Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Domesticity and Gender Roles Then and Now

Last week I read an Op-Ed piece by Sandra Tsing Loh in the New York Times that struck a chord with me and really made me think a little about me and my wife's roles here in the early 21st century...

I am stricken with the peculiar curse of being a 21st-century woman who makes more than the man she’s living with

Now I have to wonder where I fit in with this… Unlike the author, I am the husband and sole breadwinner of the family (which is just me and my wife, no kids).

I don’t know how it’s going for my sisters, but as my 40s and Verizon bills and mortgage payments roll on, I seem to have an ever more recurring 1950s housewife fantasy. In this magical Technicolor world, the breadwinner husband, Brad, leaves home (where his duties are limited to mowing the lawn and various minor home repairs) at 7 a.m. When he returns from work at 6 p.m., aside from a savory roast with mashed potatoes, his homemaker wife, Nancy, has pipe, slippers and a tray of Manhattans ready.

The couple sink into easy chairs and get pleasantly soused while Brad recounts his workday battles. Through a dreamy mixed-bourbon haze, Nancy makes gentle cooing sounds like “Ah!” and “Oh!” and “Did the central manager really say that in the meeting? They don’t appreciate all the hard work you do! Oh, Brad!”

This is different than my parents. From the early 80's till the early 2000's, when my Mom retired, she was the breadwinner of the family, and my father was the primary housekeeper. He took care of most of the cleaning and cooking, grocery shopping and all that stuff. My father also did stained glass crafting professionally, but more to trade with other artists and craftsmen for luxuries in the house than for money.

My wife, who's Indian and a bit more conservative (but liberal by Indian standards, or she wouldn't have married a foreigner like me!) has no problem telling me that my parents were plain, flat wrong. Her opinion is the husband has to be the main breadwinner, or he's not worthy to be a man.

On the other hand, she respects and admires all of the women I work with for being more empowered, for building careers and for showing the world that women are equal to men. She points out the women on Sex and the City for their independence and their ability to work as equals.

So she's somehow torn between the old and the new.

In some respects she does take on some of the tasks more associated with men, dealing with the plumbers, carpenters, mechanics, tax office and so forth, but that's more because we're in India and I haven't successfully learned how to communicate in Hindi or Marathi. I think this bothers her somewhat, because these are the tasks her father or brother does in their household, never her mother.

She tells me when we move to the U.S. I'd better be prepared for all of that. Though it's less of a problem because in the U.S. we won't need any of those nearly as often.

She does think I should contribute to closer to 50% of the household tasks. As it is she takes care of all the food, from shopping for ingredients to overseeing the servants prepare it and making sure there's snacks and things for me to take to work. She oversees the servants cleaning the apartment as well, while I stay out of the way. I probably do more dish cleaning, however, since I like to do that (and neither her nor the servants can clean dishes to my high standards (let's face it, I like 'em clean enough to eat off of!)). She does all the shopping for household items and clothing, while my only shopping is for books and CDs, things she considers luxuries.

But when we talk about things, she insists that I don't contribute to the household. Pointing that I get up by 4am every morning and work 45-50 hours a week so we can afford our lifestyle results in her opinion that life isn't all about money, so that's not a significant contribution.

When he returns from work at 6 p.m., aside from a savory roast with mashed potatoes, his homemaker wife, Nancy, has pipe, slippers and a tray of Manhattans ready.

Fortunately for me, when I return home she does have a bowl of cut melon or destemmed grapes ready for me after I finish my chicken soup and am ready to sit at the computer.

The point is that Nancy arrives at the end of her day so fully socialized with, she is ready to glaze over amiably during her husband’s evening Work Monologue

Of course, this is quite different... As a more modern woman, she's not ready to listen to my "Work Monologue" unless I can complete it in about 30 seconds, the time between when she wants to tell me about her day and when the phone rings and the doorbell rings or she wants to get the watchman to clean the car... Besides, the work I do is fairly technical and she has no understanding or interest in it.

Fast forward to 2010. When husbands and wives not only co-work but try to co-homemake, as post-feminist and well-intentioned as it is, out goes the clear delineation of spheres, out goes the calm of unquestioned authority, and of course out goes the gratitude

So, I'm caught, as well between the old and the modern... I'm the old-style, sole breadwinner, but expected, yet failing, co-homemaker. I'm not looking to win, it's a marriage and we should be equals, but can't I at least break even?

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