Thursday, October 09, 2008

Questions You Can't Ask

When I talk to some colleagues and read some blogs, there are a couple questions I always want to ask, but I know you're not allowed.

At the risk of sounding mean, though, I still want to ask.

Picture: Professional woman, straight, married, kids (usually at least two, not twins), talking about how she gets up, makes breakfast for everyone, irons her husband's clothes, packs lunches for everyone, takes kids to day-care/school, goes to work, works, works, and works some more, gets off work, picks up kids, takes kids to activity, does grocery shopping, makes dinner while supervising homework, cleans the house, serves dinner and does the dishes, puts the kids to bed, and then gets up and does it again every day.

Picture me: "Um, what is you're husband doing to contribute?"

That's it, that's the question I want to ask.

And if you did, you know you'd hear that he babysits sometimes, or does his own laundry, or helps pack lunches. But it's never anywhere near 50%.

Picture me: "So why did you choose to breed with this person? and more than once?"

Yeah, that second question. We're never supposed to ask about breeding choices, except that those of us who haven't, we get told how miserable and empty our lives are, and how we need to make up the extra committee work because we don't have kids, and how could we just pick up an extra class so a new parent can do the parental leave thing. (Though non-breeding males don't get asked to make up extra work, ever notice that?) (And yes, I've picked up an extra class to help a new parent. I support parental leaves in theory and in practice.)

Picture me, the question I really want to ask: "Why the hell do you put up with him?"

But we're not allowed to ask, not supposed to ask, because asking de-romanticizes the whole straight marriage/happy mom paradigm, and asks women to think about why they make the choices they do, asks them to recognize that they really are making choices, even if those choices are based on strong ideological impulses. Because if we recognize the ideological sexism of straight marriage, then people, women specifically, will realize how really sexist their husbands are, and how unequal their relationships. And men can't have that.

So don't ask.

*Yes, there are single fathers who do a wonderful job taking care of their kids. But I don't know any straight, married fathers with working wives who contribute anything like 50% of household/family maintenance. They may be out there, but I sure don't know them or hear about them on blogs.


  1. Anonymous8:16 AM

    Well...hmmm. I think sometimes there's a dynamic where it's acceptable or even encouraged for a woman to complain about her husband's lack of involvement. It's supposed to valorize her as the modern working woman, trying to do it all. June Cleaver with a career. Blah blah whatever that's the acceptable way to be a working mother. I mean, if you went out and had a career and neglected your family or delegated that work to someone else, what kind of woman would you be? Horrors.

    The thing is, I'm not sure it's always entirely true, the content of this ranting. From my own experience, I have to be skeptical because I do complain about my husband from time to time, in life and on the blog, and yeah, a person could decide the whole arrangement is totally sexist. And I guess I think there is some sexism in it. And yet, where are my kids right now while I'm working as an academic? With my husband. When was the last time I actually got up at 6:30am with them? The answer is...the last time my husband was out of town. When was the last time I had to worry about paying a bill? Well, not since I got married.

    Point being, I complain my share about the inequality and I'm not lying about that. I get frustrated and I vent. Sometimes I get pretty beaten down. That doesn't mean it's categorically true that my husband isn't doing his share in the relationship. I sort of think we expect/need it to be that way. At that point, it becomes a verbal tick, like complaining about being too fat.

    This is an epic comment. Sorry for hijacking.

  2. Anonymous8:38 AM

    There are a couple of women bloggers who have stay-at-home husbands; I think Professing Mama is one of them.

    More to the point: My husband does 95-98% the shopping & cooking. He picks up the child from daycare. We don't clean very much, but he tends to initiate that also. There are logical, situational reasons why he does these things, but our family is not the only one in this situation; he does these things because of who he is, not because he has the time.

    I don't talk about it because it sounds like bragging (which is why I'm leaving this anonymously). On the other hand, I think the fact that it feels like bragging addresses your point just as well: I don't want to be told I'm making someone feel bad because my situation makes her question hers.

  3. Anonymous8:48 AM

    You won't read about it on my blog because generally I don't post that sort of personal stuff. I don't have anything to complain out either but even if I did, I sure wouldn't do it on a blog! LOL

    I am one of those lucky women who has a spouse who does way more than his share. I teach online full time and there are days when I work 10-12 hours. I never get a weekend day completely off. So he does grocery shopping, laundry, yard work, and half the cooking.

