There is a trap we all fall into sometimes, whether we like it or not. I find myself stuck doing things that I think society expects of me or I unconsciously expect of myself, rather than what I really want to do. Recently it’s been the expectation that I should be the one to keep “it” together: family, hearth, and home, while my husband brings home the bacon (but, really, don’t I bring home some ham myself?).
Our nanny requested a two-week vacation: her brother was getting married in Brazil, and of course she needed the time off. Oh we’ll be fine, I thought to myself. I’ll just take that time off from work and hang with the kids. It will be fun. Well, no, not really. In addition to two lost weeks of work, I was frazzed the week before wrapping up and the week after the break frantically catching up. And during: though admittedly there were some precious, sublime moments of fun, we all fell pretty ill during those two weeks. Pretty miserable, actually.
But that’s life, right? Illness happens. Here’s the rub though: in retrospect, I was irked that that I had assumed all the responsibilities of childcare, hearth and home were mine. That’s right, the home was my complete domain, and if our nanny wasn't going to be there, it was all on me. I had unwittingly volunteered myself for the whole kit and kaboodle, without thinking through the alternatives. And to top it off, my husband did not protest.
Why didn’t I say to him, “hey love, M is gone for two weeks. Which week are you going to take off work to take care of the kids, and which will I take off?” Why did he let me bask in my delusion that my taking two weeks off from work was the right thing to do? We were both complicit in the idea about where each of our responsibilities lay. He said to me, “Oh, you know I really want to help you.” Umm, no. Let's rewind and try that again. Saying you are going to “help” me is also assuming that anything childcare- or home-related defaults to me. Instead: “How are we going to share this responsibility together?”
But haven’t we have all grown up with these assumptions of appropriate gender roles in families? They are hard to shake off. Take these two examples of some recent rather humorous faux pas from my very own dad:
Dad: “Oh I think that it is important for both parents to be involved in kids’ lives. That’s why women should stay at home.”
Dad: “I don’t understand why so and so wants to be a stay-at-home dad. I mean don’t you think he would have some ambition to do something with his life?”
Me: “Don’t you think it’s a double-standard that stay-at-home moms are completely acceptable and stay-at-home dads have something wrong with them?”
Dad: “Well don’t you think something is wrong with him?”
I don’t mean to be selling my husband or dad down the river. They are both exceptional, supportive men. These examples illustrate that even the best of us—men and women--have a double-standard about where a woman’s and subsequently a man’s place is.
When I was pregnant with each of our kids, friends and family would turn to me (and only me) and demand rapid-fire, “How much time are you taking off? When are you going change your schedule to work part-time? Of course you are breastfeeding (was that even a question?). You are going to let a stranger take care of your children while you work? Why aren’t you quitting?” The answers I gave were never good enough. No one ever paused for a minute to even turn to my husband and ask how he was going to turn his life upside down in nine months. The assumption was, my life was the one that was going to change completely, because our family's survival depended on it.
The fact of the matter is, both of our lives have completely changed with the dude and little miss, in expected and unexpected ways. Expected: the innumerable ways they demonstrate day in and day out how they are the most adorable kids on the planet. Unexpected? How having children would put our expectations of our roles as husband and wife, father and mother, in stark relief. How we have had to re-evaluate how we see ourselves, time and time again.
Being more explicit about the choices we make. Thinking about how we share the load will ultimately make us each feel less pigeon-holed in any one of these “traditional” roles: breadwinner, homemaker, or head of household. And that’s good for everyone in the family.