Today, 16 years and two more children later, deMotier and her partner of 21 years, Jannine Setter, both 44, still don’t struggle too much over who does what, because having someone stay home has always been a priority for them. Besides, Setter’s job tracking inventory at the Boeing Company (she now works at Intel) was more lucrative than the one deMotier held at Airborne Express at the time (today she writes and makes art from home).
But mostly, says Setter, she just didn’t want to stay home. “I simply can’t do what she does,” Setter says. She is sitting with deMotier on the couple’s green couch in the living room of their home in the Hollywood District. Their kids Graeme, 5, Anna, 13, and Duncan, 16, all blood siblings from the same donor father, are down the hall watching a movie and playing on the computer.
“Jannine works 50 to 70 hours a week, so there is no way she can take the kids to their swim lessons or make dinner,” says deMotier. “My mother, who is heterosexual, says that if you accept that both roles are equally valuable, then it’s a whole different ball game. And [Jannine] knows that she couldn’t have this lifestyle without me.”
Setter and deMotier say there has definitely been some fine-tuning to their prescribed roles in the home. While the basics are still in place (Setter does the driving and home repairs; deMotier manages the cooking and gardening), they’ve shifted a bit over who handles the finances. They say it depends mostly on “who has enough room in her life to pay the bills that month.” And deMotier says that as they’ve gotten older, they have been more deliberate about letting go of control. “Whoever does the task gets to make all the decisions about the task,” she says. “If [Jannine] is doing a repair, I don’t need to stand there and micromanage. It’s not good for the relationship.”
Lesbians with whom I spoke who live in households like these, in which one woman has embraced a more traditional role in the home, said people are sometimes surprised that they’re comfortable with the setup. Myra Lavenue, 43, a tech writer at Laika animation studio, says that her partner, Elizabeth Lavenue, works as a part-time voice teacher from their home in Northeast Portland, so, in some cases, it makes sense that Elizabeth would assume responsibilities like cooking dinner or doing laundry.
“It’s funny, because I’ll call home at 4 p.m. to check in, and Elizabeth will say, ‘I just put a chicken in the oven,’” Lavenue says. “And my co-workers are like, ‘Wow, you have a real wife? That is so awesome!’” But, says Lavenue (who was once married to a man), the difference between her situation and that of many of her married coworkers, is that both partners are giving 100 percent all the time. This means divvying up tasks like who picks up their 5-year-old daughter, Aria, from school; who puts her to bed; who does the laundry; and who gives the other a night off to go out and have fun with friends.
And there are always discussions about how to do it better. A lot of discussions. “We are constantly reassessing what’s really necessary,” says Lavenue. “Does the living room need to be picked up every night before bed, or is it better to get more sleep? It’s good to establish the ‘necessary’ stuff and the ‘nice-to-do-if we-have-the-energy’ tasks.”
This kind of communication is a relational style that, according to Nanette Gartrell—a psychiatrist at the University of California at San Francisco who has presided over a 22-year study of lesbian moms, the longest of its kind—may be more common among same-sex couples than among heterosexual ones. According to Gartrell, because division of chores in lesbian households tends to be determined primarily by abilities and preferences, communication about these duties typically unfolds with less defensiveness than it might in male-female households, in which traditional gender roles are often fallen into rather than chosen. “Lesbians do fight, but it’s usually about who’s getting more time with the kids and jealousy issues surrounding the birth mother than who didn’t take out the garbage,” Gartrell says.