    We go to our weekend place away from home 3 out of 4 weekends each month and about all I do is throw my clothes together; he gets everything else ready to go on Thursday nights so we can hit the road as soon as he gets home from work on Fridays.

    When the kids were at home (they're grown and gone now) I did more because I was teaching public schools and had a much shorter day. So I did more than. I work longer hours now so he does more.

    It all evens out in the long run -- at least it does for us. Like I said, I'm one of the lucky ones.

  4. Anonymous8:55 AM

    I agree that there seems to be this weird notion that complaining makes a woman look more like a supermom or something, but I also think that there is still a strong social judgment against relationships that are more 50-50. When I was in Europe for nearly a year doing my diss research, my husband stayed behind with my 16-year-old son - his stepson. For almost ten months, he was a single father with NO complaints. His attitude was grad school was my job, and this was what my job required. BUT everyone else - his family, coworkers, friends - gave him an unbelievable amount of shit for "allowing" me to do that and for being a "wimp" or a "wussie" or some other ugly word for unmanly. I think women who know that a large segment of society sees men who are equal partners are similarly emasculated, and the complaining not only allows the woman to vent, but to do it in a socially acceptable way. It's sad, just like saying fathers "babysit" their own kids is sad. We'll never have true equality until we can change ideas about what *men* can do, too.

  5. anastasia said some of the things i was thinking. i vent sometimes, too -- and heck, yes, there have been times when i've done most or all of the heavy lifting re household and kids.

    but -- over time [our kids are 19 and 21 now], i can't say that i've gotten the short end of the stick. i'm not sure how our juggling and divisions of family labor have looked to others, but do know that we have juggled what needed doing every day, week, month, and year. and yes, i complain; so does he.

    for a *lot* of our kids' childhoods, my husband sacrificed advancing in his career, while i did a lot of late nights, travel, and brought in a higher and steady income. he did most of the everyday cooking, general cleanup, errands, reading stories, homework supervision, shlepping, etc. he does the heavy maintenance, most bills, and science and sports activities; i do fine cleaning, holidays, hospitals + health, a lot of dealing with schools + volunteering, artsy-crafty. i iron for him almost never, and he returns the favor.

    i also think a lot of professional women whose partners leave most of the family/household stuff to them end up getting out of the situation. heh, anastasia thought she rambled on...

  6. the anony-mice posted while i was writing, but good points there.

  7. Anonymous10:55 AM

    I'm actually one of those husbands. Master's degree & 20+ years experience in my field (performing arts area). As a life-long feminist, I have been proud to support my full-time, university faculty, PhD, wife by staying home with the kids, shopping, cooking, bill-paying, driving to sports & lessons,etc. I probably pick up 70%+ of the domestic duties. I know several other men like me, inside and outside academia.

    As the years go by my wife & I have moved several times to follow her career (she's had the better job offers). With each move, I have had to restart my career from scratch, and it gets harder with each relocation as job opportunities narrow, mentors age & die, and my resume of recent activities and performances gets thinner.

    Why don't you read about us on the blogs? I can only speak for myself. I don't blog about my situation for a number of reasons. Perhaps the main one is that I'm stuck and I don't like it. I love my wife, my children and the life we have together, but I also love my profession and it becomes harder and harder to get work as I spend another semester at home. Like countless stay-at-home spouses, I have to deal with the disparity of being praised for focusing on raising my children and running our household while—at the same time—dealing with the "but what have you DONE lately?" questions about my professional achievements.

    I know all this has been a long-standing frustration for generations of women; it shouldn't have happened to them in years past, and it shouldn't be happening to anyone in the 21st century. My own—male—experience is that there is an additional, unspoken "What's wrong with that guy? Real men have a career!" judgement in addition to the "Serious performers don't stay at home, they are burning with ambition for their careers!" trope. And, needless to say such a career Really Should—in the case of truly *talented* and *deserving* performers—follow an unbroken, linear, ascending path from the undergraduate years to mid-life professional success. Oh, well…

    I enjoy the blog. Hope this aids the discussion.

