It’s strange how you don’t notice the absurdity of things when they surround you in your day-to-day life. For me, it was the fact that I had a stay-at-home dad. I think some part of my brain knew that most of my friends didn’t have dads packing their lunches, picking them up from school, and making their dinner, but I didn’t really know just how odd it was.
A lot of people still grow up in homes where the chores are segregated based on gender. I found this out just this year. Sitting around in a feminist discourse class, discussing The Second Shift by Arlie Hochschild, my professor handed out a list of household chores and we were asked to list who typically did them in our house — mother, father, sons, or daughters. As our professor read out the responses, I realized two things: First, I realized that the children in my household did an unprecedented margin of the housework compared to the households of my fellow students. Second, unlike pretty much every other household in the class, gender meant nothing in my home when it came to who was taking out the garbage or mowing the lawn everyday.
It had never struck me as weird growing up. I have five siblings, but I basically grew up with my older brother and my younger brother — my uterus-possessing status never mattered in the bartering of chores. I took out the trash when it was my turn to take out the trash, I did the dishes on days when I didn’t help with the cooking, I did the laundry — well never really, we were in charge of our own laundry, which meant all of us basically lived in rooms piled high with dirty clothes till our mother used the threat of social services taking us away. Anyway, it was more or less evenly distributed. There was some haggling, i.e. I will do the dishes for you this week if you don’t tell mom I snuck in last night, but nothing was ever based on who had a penis and who didn’t. (I almost wish I could have used that excuse to get out of yard work in the middle of summer.)
The same went, more or less, for my parents as well. This is perhaps the most surprising for me. I grew up in a fairly liberal town in Oregon as part of a forward-thinking generation. The fact that I can’t cook and that my brother dresses better than I do aren’t really all that abnormal for my generation. My parents, on the other hand, grew up in the south, Oklahoma and Texas to be specific, in a time that wasn’t as forgiving on straying from gender roles. So, I think the idea was that my father agreed to support my mother through law school in exchange for being able to stay at home and be a house dad after she earned her degree still kind of baffles people.
My mother knows how to cook, and clean, mend clothes, and iron (I have mastered none of these skills), she simply chooses not to do them. She works 40 and 50-hour weeks supporting her family, and my dad takes care of the rest. I have often encountered the excuse that women are better at cooking and cleaning, or that they simply enjoy it more, so that is why we still encounter two-job families in which the mothers do the majority of the housework. Here is what my experience has told me: That is total bullshit.
My mom is definitely a better cook, no doubt, but she certainly doesn’t enjoy doing it after working 9-5 everyday. Simply being better at something is a terrible excuse, and it didn’t hold any water in my family. Additionally, my dad is definitely better at cleaning. Neither of my parents likes cleaning, and no one could ever try to argue that our family is “neat.” We are all disgusting slobs, but when my dad cleans, he really cleans. As in, he moves the furniture when he vacuums rather than just moving around it and just picking up the bits we can see. So I never thought of that as a gender-ruled trait.
I guess after listening to the students in my class describe the way their houses were run, even the students who said that their families were extremely liberal, I couldn’t help but truly appreciate my parents’ relationship. My father has never been threatened by my mother’s earning potential. He has never been afraid that cleaning house, making dinner, and picking up the kids from school somehow threated his masculinity in any way. And, whether they meant to or not, the fact that my parents had this dynamic in their relationship really impacted how I view gender roles. I hadn’t even realized how much my family deviated from the norm until I went to college.
Also, growing up in a family where my dad was OK with staying at home and my mom was not expected to keep up with the housework while also working full time has really raised my expectations. I know, without a doubt, that there is no way I would ever put up with a guy who expected me to come home, do his laundry, make his dinner, and clean up his mess. I don’t think I could ever seriously consider dating a man who couldn’t handle folding my laundry, or his for that matter. My expectations of masculinity are radically different from some women I know, even other fairly liberal women. I don’t romanticize strong, burly men who might “provide” for me — I mostly consider men like that sad clichés that I cant take seriously.
I value a guy who wants to sit around reading feminist texts, lets me pay for his drinks without getting weird, has no problem splitting the dishes after dinner, and isn’t phased by body hair.
But then again, I was also raised in a household where my self-worth was never based on my status as single or in a relationship. It isn’t a question I am ever asked at home, my parents treat updates on my romantic life with the same seriousness they treat updates on my favorite TV shows this season — vaguely intrigued, but nothing worth investing energy in till season three.
So maybe my paradigm is significantly different from mainstream culture to begin with, but I still think splitting chores without considering gender is kind of a no-brainer.
Written by Kelsey Bain