Gender equality begins at home

What a concept!

I consider myself very blessed. My husband is truly committed to sharing parenting and housework – he’s changed the poopiest diapers, gotten up with cranky babies (if they were still cranky after feeding), taken children to doctors, stayed home with them when they were sick, the works. I also haven’t washed a dish in years (conversely, he hasn’t done the laundry in the same amount of time). When I work evenings, he gets home early to switch off with me (NOT ‘babysit’!) and if necessary, continues working from home, after making the kids dinner and going out to kick a soccer ball with them. This is probably a good thing, as they prefer his cooking to mine any day of the week 😉 . I give him even more credit for this as he is A) a confirmed misogynist* and B) the product of the perfect Ozzie and Harriet childhood.

OK, I still am the one who knows all the kids’ clothing and shoe sizes, and do most of the shopping (I’m a part-timer by choice, after all) and while paternity leave has been available in this country since at least 2000, I still was the one taking off the whole 12 weeks (hubby breastfeeding being, unfortunately, out of the question), but compared to lots of other women, I acknowledge that I have it pretty good on that score. It’s not exactly 50/50 nor is it Utopia, but it’s a far sight more equitable – in practice as well as in theory – than our parents’ generation. We’re hoping that by modelling this type of life for our children, they will also grow up to seek out the same type of partnership with their future spouses.

Which is why I gave a huge “you go, guys!!” at the article which appeared earlier this week in the New York Times: When Mom and Dad Share It All:

On her first day back to work after a four-month maternity leave, Amy Vachon woke at dawn to nurse her daughter, Maia. Then she fixed herself a healthful breakfast, pumped a bottle of breast milk for the baby to drink later in the day, kissed the little girl goodbye and headed for the door.

But before she left, there was one more thing. She reached over to her husband, Marc, who would not be going to work that day in order to be home with Maia, and handed him the List. That’s what they call it now, when they revisit this moment, which they do fairly often. The List. It was nothing extraordinary — in fact it would be familiar to many new moms. A large yellow Post-it on which she had scribbled the “how much,” “how long” and “when” of Maia’s napping and eating.

“I knew her routines and was sharing that with Marc,” Amy recalls.

She also remembers what he did next. Gently but deliberately, he ripped the paper square in half and crumbled the pieces into a ball.

“I got the message,” Amy says.

That message was one the Vachons had agreed on from the evening they met, though they were clearly still tinkering with the details. They would not be the kind of parents their parents had been — the mother-knows-best mold. Nor the kind their friends were — the “involved” dad married to the stressed-out working mom. Nor even, as Marc put it, “the stay-at-home dad, who is cooed at for his sensitivity but who is as isolated and financially vulnerable as the stay-at-home-mom.”

Instead, they would create their own model, one in which they were parenting partners. Equals and peers. They would work equal hours, spend equal time with their children, take equal responsibility for their home. Neither would be the keeper of the mental to-do lists; neither of their careers would take precedence. Both would be equally likely to plan a birthday party or know that the car needs oil or miss work for a sick child or remember (without prompting) to stop at the store for diapers and milk. They understood that this would mean recalibrating their career ambitions, and probably their income, but what they gained, they believed, would be more valuable than what they lost.

There are Marcs and Amys scattered throughout the country, and the most interesting thing about them is that they are so very interesting. What they suggest, after all, is simple. Gender should not determine the division of labor at home. It’s a message consistent with nearly every major social trend of the past three decades — women entering the work force, equality between the sexes, the need for two incomes to pay the bills, even courts that favor shared custody after divorce. And it is what many would agree is fair, even ideal. Yet it is anything but the norm.

It’s a long article, but don’t pass it up. It’s worth it. 🙂

Marc and Amy Vachon’s website, Equally Shared Parenting, is definitely worth a peek. As is another website mentioned in the article, The Third Path Institute, whose mission is to enable both parents to cooperate at home and regarding work – leaving both time to enjoy life, both at work and outside it.

*Meaning he’s not enamored of the female gender in general. That song from My Fair Lady, A Hymn to Him, pretty much sums up his view of things. Not to be confused in any way, shape or form with “Male Chauvinist Pig”, however.

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7 Responses

  1. I enjoyed the article because my husband and I don’t fit the norm in some ways (he works from home so he’s the primary caregiver for our son) and completely fit the norm in others (my husband never does laundry, period, and I keep all the mental lists). But Marc and Amy were a wee bit precious. I appreciate they make the effort, but they came across as a bit smug.

  2. I think “true” gender equality in the home can’t be acheived when kids are little. Women will almost always wind up as the primary caregivers as long as the kids are breastfeeding, that’s just biology, and if she’s doing that the father is more likely to be the one going back to work, etc. The trick is to make the switch to egalitarian parenting when the kids are like… two or so.

    My boyfriend and I discussed this once and concluded that I am best with infants and toddlers (daycare experience) plus I can breastfeed so I would probably be the primary caregiver when the kids were little, and he’s best with older kids and would probably have the more flexible career so he would be the primary caregiver when they got older.

  3. I know this all *sounds* very good but having read, thought and written about this – and actually having lived it too – I can honestly say, right from the bottom of my heart and the best part of my mind that I don’t think gender equality begins at home – and here’s why…

    I think it’s great if individuals can work this sort of thing out but at the end of the day, because it’s an abritrary aspect of our personal lives. As something that isn’ t carried out systematically across society, it can’t have the far-reaching consequences we might like it to. No matter how much we’d like it to.

    The work necessary to reproduce us, to reproduce society is carried out privately. It’s a historical accident that it is associated with women – maybe it has its roots in biology, but the more I learn about anthropology the less I think it is that simple. The point is that it is associated with women by default since it isn’t considered important enough to be organized on a social basis.