    —Music Man

  8. This is such a good post. Because I do see such women slaving away doing TWO jobs while their husbands do ONE and get praised for "babysitting" now and then. How a husband can "babysit" his own child is something I will never understand.

    I've become quite sensitive to this issue now that I'm married and in a very conservative, traditional culture. It's been two months since the wedding and already the southern matrons are calling my MIL to ask if "the bride received HER gift" (i.e. "why hasn't the bride written me a thank you yet?"). But we agreed that HE would write his side and I would write my side. (And we're doing it, but we have hundreds of letters to write so it's taking a while, but it's reflecting poorly on ME, not on US, and that annoys me.)

    We actually negotiated all of the chores before we got married. (We even used a checklist and compared who had done the chores in our own families when we were kids, and who would do them in OUR family.) He does the cooking, dishes, and makes the bed; I do the laundry (but no ironing!), the home repairs, oversee the lawn stuff and dry cleaning, and act as general contractor for home repairs I can't do. We hire out the cleaning once a week and do the grocery shopping together. I've made it clear that if we have kids he'll have to do half the work, including getting up at night.

    But we have to keep negotiating it, too, because it would be so easy to slip into the traditional roles both sets of our parents had when we were both young.

    (Yikes, the above makes me sound like a Smug Married. I don't want to come across that way, because no relationship is perfect and we are, after all, still newlyweds, so what do I know? :) But I DID turn down marriage earlier in my life to Mr. Jerk, who wanted a hausfrau. I'm very lucky that I didn't have the cultural and family pressure to get married in my 20s like some of my girlfriends did, or I might have caved in and married Mr. Jerk.)

    The cultural expectations are frustrating. For example, Mr. Unexpected dresses quite casually. That's fine with me. But a woman in his department made a crack that I'd have to start dressing him better when we got married. Uh, since when is that MY responsibility? Seems to me he can put on his big-boy pants all by himself. :) I don't like being blamed when he looks disheveled.

    I hear the same cracks about couples' homes: "She's such a messy housekeeper." I want to ask: Doesn't HE live there, too?

    Wow, your post really has inspired some LONG comments from your readers, hasn't it? :)

  9. Anonymous12:22 PM

    Excellent question, Bardiac. Thank you for asking it here, since it would be pretty raw to ask it on someone's blog. (My unacceptable question is, "If your religion contributes to your misery on a regular basis, why not, uh, rethink your commitment to it?)

    There's a wonderful book, "The Evolution of Desire," by David Buss. Another wonderful book is Virginia Valian's "Why So Slow?"

    For me, those two taken together went some way toward explaining why things happen the way they do. And *then* there's the whole politico-social realm, which I don't know a book to recommend.

  10. As a long-married (18 years in Nov) -- but no child person, I often wonder the same things.

    I suppose this is one more example that makes me appreciate my current department. The senior person is in a very long same-sex relationship and is very respectful of ALL family and personal commitments. I'd die of shock if she asked me to pick up slack for the fathers in the department (the other two -- junior members) - because they have kids and I don't.

  11. Anonymous6:11 AM

    This is the number one reason I don't plan on getting married or having kids. For all the people hopping onto this thread to congratulate themselves, I have to say that every single woman I am close to whose domestic situation I am familiar with does FAR more work than her husband. In many cases not only does/did she have to care for the kids basically on her own, she has to pick up after his lazy ass too.

    My aunt's husband never once changed a diaper on any of their three children. He claimed the smell made him sick.

    My good friend's husband gave her all kinds of crap when she had pneumonia and kept passing out and thus was not completely on top of watching the kids.

    My other aunt's ex-husband never once disciplined his kids and undermined all her attempts to get them to behave, and when they finally went too far even for him, he decreed a punishment but looked to her to enforce it.

    My friend's parents' children are grown, but the wife still has to wait on her husband hand and foot (he is perfectly physically capable of doing for himself).

    There are so many stories, and these aren't even the abusive guys. Society would look at them and say "that man is a good father." THEY would claim they do at least half the work -- more than half, in the instance of Mr. I Don't Care If You Have Pneumonia.

