Role Call


My parents were married a happy 45 years – not giddy happy, but placid happy. Part of the reason for their happiness was their traditional approach to what today are called “gender roles.”

My dad was in charge of 1) earning money, 2) “life” conversations with children, 3) entertaining guests, and 4) running errands on Saturday. He excelled in his role, as my mother did in hers. She 1) cleaned, 2) bought and prepared food, 3) fixed stuff (televisions, roofs), 4) did scheduling, and 5) managed finances.

I don’t remember either of them lobbying for a change. There was no envy. They just got on with it. Neither wanted or would have liked to do the other’s jobs. In fact, they laughed the loudest when one of them tried – often ineptly – to play the opposite part. My father once came home from the grocery store with powdered milk instead of powdered sugar and cabbage instead of lettuce. My mother, not known for her patience with fools, once turned on her heels and walked away from a crazy neighbor. Luckily, my dad’s charm smoothed things over so we could still wave hello over the hedges.

Progress came in the form of efficiency. Experience allowed each to become more skilled at his or her “job,” and the spare time this created was devoted to fun family stuff.

The modern family is more complicated. The roles blend and this can be confusing, to say the least. It’s often unclear who should be doing what. Sometimes an embarrassingly mundane job will flummox both husband and wife. Shirts get ironed poorly no matter who does it. A leaky faucet goes unfixed. Sheets, especially those fitted ones, don’t get folded; they get rolled up into balls and stashed in the closet. Something’s amiss.

Luckily, my husband is modern in the best sense. He is, in many ways, a more patient and capable homemaker than I am. He also thinks I’m talented enough to earn for the whole family. (Bless him.) But he doesn’t feel any internal conflict about the children/job tradeoff. If he has to give the kids French fries for dinner – and I mean just French fries – he does it. He figures tomorrow will be better. I have been known to start worrying about dinner at 9:15 a.m. And be in a bad mood about it all day. Sometimes I call him at work from the grocery store in teary frustration, asking about certain cuts of meat. What’s the difference between a rib eye and eye round? Is it “prime rib” or “prime roast”? The guy at the meat counter thinks I’m a joke. I kind of am.

I need the fulfillment that comes from working outside the house. But when I was working, we had to pay someone else to care for the children. Then, because no one was managing the household, we would do desperate things to keep ourselves sane – pizza Fridays (and Sundays!). We shopped in the neighborhood’s most expensive food mart because it was convenient, and we sent the laundry out so we wouldn’t be swallowed by it. All of this “discretionary spending” cancelled out my income, so, after years of guilt and feeling stretched too far, I’m trying the home-all-the-time thing.

It’s week three. I’ll let you know how it goes.

There are 17 comments.

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  1. Profile Photo Member

    Ursula: Is it possible that maybe, just maybe, this gig with Ricochet will help to give you a bit of that fulfillment and stimulation that you’re sacrificing by not working outside the house? Hope so and good luck. And so much of what you just related (e.g. Pizza Fridays and french fry dinners) could have been typed by my wife and me. Nice to know we’re not the only ones. Thanks.

    • #1
  2. Profile Photo Member

    I love it- you sound a bit like our oldest daughter (she would bridle at the comparison, though), who is hyperfeministic in her own mind, complains about the male dominated profession (she is a professor of engineering), and then likes to bake cookies and buy nice dresses.

    I think that every successful couple in history finds their own labor space, and every set is different. That is the fatal flaw with much modern scholarship on gender and gender roles- individual differences, and sex differences, act in different ways in every dyad. I probably cook (and like it) more than Bride does. She is an accountant, and hates to handle the checkbook.

    The greatest skill any pair can develop is the gift of contentment and materiality. Chores will still be there tomorrow, kids go away. One wrinkle won’t kill that shirt- it will be covered by the blazer. Water dissolves all food crusts on countertops as long as they don’t sit so long that the bugs find them.

    And many of those cuts of meat are made up for advertising purposes. Use a crockpot for everything, and everything comes out tender!

    • #2
  3. Profile Photo Inactive

    Good for you! My husband and I decided when we started a family that I would stay home, and I don’t regret it one bit! We both have comparable educations, but he can command a greater salary in his field. Fine art instructors like me don’t make 6 figures. It’s a sacrifice financially, but I think it makes things less stressful for everyone. That said, being a sahm (stay at home mom) keeps me busier than I ever was teaching. In addition to chasing after two active boys and trying to keep the house together, I’m active in several local civic organizations. I’ve learned that I can have a huge impact on my community, making it a safer, healthier and more creative place to raise families – including my own.

