Interchangeable Parental UnitsJune 6th, 2009 at 8:05
What’s good for the goose is good for the gander. After 23 years of being a parent, including changing thousands of diapers when my kids were little, I have found no biological or psychological reason that men cannot be just as good parents and homemakers as women. Actually, there is one thing… men can’t breastfeed. Other than that, as far as I’m concerned, moms and dads are (to paraphrase the “Cone Heads” of Saturday Night Live) “interchangeable parental units”.
American commercial and popular culture is not necessarily going to let you in on that little secret. American advertisers I’m sure have done their focus groups and other research to determine that most housework, parenting and childcare is still done by women, and probably have other research that it would be demeaning to our supposedly fragile male egos if we men are portrayed as cleaning a bathroom or changing a diaper. It still makes many people, male and female alike, chuckle at the sight of a man in an apron and/or holding a toilet brush… a foolish fish out of water.
The reality is that we do still live in a patriarchy that is all about ranking us, leaders above followers, white-collar above blue-collar, men above women, and adults above children. Even the professions are ranked by how much we pay for those professional services, and generally the lowest paid “professionals” are teachers, which are more likely to be women than men. Certainly I can make considerably more as a business analyst with my bachelor’s degree than any K-12 teacher can make with a master’s or PhD.
Parenting is outside the realm of paid work, but those who are paid to do similar work, teachers and especially childcare workers are relatively poorly paid. Working with children is low status work, critical for the future of our society perhaps, but apparently a critical function assigned to lower status people.
It is probably true that many men have not gained the knowledge set to properly clean a poopy bottom or a dirty toilet. Conventional wisdom through family tradition and commercial and popular culture tells them that this is a skill set they are not expected to acquire and therefore can often make it to adulthood, to parenthood, with no experience with these very important hygiene tasks. Of course it is also true that these are each skill sets that can be learned in ten minutes. Many men, and the women in their lives, just don’t want to go there, for a complicated set of social and psychological reasons associated with our underlying patriarchal culture. Men understand that these are not tasks associated with status, and that generally speaking; many can claim and take a pass.
Perhaps I am getting (or at least feeling) a little snarky about this… so I will return to talking about my own experience!
As a youth, I don’t think I ever changed a diaper, and never proactively offered to do so (including having to endure the ten minute training) when the opportunity presented itself. I did have a home situation as a teenager with a household run by a divorced mom (wrestling at times with depression) that led (though not actually forced) me to step up and learn to buy groceries, do rudimentary cooking (at least for myself) and take out and do the laundry (after our washer broke).
I also had the advantage of a minimum-wage-paying summer job as a “houseboy” at a Hilton motel, which if I hadn’t had a penis, would have been called a “chambermaid”, since the bulk of what I did was clean guest rooms. That is where I was professionally trained to clean toilets and change bed linens. My tone of sarcasm (am I getting snarky again?), by the way, is to make the point about ranking of work. Having cleaned several hundred rooms myself, I have great respect for the people, mostly women, who add to the quality of life of travelers who stay in their employers hotels. Remember to tip your housekeeper when you check out!
And for several years after that I worked as a short-order cook where, on a salary just above minimum wage, I learned many basics of preparing, cooking and preserving food, plus additional cleaning skills associated with a kitchen type environment. I still find it interesting that most people who are paid to cook are men (even if at a low wage), while most unpaid cooking is done by women. I haven’t quite figured that one out.
So moving forward in time, when I moved in with my fellow feminist and future life partner, I was prepared to meet her expectation (or at least her hope) that I was going to do my share of the domestic chores. I was also enough of a feminist, well trained by my “Feminist Aunts”, to know that I was not “helping her with the housework”, but that we were equally dividing that work. Prior to marrying, in our first year living together in her apartment, I actually did more of the grocery shopping, cooking and laundry, plus applied my expert skill in cleaning the bathroom, while she did more of the dishes and generally cleaned the kitchen and vacuumed elsewhere, plus plied her better developed skill of paying the bills (I never had that bookkeeping job in my youthful resume!).
When we made the decision to have, conceived, and brought into the world two kids, which prompted a move from our easy to maintain one-bedroom apartment to a more challenging though still small house, I knew that I should, and was determined in fact to do, my half of the homemaking, parenting and childcare related tasks. This was facilitated by the fact that my partner Sally and I had roughly equally paying jobs, that were not particularly stressful or all encompassing for either of us.
I have to admit that maintaining balance of domestic work gets more challenging when one partner has a way more high-powered job than the other. But I think it is a real loss, particularly to men, if they don’t have that opportunity to get “down and dirty” with their kids (including their excretory functions) and spend lots of time with their kids. More time than that “quality time” of current patriarchal mythology, where dad perhaps takes the previously cleaned, dressed and fed kid (by mom) to little league or soccer practice.
Me… I made a conscious effort throughout my work years to stay on more of a “mommy track”, eschew the patriarchal ladder game and avoid rising to that level in the corporate work world I was employed in where the time and stress of my job would make it harder for me to be an equal parent and homemaker. I must say, as a side benefit, though I was able to advance my skills and (more slowly) my compensation), I generally did work that was of significant value to my team but mostly kept me “off the radar”, where stress-levels tend to skyrocket.