    I think a lot of women get married and start families thinking that their husbands are going to step up. Maybe they even extract a promise. But under the stress of actually having a child in the house the men suddenly regress to three-year-olds and with the children already born, what is there to do but pretend life is all peachy and dandy?

  12. Anonymous6:26 AM

    There are a lot of wonderful posts here. My husband did the groceries, took the girls skiing, picked up a lot, did lawn work and pitched in a lot. Whenever deadlines made it too much the house just got messy. I accepted that. It distressed him. He said long ago that no one with a position like his helped around the house. I agreed. This was about 15-20 years ago. I said 80% of the people with my position don't help around the house (older men where I was at the time). We got a cleaning service. I followed his job and instead of starting over stayed at home for a while with little ones since I was on maternity leave anyway. I recently returned to work and we got a cleaning lady. He suddenly died and I will miss him forever whether it was 50% contribution or not. There is no more cleaning lady either. I will miss her a lot less. It was good to always be up to date with all that tidying up, but she breaks things too.

    I think it's negotiated in every family. If you live alone you do it all. If you decide to still do it all then you really can't complain. Tidying up and clean are not equivalent to everyone, aside from eating and picking up the kids there are a lot of levels of clean and some people do more because they can't stand it when it's not done. If you can't stand it but your partner can, then they might not contribute as much because they never reach the point when they feeling cleaning must happen. I am not sure it's about being taken advantage of or people taking up their fair share, as people being concerned with their own standards (that they may or may not impose on others) and the standards that others impose on them (neighbours, friends, relatives).

    If I let my grass grow a foot high (this is very bad - it happened in the backyard this summer and it makes the lawn mower choke when you try to cut it) and the weeds get taller than me (I'm not that tall) then I know all the neighbours will say OMG what is happening to her. I'm tired and it would be nice for someone to help but that's not going to happen.

  13. Anonymous7:56 AM

    I commented above because Bardiac seemed concerned not only by the _general_ lack of shared housework, but also by not knowing of one single husband who shares housework; the end of her post expressed to me that she seemed concerned that maybe we haven't even taken a single step towards equality in this area. I posted a comment to indicate there has been a single step. I did not post to indicate we've completed the journey. If I were really "congratulating" myself, I would be posting under a name.

    Bardiac, I apologize if I misread you or offended you or both. That was not my intention.

  14. Anastasia, You make a really interesting point that this is something women are allowed to rant about, and that may account for the ways I hear things. Thanks.

    Anonymous 8:38, Thanks for making me think about what women aren't allowed to say, too, because it might sound like bragging. I'm glad to hear your husband is a good partner. And you make an especially good point about stay at home husbands; I do, now that I think of that, know several, and they do the stay at home job very well, and with a generous spirit.

    Anonymous 8:48, I think you're absolutly right that there's a lot of day to day negotiation; and I'm glad to hear that things have worked out well for you.

    Anonymous 8:55, Thanks for making the very apt point that men who stay at home, or even do their share, are treated as if they're less masculine.

    Kathy a, Thanks for contributing, and bringing out the point that relationships develop over time and change a lot.

    Music Man, Thanks; you bring out a really good point about the difficulty for anyone in delaying a career to help a spouse further his/hers. I hope you find a way to get back into performing, too. I can imagine it's really frustrating all around.

    TD, Thanks; your point that relationships slip into traditional roles easily is important. It sounds like you're working well together. And your point about the ways society thinks women are responsible for men's dressing and the joint household is important, I think.

    Theodora, I like your question about religion, too.

    IPT, Shock or not, there are classes that need a level of expertise not available off the cuff around here; and picking up the slack needs to get done... at least that's what I thought. Maybe it didn't, and I'm stupid for having helped?

    Human, That's mostly my experience, too, but I keep hoping things will change.

    Anonymous 6:26, I'm sorry for your loss. Your point about negotiation is vital. Thanks.

    Anonymous 7:56, Gosh, I haven't seen anything offensive in the responses at all. I appreciate your clarification, though. I think you're right that we've made some steps, just not enough.

    Thanks again for the helpful discussion, everyone.

  15. I love this post and share your sentiments. (!)

  16. Anonymous2:26 PM

    I apologize because I most likely sounded like I was angry at the commenters in this thread.