    It’s very much the way that water management is considered women’s work in some agricultural societies. (No doubt there are people who would argue it’s because women are uniquely suited to manage water, with our big hips and all) When these communities reaches a certain point in their development, it makes more sense to organize the provision of water on a large scale. It’s at that point that it ceases to be gendered. We don’t consider paying the water bill, turing on the taps, etc. women’s work because we can take the social organization of water resources for granted.

    So it is with domestic work. If we treated house work and child care, for instance, as social necessities, like water and power and organized them on a mass basis, I think our personal lives would cease to fall into the gendered division of labor they do now.

    In other words, I think Lisa Belkin and others are formulating this the mirror opposite of how it should be understood.

    I also think it risks politicizing our personal lives. There should be a space in our lives free from the pressure to be one thing or another where we aren’t keeping a running balance sheet of who has done what but simply doing what suits us in whatever way suits us that is no body’s business but our own.

    The ability of women to have that personal freedom AND to participate in fully in society on an equal footing with men depends on finding some better way to organize the key aspects of domestic life that fall to us now – that is house work and child care. The task of making it possible for women to achieve their full potential as human beings depends on the recognition that the domestic work we do is important enough to be organized by society but more importantly the WE are key actors in the future of humanity – and not just on the basis that we wash the socks.

  4. Li – I get what you’re saying about the smugness, though I didn’t really see it initially. I hope I didn’t sound smug as well…

    Basiorana – in these days of breastpumps, IMO there’s no reason for a woman to take on the lion’s share of parenting and housework duties if she desires a career as well as her husband. That’s really the only thing a man can’t do, after all…so why not let him (or a nanny/daycare person) feed the EBM and have him pick up some of the housework slack? If you and your partner choose to do otherwise, and this is what you both desire, that’s fine, of course…but why should it be the only proper, “default” way of sharing household duties?

    Nancy – I’m not really sure what you’re proposing here. The only way I see this could work out is if we all moved to a commune (tried, and largely abandoned, on Israeli kibbutzim), or if the government were to heavily subsidize nannies and housekeepers for everyone (is that likely?).

    Also, while most people would be very happy to get out of doing any housework, childcare is still a little different. Delegating some of the childcare – to a spouse or someone else – is probably a very welcome respite for most parents, but most parents want to take on at least some of that burden.

  5. esther, if a woman would rather pump at work (and is allowed to) then more power to her, I wish more employers were like that and breast pumps were easy to use for everyone. But for many women, breast pumps are hard to use and can cause decreased supply, and many employers at least in the US won’t give women time or a clean and discreet place in which to pump. Obviously it’s better if the policies change, but the US still doesn’t even mandate paid maternity leave, so I doubt we’ll have pumping rights guaranteed any time soon.

    And I don’t think in any way that women should be doing the lion’s share of the HOUSEWORK. I don’t think they “should” be doing anything, I think that they “will” continue to take on most of the early childcare of their own volition. The stay at home parent for infants will probably continue to be primarily the mother until there is a fundamental shift in the way society views pumping and maternity leave. Standard housework, naturally, should be equally divided amongst both parents, or whatever system works best for the couple.

    Also, Nancy, something I have heard many times over is that you can’t fight sexism in adults, you have to fight it in children. You want equality, you have to raise your children in a mostly egalitarian household and encourage them, both openly and through example, to think of the genders as equal. I know a guy with a radical feminist mother who told him repeatedly that women and men were equal while relying on her husband’s income, doing all the cooking and cleaning and laundry, and taking full control over raising him. So he still has the idea of women as the domestic homemakers and men as the workers as a default despite everything she tried to teach him, because her example was so flawed.

    Whereas people raised in egalitarian families tend to be people who not only promote the same in their own life, they are rarely sexist outside the home either.

  6. I suppose the thing is, I’m trying to take the question of what is necessary for gender equality at face value. And honestly the main point for me is that the solutions do not lie in the private sphere. I think it’s a waste of time to focus political energy on working out the division of labor between family members – though definitely worth coming up with good solutions on an individual level.

    As it happens, since the enlightenment marriage has tended to be seen, at least ideally as a partnership of equals based on mutual affection. We do not have the infrastructure to support it however, which is why when a couple have children they find themselves being thrust into gender roles they don’t really want to occupy.

    No, it’s not likely that things like great quality subsidized child care available 24/7 or municipal cleaners who clean every home once a week are likely any time soon – however, I do think that the principle involved is an important one – that for men and women to have real freedom domestic work needs to be looked after collectively – regardless of whether individuals take advantage of any of these services or not.

    During the war in the Untied States women workers could drop off their kids at a creche open all hours. They could put in a grocery order and have it waiting for them when they picked up the kids to go home. Yes, it’s a silly little example but it shows that when the will is there things can be organized differently.

    Think about it, is it any less realistically than expecting millions of households to a) divide up household tasks equally b) divide them so they aren’t organized along gender lines and c) to maintain this situation consistently when the rest of the world is organized on the assumption that domestic work falls to women? d) expect that any of this would some how translate to other aspects of society?

    And one more thing… I do think you can fight sexism in adults but it requires that men and women are genuinely on an equal footing. Sexism doesn’t survive very long under those circumstances.

    PS. Can we just banish the kibbutz? Nothing against tit per se, it’s just it always comes up, and as interesting as might be – thought there are debates about how much is fact and how much is wishful thinking, I think finding a solution to this question of world historic importance requires a willingness to look at the problem with fresh eyes.


  7. Nancy, great comments! Very thought-provoking.

    Esther, you didn’t sound smug at all, no worries.

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