My mother graduated from high school in California in the mid-1960s. She was a hippie. She took college classes. She worked at a technology company and lived on a commune (at the same time). My mother lived independently and non-traditionally.
My mother married my father when she was 26 years old. My father was older than her but not old-fashioned by any means. As an electrical engineer, he was certainly not part of my mother’s usual crowd but they met, fell in love, moved to Idaho, started living together and were eventually convinced by some friends to get married in their backyard during a brief visit back to California.
My parents were not conventional people, then or now. Still, as far back as I can remember, their roles in our family were exactly that: conventional. Generally, my father worked five days a week at his office or in court, while my mother worked seven days a week, mostly at home, taking care of me and my younger brother. (Note: my mother did return to work when I was 12 and my bother was 9). My parents’ division of household work also followed custom. My father mowed the law, took out the trash and grilled. He also cooked big breakfasts on the weekends. My mother did everything else: the cleaning, the laundry, the grocery shopping, the cooking, the school shopping, the lunch packing, the doctor appointments, the dentist appointments, the birthday party planning, the presents from Santa wrapping, the listening, the tear-wiping, the holding on and the letting go.
I am sure some of you had very different childhood experiences, but I would bet many of you had parents a lot like mine: kind, loving, intelligent, funny, progressive people who provided their children with a not-so-progressive model for the division of labor at home. And, as all of us parents know, children do what you do, not what you say. So, regardless of my parents’ non-traditional lives prior to marriage or their progressive dinner-table talk about everything from abortion to the Vatican (my father was raised Catholic), what I saw them do was generally adhere to the same gender-based division of roles and responsibilities followed since post-World War II.
In all fairness, I had no idea at the time that my parents were modeling a distinctly non-progressive approach to creating and sustaining a home together. It is only now, after ten years of marriage and three children, that I see my parents’ dynamic for what it was. I am able to see it because I recognize it as the same dynamic in my own life, maybe not exactly the same but close enough to be unsettling.
We have two sons and a daughter. I do not want a single one of them to grow up thinking that dads take care of the lawn, trash and bbq, while moms take care of everything else. I want my sons to learn how to do their own laundry from their father. I want my daughter to learn how to break down a box and take out the trash and recycling from me. I want to teach my boys how to bake and run the vacuum. I want my husband to teach my daughter how to grill a great burger and flip the perfect pancake on Saturday morning. I want everyone to clean up after him or herself, whether that means toys, shoes, clothes, wet towels, or toenail clippings.
I refuse to continue to operate in accordance with the unwritten, unspoken agreement that the women (i.e. the wives and the mothers) will be responsible for the majority of the family/household shit (in some cases, actual shit is involved). Everyone, no matter their age, should do for themselves as much as they are capable of doing. Obviously there is a lot children cannot do, at least at first. As to these tasks, we parents need to make sure that we share them (as much as is practically possible) equally and without regard to role or gender.
To those of you who (like me) grew up in a home were your father worked outside of the home five days a week for money and did some chores around the house, while your mother worked inside the home every minute of every day for no money doing all the things your father did not, I say: We can do better. We cannot be perfect. We cannot ignore reality or attempt to force our families to function in an unworkable system. But we can focus more on what we do rather than what we say. We can consciously model for our children what an equal, neutral division of labor looks like for our particular family. And we can hope that, by doing so, our sons and daughters will move forward in life expecting such equality in their personal relationships, their professional pursuits, and from their government.