    I am angry but not at them. It just really tees me off to see women I care about being treated like they are some kind of robot that was designed to make men's lives easier. And I see it a lot. Like I said: just about everyone I know who's partnered and has kids. And on top of it all the guys congratulate themselves for being so zarking awesome.

    Anyway, that is the reason I was angry when I wrote my comment. Sorry to anyone who felt the anger was directed at them.

  17. Anonymous4:22 PM

    I'm in what I suppose could be called a traditional arrangement; I stay home with the kids and work freelance on the side to make ends meet while he works full time (or more) at the company that employs him.

    I do the majority of the home-type care, partly because I have more time at home (notice I do not say more spare time) and in fact I like a cleaner place and care more about it so I tend to do the housework more. The cleaning arrangements have been a long point of contention between us, not because he expects the traditional roles but because he just doesn't care as much.

    All that said, we are in this particular arrangement because we have made conscious choices; he could make a higher more regular income than I could, partly because I work as an artist and he's a programmer and partly because I'm a woman working in what seems to be a male-dominated field. It is harder to get the same opportunities and pay as a male of around the same qualifications. Men who do what I do tend to have a broader support structure as well, like wives who take care of everything and help the guy with his art business. I don't have that luxury, since Paul is working flat-out as it is. There are many many more successful male artists out there than female ones, for all sorts of interesting and rather tragic cultural reasons.

    I made the choice to put my career on the back burner for awhile and take care of the kids and be there with them, be an integral part of their development, otherwise what the hell was the point in having the kids? This arrangement hasn't been easy for us financially and I know that Paul feels that he's missing out on aspects of their childhood, but honestly we need the money he brings in to support the family. You could ask why have kids in the first place, but that's really another whole issue.

    I have to try to branch out and find ways to bring in money on a part-time basis and run into considerable prejudice because I have kids at home. I have actually lost potential jobs after the people hiring discovered that I had young kids at home, despite the fact that they liked my work and wanted to use my services. Which, honestly, from their perspective is understandable, since parents do indeed drop work at a moment's notice and run off to take care of sick kids and whatnot and leave their co-workers to pick up the slack. There's no question that having kids changes your priorities, as perhaps it should, but it all brings up many ethical questions. Like how can you really expect co-workers to help out their colleagues with kids; they didn't choose to have the kids, after all. How much does doing a good job of raising the kids actually matter? Do we regard raising kids as a communal endeavor where we pull together and support each other or should people who decide to have kids (selfishly) be left on their own with no community to help? Our society does not encourage the 'village to raise a child' approach at all, in my experience, though I believe that it would result in better educated, more balanced adults.

    Personally, we are caught in a sort of weird Catch-22 where it does feel like we've been forced by external circumstances into what outwardly looks like traditional roles. We don't feel like traditionalists on the inside, though.

    Agh, this got long, sorry for the rant...

  18. Great post Bardiac, and it initiated a lot of great comments.

    My husband and I are almost equal when it's just the two of us (I'd say 45/55 or maybe 40/60), but once there is a third person around who can help (say, my mom or MIL is in town) suddenly he drops the ball. Not on housework, but on time with our kid. He'll suddenly work a full day instead of a half day, and I'll end up not getting to work at all that day. This is something we are working on.

    Here is what I have noticed, with my husband and with other straight marriages: men have no idea they are sexist and they are very comfortable and happy in a sexist marriage. So far I have not met a man who has indicated otherwise UNLESS the wife first expresses dissatisfaction with the inequality. I know several liberal men who married traditional women and seem quite content to perpetuate sexism by never effecting change in their relationship. I know liberal men who married liberal women and the same has happened.

    Last point: in academia, I have noticed a disparity between my and my husband's fields. My field seems to understand the added work of being a parent (mom or dad) -- at least in this department at this university. My husband's department seems to assume that if you have kids your wife takes care of them (emphasis on wife, not husband). I know other wives of his colleagues who have professional degrees and they are stay at home moms. This stresses my husband out severely and we've had several late night conversations about this, where he's freaking out that he won't get tenure because he's not acting like an asshole husband. I remind him that it's not a job that he should want if that's what it takes, but it has been hard for him to be pulled by me and his job. I'm not saying I pity him for it (I tend to just pull harder), but I think that's something worth noticing about this problem. Since we live in a society that expects men to be the breadwinner, men who make different choices may worry they will be professionally hurt by this, and sometimes may actually be hurt by it. It's bullshit, but it is how they feel.