    Some days I get run down with all the repetitive tasks, and I feel like my brain will turn to mush. Things like Ricochet have helped bring a balance, especially the podcast. I can’t say enough about the intelligent and thoughtful commentary, even for a lightweight like me. I can scrub the bathrooms, weed the garden or get in a workout all while listening to Yoo and Epstein debate. It’s crazy!

    • #3
  4. Profile Photo Thatcher

    My wife and I have gone the “traditional” route. We divide stuff up much like your parents did. I was just thinking this morning how connected to my wife I felt just getting the dishwasher unloaded and dishes washed together.

    If you had asked me 16 years ago, would washing dishes be a joyful moment, I would have said “no”, but here we are.

    Good luck in the new arrangement. It sounds like you have already won. Your husband and you are willing to adventure together.

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  5. Profile Photo Member

    Commitment and compromise are the necessary forces enabling 45 years of “placid happiness.”

    My wife and I have been working at it for 60 years and don’t anticipate a breakup in the near future.

    The role arrangements flex as needs and abilities dictate.

    “Happy marriages don’t just “happen.”

    The rewards seem to be proportional to efforts expended.

    • #5
  6. Profile Photo Contributor

    Let’s add to this stellar conversation a link to an important essay, by AEI President Arthur Brooks, that appeared in last Sunday’s Washington Post. The teaser for his new book, The Battle, “America’s New Culture War: Free Enterprise vs. Government Control” delivers the thesis that unifies Brooks’ research on happiness. (For a somewhat different take, see Will Wilkinson’s variety of happiness research.)

    My experience as a novice political theorist and father leads me to ask: do we really want happiness above all? I’m not even sure we can be satisfied saying happiness is a necessary but insufficient quality of the good life. In my experience, happiness is often a fleeting reconciliation, something you catch out of the corner of your eye, more like grace than like success. Don’t we go astray if we live our lives in search of happiness, thinking it’s happiness that makes us happy? Isn’t this akin to thinking that, if only you get wet, it’ll rain?

    • #6
  7. Profile Photo Member

    For Mr. Poulos:

    The Declaration of Independence listed Life and Liberty to accompany “the pursuit of Happiness.”

    I wouldn’t get tangled up trying to define “happiness.” To paraphrase Justice Potter Stewart, you’ll know it when you find it.

    • #7
  8. Profile Photo Inactive

    For me, the definitive treatment of happiness is Charles Murray’s In Pursuit of Happiness and Good Government. Murray doesn’t see happiness as transitory, instead he seems to see it as a relatively stable condition in the presence of the proper environment. Drawing on Aristotle, he concludes that happiness arises from the individual achieving the greatest amount of his potential, as defined by his own gifts and inclinations, and through his own efforts. The key take-aways here are:

    1. Happiness arises from different conditions for different people. It is highly individual, the opposite of “one size fits all.” Not everyone’s happiness is maximized by a college education.
    2. People are happiest when they are empowered, and can do for themselves and their communities. Murray talks about the importance of the local “little platoons” in which we cooperate to make our lives better.

    These observations have implications for good government, since a large, distant government produces precisely opposite conditions to those Murray considers essential for human happiness.

    This sort of happiness is not by its nature transitory, although it can be perturbed by changes in conditions. Emotions like joy seem to me more situational, although a happy life should produce many moments of joy.

    • #8
  9. Profile Photo Inactive

    Blessings & best wishes for the future.

    Whatever else you do, take lots of pictures. Digital photography makes it cheap and easy. Snapshots doing all the mundane day-to-day things.

    20, 30, and more years from now you’ll look back and say “I remember that toy” “I remember when we set the picnic table on fire at the cookout”

    There’s always time to make money & what not, but your 10 year old will be 10 years old for exactly one year, then she’ll turn 11. You have exactly one year to spend with her as a ten year old, when she turns 11 that year is over and gone forever. No amount of money will buy even a minute of it back for you.

    • #9
  10. Profile Photo Contributor
    Duane Oyen: The greatest skill any pair can develop is the gift of contentment and materiality. Chores will still be there tomorrow, kids go away. One wrinkle won’t kill that shirt- it will be covered by the blazer.

