Dear Liza,
My wife resents having primary (overwhelming) responsibility for our family’s dinner. I try to help out. I try to be responsible for cooking at least one meal a week and to come home with takeout when we’re both busy. The complication for me is that I work a lot more hours: 40 to 50 to her 16 to 20. What’s fair?
—Feminist Working Stiff

Dear Working Stiff,

It’s hard for couples to discuss the domestic division of labor. Any criticism feels like a failure of our partner’s understanding: How can they not know how hard we work? “When could I have possibly done that?” we mumble inwardly or, in moments when diplomacy fails us, out loud. Worse, any effort to lighten our partner’s workload adds to our own. Yet the situation demands empathy.

It sounds as if you have children still living at home (or other dependents). If your wife is caring for them on top of her part-time job, it’s not surprising that she doesn’t feel she has much more time or energy to cook dinner than you do. Since women’s labor is often invisible to men, she may feel (fairly or unfairly!) that, by assuming she has time to cook, you’re failing to appreciate the hard work of raising kids.

Has your wife historically loved cooking and food? If so, the question is: How can you make this fun for her again? Can you do more of the shopping? You can certainly clean up, Working Stiff. Also, if they’re old enough, encourage the kids to help. In fact, you might consider training them to prepare a few simple meals, eventually making dinner their weekly responsibility.

You could take charge of dinner on the weekends. You could also, on Sunday, make some meals that can be frozen and enjoyed later in the week, like stews, pasta sauces, and soups.

Is your wife a talented cook? Are you? Praise for each other’s culinary efforts, when merited, can make this labor more rewarding.

For some people, cooking is so essential to family life, caregiving, and well-being that it can’t be hacked, even in this age of tandoori-chicken TV dinners. But at least consider the myriad ways of downsizing and outsourcing dinner. I applaud your takeout solution; there are other shortcuts. Kids don’t care how much time or money you spend on a meal. They even like store-bought spaghetti sauce. Just last night, my son gleefully demanded “mac ‘n’ cheese, but with cheese”—a reference to an incident in which your genius advice columnist may have neglected to add the cheese powder to the Annie’s boxed mac ‘n’ cheese.

Dear Liza,

I am a middle-aged professor at a large public university. Call me naive, but I have been shocked to learn that some of my junior colleagues have over six figures in student-loan debt. I am now realizing that it is not just our PhD students who face a lifetime of crushing debt from financing their educations; it is the new generation of young profs, whose starting salaries are, of course, not even close to six figures. I had wondered why they were so disengaged from university controversies. Now I feel guilty for thinking of them as politically conservative nerds. Of course they’re disengaged—they are serfs to the student-loan industry!

How can I be a better colleague to young people in my profession? That is, how do I help change the workplace environment for graduate students and younger colleagues, given what I now know about student-loan debt? My other colleagues really have no clue. Do I try to make them more aware of these junior colleagues’ debt loads, so we can try to create a workplace that accommodates their situations? I don’t want to invade anyone’s privacy or wag my finger at benighted oldsters, but I do think these are the new economic realities of being in the humanities.

—Concerned Humanist

Dear Humanist,

You should enlighten your contemporaries in general terms, without naming your junior colleagues; frame it as a cohort problem of the “rising generation of humanities scholars.” You should also push your senior colleagues to help create a more flexible workplace for the indebted youngsters—for example, by providing more possible pathways for promotion. Some institutions and departments give junior academics additional time off in their first few years to complete the work needed for promotion (which usually means more money) and tenure (job security); organize your fellow “oldsters” to create policies like this, as well as to push for more generous maternity and paternity leave (easing the stress on those just starting families, as many young academics are). And do take responsibility for defying the administration when necessary, Humanist, since you’re right that it’s harder for the precariously positioned serfs to do. Tenure is designed to allow professors to take risks, and with so many scholars politically silenced because of either their debt loads or their disposable status as adjuncts, that risk-taking has now become an obligation for those who can.

Debt is a huge burden for many graduates, and so outside the office we should follow the lead of countless student activists around the world and fight for free higher education. It’s crappy that our system forces people to navigate the Scylla and Charybdis of ignorance and indebtedness.

But until that time, do whatever you can to support graduate-student unions, which can help lower students’ debt by allowing them to make a living wage while in school, as well as raising the floor in the labor market they’ll be entering later. Indeed, supporting all academic unions at your university—for adjuncts and full-time profs as well as grad students—is another great way to improve the workplace for your younger colleagues, as well as being a fine use of your seniority and that of your benighted contemporaries.

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