I’d like to talk today about one ramification of equality in marriage that may not come easily to many men coming out of a traditional gender role environment. I’ve certainly had to learn this lesson the hard way, and I’m not even going to pretend to have arrived at a state of enlightenment here – more like a daily war of attrition with laziness. I don’t want to project too much, so I’ll talk to myself here, and maybe folks can follow along if they see themselves in my monologue.
I have grown to enjoy cooking in our relatively few years of marriage. I’m not very imaginative, so my creations are usually simple, but edible. My wife certainly appreciates this. I had the thought though recently, “would I enjoy this as much as I do if it was my responsibility primarily, and she were the one ‘helping out’?”
None of us making any effort to be good husbands are going to say we shouldn’t do things around the house (barring related disabilities or other factors) – domestic things, if you will, or traditional “woman’s work”. That’s good. Progress. In the past, I’ve felt like I’ve done a good job with that. But it took a few corrections by my wife for it to sink in that in more ways than one, I have a lot of work to do. Far too often even now I find myself patting myself on the back for “helping out” – taking some of the load off of my wife. Surely it’s much appreciated when I do, but fundamentally there’s a problem. “Helping out” usually ends up meaning it’s really falling on her shoulders: she’s dealing with the stress and guilt when things are not done (cooking, cleaning, laundry, general tidying, dishes, decluttering, etc). I help out with a task, I feel good about it, she appreciates it, and the next day it’s all back on her shoulders again. And it’s only natural, given that she also grew up in a traditional gender roles household and has had the idea ingrained in her that it is all on her. Now I can either feed into that by “helping out” when I think about it, and being a nice guy when she’s had a rough day, or I can be the one stressing on the way home from work and making lists of tasks I need to get done and taking an active role in the daily war of attrition of keeping a home in order. I can bear that emotional labor.
It took me awhile in my marriage to start realizing this, and one of the people who really brought it home how important it is to have both spouses actively working together is my dear friend and fellow writer here, the Captain, Christian Janeway. In the course of our friendship over the past few years, it’s been painfully obvious just how much a war of attrition and a battle with your own will it is to keep getting up day after day after day and caring for a home and children. Sure, some seem more wired for it than others, but even so, it’s clear it’s exhausting if it’s falling mostly on the shoulders of one person. In that light, it’s amazing how so many traditional women’s roles are ongoing tasks with no end in sight – the same things over and over again: meals 3 times a day (plus snacks), the battling of wills to get irrational 3-year-olds to eat perfectly good food, cleaning, the extra cleaning needs that toddlers create all on their own when they find a pen you forgot about, diapers, being first responder to every stubbed toe and runny nose, making sure there’s clothes for everyone to wear, hosting – heck I’m tired just typing this out. Yes, it’s all for love and all that, but good lord, and I want to feel good about myself for “helping out” when I think about it or happen to notice a need? The years of emotional strain can take a heavy toll, and yet sometimes I hear out of husbands’ mouths things to the effect of “she’s a bit crazy”, and “what’s with that woman?” Hmmm, that’s a good question! Maybe ponder that over the pile of laundry you’ve made no effort to ever deal with.
My wife and I have no children. She works a full day, just like I do. There is no excuse for me to not bear the weight of any domestic task I’m capable of, just like she does. Being an “ezer” after growing up in the male privilege of patriarchy means digging through your motives and insecurities and finding out that serving isn’t about feeling good about that thing you did for your wife, but bearing each other’s burdens, both physical and emotional, as the loving co-laborers we should be.
Yep, I have a lot of work to do.