    Yes, Duane, I completely agree. It is hard, however, when you are buried in the moment, to dismiss the importance of an ironed shirt or a crumb-filled counter. But by forcing oneself out of the “narrow now” one quickly realizes it is the life around you — children, parents, friends — that one must savor and cherish and fret over. All else falls away.

    • #10
  11. Profile Photo Contributor
    Karen Carruth Luttrell: … even for a lightweight like me. I can scrub the bathrooms, weed the garden or get in a workout all while listening to Yoo and Epstein debate. It’s crazy! · May 31 at 6:48am

    Oh, Karen, you are not a lightweight! Just the fact that you are actually scrubbing the bathroom, weeding the garden, and working out proves to me that you are very together! I think I need you to tutor me in “mom-ness.”

    • #11
  12. Profile Photo Contributor
    James Poulos: In my experience, happiness is often a fleeting reconciliation, something you catch out of the corner of your eye … May 31 at 10:04am

    Ah, yes, James, that’s it exactly! In fact, happiness is often gone before you can actually bask in it! I equate happiness with relief. I listen to friends complain about their husbands — he didn’t come home until 2 a.m. and then wouldn’t help when the baby woke up, or he is constantly begging me to host dinner parties, or he wants me to dress fancier around the house. I feel such great relief that I don’t have to worry about these things. But I can’t take a lick of credit. I don’t work hard to love my husband. I didn’t use any secret formula to choose him. I thought he was 1) cute and 2) funny and 3) I felt peaceful around him. This led me to accept his marriage proposal. Don’t even ask if he had a job or any prospects at the time. I won’t tell. The point is, I live in a perpetual state of TBFTGOGGI — There but for the grace of God go I. Relief is happiness, for me.

    • #12
  13. Profile Photo Inactive

    James, thanks for the Brooks article. In many ways, this was the sentiment I was trying to express to my local moms groups during my time as president. I wanted our group to realize that our contribution of time and talents is an investment in the long-term wellness of our area – that we enrich and bring happiness to our own lives when we give with our hearts. With active parental involvement, we can do more to improve our local economy, schools, and our home values than a tax-payer funded federal gov’t program, because we are helping ourselves. I’m hoping this notion might have even resonated among the intrenched big government proponents over at the WashPo with the article they published about our little moms club… The photo isn’t flattering and the piece appeared in a local edition, but I count it as a small achievement in encouraging self-sufficiency and stewardship within our communities – even communities in the shadow of DC.

    • #13
  14. Profile Photo Member

    The most humbling experience I have ever had, and probably will ever have, is when our little girl’s birthmother chose us for her child. After my three year journey, I thought I had heard, seen and experienced it all, so I was surprised and impressed that the first question she asked me was what I do to improve who I am as a person. I told her that I live by my favorite Socrates quote, “An unexamined life is not worth living.” The more I try to keep my world the same the more life passes me by. But, when I challenge myself to try something new and grow as a person, then stress myself and my family out when I actually do it, I emerge from it having peeled away another layer in knowing who I am. As a result, my relationships are richer and happiness is even more fulfilling. It sounds like you have a lot of changes happening right now…shifting your identity and losing your father. Give it time to let harmony settle and you may discover something new and wonderful will come.

    What beautiful things others have written.

    • #14
  15. Profile Photo Thatcher

    I think being happy is a transitory thing in any respect. What I want in my life is joy. While I cannot be happy and sad at the same time, I can be full of joy and unhappy at the same time. Sadness is part of life. When a loved one dies, we feel sadness, but can also feel joy at their reunion with our maker.

    I think we should strive to live joyful lives, not happy ones.

    • #15
  16. Profile Photo Contributor

    I was lucky enough to know Ursula’s dad, a genuine, old-style city newspaperman. As I recall he wrote a column on the same subject. Now, this is more than 30 years ago, so my memory may be a little off. As I recall, Bill Reel described his responsibilities as “deciding who should be pope, what America’s foreign policy should be, the starting lineup for the evening’s Yankee game, and how the Supreme Court should rule on the most contentious issues of the country.” Ursula’s mom, by contrast, was to decide “what house they would buy, where the children would go to school, where they would vacation, how they would vote, etc.”

    • #16
  17. Profile Photo Member

    I would argue that happiness is like a butterfly. You can make yourself crazy trying to pursue it and catch it. But if you just stop and be still, it just may land on your shoulder.

    It is something that comes to you while you are doing something else.

    • #17
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