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.