While in conversation about the difficulties of traveling spouses, a friend piped up and rather nonchalantly said it would matter not if her husband were out of town each week, since she takes care of everything in the home.
Now this was mind bending to me, thought to be a long dead concept of gender roles in marriage. Of course, I was raised by a single father who worked hard for our living, and did the bulk of the house chores, while his little people learned the ways of the home (mostly me, mostly I learned the ways of the home 🙂
But apparently, the traditional gender norms weren’t buried in the 50s like I thought and serve many families well, because that friend liked that she and her husband’s roles were so well defined.
So Why Couldn’t I Fit the Definition
Looking to Louisa May Alcott’s book Little Women for answers, I was struck wild by the gender fluidity of her characters. The first printing of the book was in 1868 and Marmee, the mother character said things like, “Feminine weaknesses and fainting spells are the direct result of our confining young girls to the house, bent over their needlework, and restrictive corsets.”
The father, though off fighting in the civil war, is said to have been tender and kind, with a patient and cheerful disposition – a model of how to deal with life’s uncertainties, Marmee says.
It’s not surprising with a mother who struggled with anger and believed women should be trained to both work inside and outside the home, and a father who was emotionally available, that they would have four very different girls. From Meg, a proper woman who worked as a governess, to Jo March, who was content being alone, ambitious with her writing, and a fearless advocate for women’s rights, these little women challenged what it meant to be a female in the 19th century and presented a more fluid definition of the sexes.
And yet, one hundred and fifty years later, we’re still having the same discussions about what a woman should be…in marriage, as a parent, and as an individual. Yet there are few discussions about what a man should be, so long as he makes a lot of money.
And…And…And. I want to scream ENOUGH.
I am a woman, a mother, a wife, and I have fewer skills in the home than my husband. A product of my raising, I was expected to hold my own in a house full of males. And I did, with strong opinions, quick comebacks, and the occasional uppercut.
My domestic skill level is basic at best, and I prefer to have the excuse to work outside the home, so I don’t have to obsess about the dust inside. Like Jo March in the book, I’m a restless dreamer who builds “castles in the sky” with words, hoping to one day publish my novels – My backup plan is to tend the library at an elementary school.
And Although I’m Strong, I’ve felt inferior most of my life.
I’m insecure in a fixed set of norms because I don’t fit in. Sure this could stem from my mother not being around to teach me her feminine ways, but my earliest memory is of her forcing me to wear a fluffy Easter dress, and me throwing a fit. So it’s possible I came out of the womb an obstinate non-conformist.
Even so, I compare myself with the ideal homemakers who thrive in domestic life and are at peace with not working or earning their own money, and I fall short. I’ve felt guilty for my ambition, for working on my books instead of cleaning house, or volunteering for good causes. And I’ve been ashamed by this secret: my other half is 50 percent of the reason why our home is as tidy as it is. You know, my husband, the one who travels for a living.
I’ve worked four or more hours a day for six years, writing novels and essays, but I don’t (usually) make money, and so I should give up writing and do more around the house, right?
No. Not if you ask my other half. By investing in my skill set I’m keeping my resume up and staying employable. Plus, getting these words on a blank page is therapy and I’m saving what sanity I have left, so that’s earnings —or at least sense— though common.
But even if I didn’t write during naptimes when the kids were little, I’d still be working hard everyday. Kids are work, animals are work, dirt doesn’t clean itself, though I keep hoping this will change with technology. It’s sunup to sundown WORK – this parent thing.
So the thought that my husband would come home and put his feet up instead of setting the table, cleaning up the dishes, or helping with bedtime routines, seems asinine to me.
We can both cook, clean, weed, mow, use a screwdriver or drill, and use a phone, so why would either of us leave each other hanging before the day is through. Our model is to do all that we can, with what we can, and I’m proud to say when he’s gone during the week, I notice. And I’m not the only one.
At a recent play-date, a mom approaching 40 was sitting on the couch, expressionless face, and sleepless sacs like pillows under her eyes, when she said, “it’s not that my baby is bad, he’s just a baby, and he cries all the time.” But at her weakest moment she thinks it is her 6-month-old, and he is a bad baby. And if we’re honest, we’ve been here too, in a passing thought, or a wring-it-out cry in the middle of the night after our infant wakes up for the umpteenth time. Her husband travels for a living, and had been on six days, off one, for several weeks.
I talked to her each day until her husband returned home. I had to drive the conversation with each phone call, until one day she answered in a high pitched “hello,” her words were free and jovial. Having her spouse home to help with feeding and changing their 6-month-old, and to discuss life with, was all she needed to cope with on-again parenting. Can you imagine if this dad came home and put his feet up?
Moms: Are children our world?
We must reject the notion that moms make the world go round. We don’t make the world go round, and some days, we can’t even make the Merry-go-round, and that’s okay. It’s good for our children to want dad. It should be a goal for every stay-at-home-parent to make their children want the other parent. You know what it’s like to come home to a dog wagging its tail, well, children in anticipation of seeing their loved one give an even better welcoming, full on with pile drive hugs, and slobbery kisses. And it feels good to be needed.
If you don’t believe me, take it from a gray haired soldier.
“I would’ve been very content earning a paycheck,” the unspecified man said. “It’s what I wanted, to focus solely on career. I didn’t know any different.”
I met this Paul Newman-esque man at the playground (where I spend most of my days.) He said he was a grandfather, had raised multiple children, though he and his wife had traditional roles. He had never understood how hard her job was until now.
So what changed his perspective? He spent two weeks tag teaming his 3-year-old granddaughter, day and night, with his lovely second wife. Never mind his age, those of you with a toddler know it’s a daunting task, best done with rubber proof rooms, and a timeout chair equipped with five-point-harness. And no, I don’t really strap my children in for forced solitude, but it might be good idea.
In just two weeks, this unspecified man arrived at a Hillary Clinton quote “It takes a village to raise a child.” Now this was profound. He quoted a female presidential candidate, and a democrat. Meaning, this man had a life altering moment. He found empathy and was seeking out solutions, not only for himself, but for all people experiencing the exhaustion of parenting young children.
“Would you be as connected with your own children,” I asked. “If your first wife hadn’t left?” He had become a single father when his children were 5, 7, and 9.
“I wouldn’t have what I do now,” he said, pushing his newest grandbaby on the swing.
Norms, labels, boxes of any kind create a chasm between the sexes. A females role is in the home, a males role is to provide, etc… What happens when life shifts and those norms are no longer an option? As far back as two hundred years ago, wise men and women understood the value in learning how to shift in and out of different roles as needed for survival. And maybe what Marmee was teaching her Little Women, and what this gray haired man learned the hard way, is of value for all of us: Paychecks and bank accounts are temporary, while relationships can be for a lifetime, if we invest in them, and take care of each other.
What do you think? Is your marriage built on more defined roles, or are your roles more fluid?