Like many couples, Sophie Morris and her husband rely heavily on various forms of technology to keep their family life in order
Living our very best lives in Spain on the longest trip we’ve had away without our daughter in seven years - three nights!! When we got back she said we can’t go away again.
If only I had a pound, or perhaps a tenner, for every time my husband has asked: “Is it in the calendar?” Sometimes I daydream that he physically relocates to live in our shared online calendar. At least this would give him the optimum vantage point of our virtual diary, so he could see when I’m accidentally scheduling an upcoming social event in 2026.
Like many couples, we now rely heavily on various forms of technology to keep our relationship on the rails. But this was something I was really resistant to early on. I protested. Surely it’s unsexy to schedule our movements? I was young(ish), free, spontaneous. I wanted to let our relationship be characterised by impromptu dawn airport collections (him) and extravagant mid-afternoon picnics and pub visits (me). Who cares if we’ve double-booked friends and family? We’re in love. They’ll understand.
Yet here I am, a decade on, running close to the full gamut of Google apps to manage myself, my husband, a house, one child, and a dog. Our spreadsheets track costs and plans, DIY and dreams, aspirations and arguments. Add to this two or three unreliable messaging systems forced upon us by school, and some days I’m not sure if the volume and velocity of nudges and notifications is helping me or suffocating me. I am but a puddle of infantile brain matter incapable of doing the pickup or worming the dog without being instructed to by the calendar.
From calendars to spreadsheets to Slack, many of us are turning to tech to manage the unmanageable flood of information needed to survive the 21st century plague, being busy. Two jobs, young children, ageing parents, social lives, exercise, home management. Although it seems like a practical step, is this not the corporatisation of our private lives? The HR-ification of domestic drudgery? Admittedly, in times past, couples usually featured a woman to take care of all of these jobs under the umbrella of stay-at-home parent. Today, tech is stepping into the void to help us to share the mental load and make invisible labour visible to all.
As it happens, my husband organises sloppy habits out of people for a living, whether it’s a last century approach to tech, or efficiency and productivity problems. But I still hate the idea that my spare time or romantic engagements are organised in any format that resembles work, whether meetings, “windows”, or pencilling things in. Isn’t it impersonal? I even questioned a friend when she sent me a business meeting invite for a drink we’d spent many messages arranging, which she then blamed on her own husband’s clumsy use of their family calendar.
“Our lives are so busy, and we’re using our phones more and more, so it seems a logical place to keep your life organised,” says Dee Holmes, a Relate counsellor who has managed her own 30-odd-year marriage through a series of offline calendars and diaries. “I suppose where a problem might arise is with different abilities – if one of the couple isn’t using it as it’s supposed to be. You have to be able to trust it, and trust it’s up to date.”
I ask a group of female friends how they manage their “lifemin”, and return from boiling the kettle to 102 messages. One friend uses a shared calendar, plus a paper calendar and a whiteboard they affectionately term the “organisation station”. Isn’t the online calendar effective enough? “Let’s just say one of our party doesn’t use it as much as the other one,” she says. Others use apps they use at work, such as Slack, Evernote and Trello, which then cross over into the home.
“We have the FamCal app,” says another friend (married with two children). “A shared calendar, to do lists, shopping lists etc. Everything is on there – we stick it on and then discuss if there’s a clash. It’s worked really well for us for years. Obviously I didn’t instigate it [her husband is a financial strategist] but we both use it all the time for pretty much everything.”
“Lists alone don’t work; systems do,” writes Eve Rodsky in Fair Play: Share the mental load, rebalance your relationship and transform your life, her 2021 guidebook to a more equitable home life. “I’d consulted with hundreds of families in my professional life by providing my expertise in organisational management strategy. [I thought] what if I applied these strategies in the domestic sphere? By treating the home as our most important organisation, wouldn’t [it] run more smoothly?”
However, there is a hitch here, while most people I speak to have a shared calendar, it’s only me and the FamCal friend who had theirs suggested by the man in the partnership. In almost all cases, it’s a woman who is trying to show what she does and claw something back for herself.
In this sense, Rodsky’s dream is surely to gift women “the unencumbered mind” most of us will never take to work – “a Woolfian mental shed of one’s own”, a “she-shed” where we can reclaim “autonomy of mind”? But in reality, it’s never gonna happen. I spent most of last week’s yoga wondering if I could race to Aldi before work. If I could game these Google “workplace” apps to get my husband to do more, I’m in. It’s not that he shirks family responsibilities, rather the usual story of needing a weekly power point presentation in what these myriad responsibilities might be.
Aside from the gender imbalance, there is another thing that irks me about these systems.
Deep down, I fear being managed. Yes, the whole point of these systems is an efficiency-hack, to help people manage the sort of intolerably complex lives where a single eye appointment involves a phone call, two emails and three reminder notifications. But I ask Dee if too much scheduling can get in the way of real conversation and connection. She warns against letting tech stand in for genuine communication and verbal agreement on how couples spend their time. “You do need to have conversations, especially when arranging things on behalf of the family, and this is an area that can cause conflict,” she says.
What about scheduling date sessions, or even sex? “I know from years of counselling that people often forget to spend time as a couple. When you say they need to schedule that in, they look at you horrified, saying that’s so businesslike, it takes the romance out of it. But if you start to schedule things in, it can become a habit. It’s not unromantic. I say to couples that when those reminders for time together, even for a cup of tea, pop up, if you don’t want to do or dread those things, that’s when you need to look at your relationship.”
She also points out that sharing your movements online is a risk in abusive relationships or with stalkers. “It’s about informed consent, not something which makes you feel you’re being watched or tagged all the time.”
Persia Lawson, a dating and relationship coach and author, says that while she and her husband run a tech-free diary, she is intrigued by the potential benefits. But she points out that communicating well is more important than whether you communicate via calendar or carrier pigeon. “It’s about knowing your strengths as a couple,” she explains. So if you want to try something new, such as implementing a new diary system, she suggests giving it a proper trial for three months, before evaluating how it’s going for both of you.
“Let’s be honest, it’s not sexy, but admin and all that stuff isn’t sexy. If it saves you stress and time, why not? If it serves elsewhere in life, why not relationships?”
Much to my displeasure, I am now shocked how anyone can manage family life without a shared calendar. Those who do tend to have the same repeating roles each week, or the woman manages the majority of the child and school-based admin. One of the reasons I gave in, and then came to celebrate, our shared scheduling support, is because it allows for a more flexible and balanced system in our relationship. That said, our work commitments vary from week to week where for other couples the rhythm remains constant.
Much more importantly, I feel, It also keeps many of the boring but vital conversations about who’s doing what, when, off the table – actual or otherwise. Obviously, we still discuss things. I’ll check before slinging in work nights away, or hold the space in the diary before my husband claims it. If this seems like a burden, trust me, it is far less time-consuming than scrolling back through hundreds of messages trying to find who claimed what night off first and why it’s definitely their turn to attend a children’s party. The point is, it’s not set in stone.