us should change jobs, working hours or income, we would probably adjust our agreement.

Perhaps the best testimonial of all to our marriage agreement is the change that has taken place in our family life. One day after it had been in effect for only four months our daughter said to my husband, “You know, Daddy, I used to love Mommy more than you, but now I love you both the same.”

Raised in Cleveland, Ohio, Alix attended public schools and planned to be a lawyer like her dad. But in college at Case Western Reserve University she was smitten by philosophy and upon graduation moved to New York City to study philosophy at Columbia grad school. After some years as an encyclopedia editor, she enrolled at New York University, where she took a degree in mathematics, and later, while raising two children, an MA in Humanities.

She became a civil rights activist in 1961 and a feminist activist in 1967, published her first book in 1970, and taught her first class in 1973--all lifelong pursuits that have found their way into her books.

Having explored in her novels the challenges of youth and midlife, in her memoirs she has probed the later stages in the ongoing drama of her generation of women, taking on the terrors and rewards of solitude, of her parents' final years, and of her late-life calling as caregiver to her beloved husband, with whom she lives in New York City.

Now she has returned to fiction. Both her fifth novel and a new collection of her essays were published in spring 2012.


In the 1960s she became a political activist--in the civil rights, anti-war, and feminist movements.

A member of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), she named the NYC theater arts chapter, "7-Arts CORE." With them she attended the 1963 March on Washington, where, with hundreds of thousands, she saw Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. give his "I have a dream" speech.

She protested the Vietnam War in the 1960s, both by counseling draftees on their rights and at countless demonstrations. In the mid-1980s, as a visiting professor at the Univ. of Colorado, Boulder, she attended weekly prayer vigils at the nearby Rocky Flats nuclear weapons facility.

In 1967, she joined the new Women's Liberation Movement (WLM), becoming a member of the early groups New York Radical Women, Redstockings, WITCH, and New York Radical Feminists. Her activism on behalf of women's equality has ranged widely, from helping to plan the first national demonstration of women's liberation, the 1968 Miss America Pageant Protest in Atlantic City; advocating to make and keep abortion legal through speak-outs and demonstrations; organizing a Hawaii branch of the reproductive rights protest group No More Nice Girls; to working with the political action group Take Back the Future; and in 2012, as a member of the Occupy movement's women's caucus, Women Occupying Wall St (WOW), she helped plan the first four Feminist General Assemblies.

On behalf of seniors, she was on the board of THEA (The House of Elder Artists), a group trying to establish a retirement community for working artists and activists. She advocates for people with severely disabling brain diseases, like TBI, Alzheimer's, and other dementias, and their 15 million unpaid caregivers in the United States.


Alix began writing stories and essays in the late 1960s. First, as a mother of young children to whom she read scores of children's books, some good, some bad, she thought she could do better than some of them and started writing her own. Soonafter she started writing for adults. She has written fourteen books--
five novels:
Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen
Burning Questions
On the Stroll
In Every Woman's Life...
three memoirs:
Drinking the Rain
A Good Enough Daughter
To Love What Is: A Marriage Transformed
selected essays:
A Marriage Agreement and Other Essays: Four Decades of Feminist Writing
two books on the anarchist-feminist Emma Goldman:
To the Barricades (biography)
Red Emma Speaks (collection)
and three books for children:
Bosley on the Number Line
Awake and Asleep
Finders Keepers.

Her stories and essays have appeared in such publications as The Nation, The Guardian, Salon, The NY Times, The Women's Review of Books, Michigan Quarterly Review, Dissent, Tikkun, The Atlantic, Lilith, The Sun, Parade, Ms., n+1.

Her books have been published in twelve languages, and all of her books for adults are currently available, some in paper and all as ebooks.


Alix has taught writing and literature at New York University, The New School, Yale, the Universities of Colorado, Arizona, Southern Maine, and Hawaii, where she held the Citizen's Chair. She leads writing workshops and has lectured widely throughout the United States. Recently she taught a master class at New York University's Graduate Writing Program on the topic "Fiction or Memoir: How to Choose."


In 1979 Alix was awarded the DeWitt Wallace/Readers Digest Fellowship; in 1982 she was a visiting artist at the American Academy in Rome; in 1983 she received a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in fiction; in 1982-4 she was VP of the PEN American Center; in 1998 she was a fellow at the Rockefeller Foundation Center in Bellagio, Italy; in 2000 she received the Woman 2000 Trailblazer Award from the Mayor of Cleveland; in 2001 she was awarded an honorary doctorate from Case Western Reserve University; and in 2010 she received the American Jewish Press Association's Simon Rockower Award. She is listed in Feminists Who Changed America, 1963-1975 (2006) and in Who's Who in America.

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