When my husband, Andy, and I were first together as a couple in the early 1990s, before we were married, we started giving dinner parties. While growing up I had resolutely avoided learning to cook (or to do anything else domestic). But coming from a Belgian family I was an inveterate foodie from birth, and in graduate school I at least learned how to put together a decent dinner. Andy, on the other hand, had not progressed far beyond graduate school minimalism in the kitchen, so I set him to work as a sous-chef, following various recipes.
It quickly became apparent that my vaunted multi-tasking skills (taking a phone call, jotting notes to myself on something I was writing, making a list for the next day, and chopping vegetables all at the same time) compared very unfavorably with his single-minded focus on getting the culinary job done. After only a few times together in the kitchen he firmly took over the role as head chef. He is now the cook-in-chief not only for dinner parties and family holidays but also for whenever the kids need dinner on the table. (I remain a decent baker and cook a mean breakfast, but otherwise I cheerfully cede the ground.)
Memories of our early gender-role reversal in the kitchen came to mind this week as I read Lisa Miller's article "The Retro Wife" in New York Magazine and some excellent follow up commentary. Miller's piece is subtitled "Feminists who say they're having it all--by choosing to stay home." It opens with the story of Kelly Makino, a New Jersey stay-at-home mom and self-professed feminist who grew up wanting to be first a CIA operative and then a CEO but decided to leave the workforce after she had her second child. Nothing surprising there, but her rationale got lots of people buzzing. Here's an excerpt:
The maternal instinct is a real thing, Kelly argues: Girls play with dolls from childhood, so 'women are raised from the get-go to raise children successfully. When we are moms, we have a better toolbox.' Women, she believes, are conditioned to be more patient with children, to be better multi-taskers, to be more tolerant of the quotidian grind of playdates and temper tantrums; 'women,' she says, 'keep it together better than guys do.'
The heart of Miller's argument is that whereas second-wave feminism got women out of the home and into the workplace, a new generation of young feminists is making a revolution in the home, embracing traditional gender roles as a better way of living, allowing them far more control over and satisfaction with parenting and homemaking. The piece offers enough material to chew over for several posts, but what I want to focus on here is women's sexism with respect to how men parent. Miller raises this issue, discussing her own feelings and providing a wealth of anecdotes about women who know they are better at multi-tasking and often just assume they are going to be so much better and faster than their husbands at doing household chores that they just do these tasks themselves.
Abigail Rine weighed in with a terrific post called "Feminist Housedude," complete with a picture of her bearded, tattooed husband vacuuming with their son strapped to his chest. She describes her husband as "a cloth-diapering wizard, an amazing cook, a master gardener," explaining that he has established a "seamless rhythm" with their son that is "simply beautiful to witness." The dads who write for Dadwagon have been insisting on many of the same points - that they are not only just as good as their wives but often better. Matt Vilano wrote a great post on Motherlode entitled "I hate being called a good dad," pointing out that women stop all the time and tell him what a good dad he is when he is doing absolutely basic parenting tasks for his daughters. He notes the "heinous double standard," that he is praised for behavior that in a mother would be regarded as routine, and that "the act of labeling someone 'a good dad' suggests that most dads are, by our very nature as fathers, somehow less than 'good.'"
My husband and I have discussed this issue many times. Andy freely concedes that he finds multi-tasking difficult, whereas I thrive on it. So it is indeed very hard for him to remember various appointments while making a list for dinner while organizing a play-date. He forgets things, drops balls, and flat-out refuses to wash pots.
But. Just as he can put a tastier dinner on the table better and faster than I can, so can he also sit next our younger son for hours on end working through nuances and mistakes of his piano practice. He comes up with wonderful projects for both our sons, like reading through an entire set of plays or downloading an entire genre of music. He plans extraordinary trips and is a talented logistician. He is a much better disciplinarian. Many of these attributes come precisely from his ability to focus and put in sustained effort over a long period of time.
I can hear women readers who are better at those things than their husbands howling. I am NOT saying that women can't focus (I do manage to get books written, after all), or that men are better at cooking or homework monitoring. But I am insisting that if we women truly want equal partners in the home, then we can't ask our husbands to be "equal" on our terms. They get equal say, even if we disagree. And indeed, if we can discover the joys and satisfactions of professional success, why shouldn't men be able to enjoy the rewards and satisfactions of parenting and homemaking? For years, mothers have gotten that special rush when a child reaches for his mommy and says no one else will do; do we really think a father doesn't get the same wonderful sense of being needed and valued when a child insists on his daddy?
Lisa Miller quotes therapist Barbara Kass in a blunt assessment of the problem. According to Kass, "So many women want to control their husbands' parenting. 'Oh, do you have the this? Did you do the that? Don't forget that she needs this. And make sure she naps.' Sexism is internalized." If women assume that we can do anything men can do (backwards and in heels, a la Ginger Rogers versus Fred Astaire,) and that we are superior in the home, we will never actually value men enough for them to experience the rewards of being fully equally partners. As my teenage sons frequently remind me, sexism cuts both ways.
Abigail Rine says it best. She finds nothing either revolutionary or negative in Kelly Makino's decision to stay home to take care of children, but she rejects the idea that that is necessarily a woman's decision to make. "What WOULD be revolutionary," Rine writes, "would be to stop seeing the home as a gendered space." Home should be as much an environment for men and women to share responsibility and pool talents as work is. We would all, including our children, be better off.