  19. Married, no kids, but when Sir John and I moved in together---despite having a cleaning person, despite general shared beliefs in equally splitting household work---I suddenly started feeling like the house was MY responsibility. And I don't altogether mean that negatively, either. For awhile I really enjoyed running a household that was more than just me and one cat. I wanted to provide A Home for Sir John. Gradually my feminist side re-surfaced and we renegotiated chores. In fact, we renegotiate fairly regularly. But some of the women you write about may be in that stage of feeling fulfilled by having My House and My Kids as well as My Job. (Or they might have started that way and then things calcified.) I don't know how much of this is generational or locational; I'm in my mid-40s and certainly was raised to think of most household work as the wife's job, although my dad was a cook in the Navy and so cooking was anyone's job in my house. Result: I love cooking and Sir John does not, so if I don't feel like it or am not home, he opens a can of soup. But he doesn't see it as my job to feed him. I still sort of do, because I'm one of those food-is-love types.

  20. I want to ask all those questions, too. Sometimes, I actually do, and the answer is always the same: a sigh and a shrug of the shoulders.

    I've seen too many of my friends, strong, independent women all, who wouldn't take shit anywhere else put up with all sorts of shit in their marriages. Ex. 1: her husband bought a Mercedes - a Mercedes!! - without asking her and then fussed at her for buying a pair of shoes. Ex. 2: she has to beg her husband to babysit the kids the one time a year I get to visit. Ex. 3: she works a full-time job and raises their child because he really isn't "into kids" until they're older. Ex. 4: as he explained, he had an affair because she was spending too much time with the kids and not enough with him, even though he never helped her with said kids.

    Maybe my friends just have crap taste in men. And I don't know what goes on behind closed doors. But from the outside looking in, it truly doesn't seem fair. And I don't understand it.

  21. I do less than 50% and feel vaguely guilty, like I'm oppressing someone or something. But I don't give a shit if anything is clean and he does, so he can just as well do it. I do wonder if he resents me crapping up everything so much and going around cleaning up after me.

    Here's my semi-answer. As more and more of my friends from suburbia who were raised in traditional American households (ie unlike my gay father and hippie mother and a kitchen in which no one knew how to operate the stove, where you open a closet and as a kid could seriously get buried under all the shit that falls out), they really and truly did not see this coming. They were completely surprised that they would hate the drudge work.

    Not having lived together much before marriage, at first it seems like all fun and games, buying housewares and playing house.

    Then the first kid - and they love them, but I get this email from my friend that she is just burnt out from the routine you described ... which is understandable, but the thing that gets me is that she was so SURPRISED that it sucked, or that the sheen would wear off the romance and she'd be pissed off that he doesn't do shit around the house.

    I think that people like us sort of underestimate the mindset and also the lack of breadth of experience of the kind of people you are describing.

  22. Angela, Thanks :)

    Human, Thanks for explaining. It's really hard to expess one's frustration and anger at the system without making it sound personal. But I thought you were talking about the system.

    Beckett, /hugs. It's such a difficult issus. I wish I were closer, you know? Way closer. There are no easy answers, are there?

    Kate, I think you're right; part of male privilege is not having to recognize sexism. I'm interested that you note different expectations in your different academic fields. I think I see that in some fields, but I'm not sure that it's so much a field thing as an individual department practice thing?

    Dame Eleanor, You bring out an important point, too, that there's pleasure in caring for someone you love. And that these things can be renegotiated and reworked. I think those are important points!

    PhD Me, It sounds like you have some of the same friends I do!

    MSILF, Interesting take. I think the issue is multi-generational, though. I'm closer to 50 than 40, and I see this in colleagues older and younger. I really like your point about people being surprised. Maybe I should be more grateful that my Mom was openly frustrated and helped me see that frustration as tied to sexism and having kids (or maybe I was an especially difficult kid?)