So I’m sitting in my office reading this article by Lisa Miller from New York magazine about “feminist housewives” that just came out a couple of days ago. And I’m feeling annoyed. Not because I think feminism and housewifery are somehow at odds – not at all. I have quite a few feminist friends who stay at home with their kids. And, to be perfectly honest, if I had the option of hopping off the tenure track for a year and then hopping right back on, I would probably opt to do that. This idea of progressive moms who choose to stay home is old news to me.
[And can I just take a quick aside to say that I’m feeling really hemmed in by terminology here. So let me say, loud and clear, that I fully believe all moms are working moms and stay-at-home moms don’t just stay at home like weird recluses all day and working moms are fulltime parents, too. Sigh. We seriously need some new monikers that don’t automatically catapult us into Mommy Warzones.]
Anyway, I’m annoyed at this article. You are encouraged to read it for yourself, but for those who trust my interpretive lens, I’ll recap a few salient points for you. Miller’s article primarily focuses on a self-proclaimed feminist named Kelly Makino, who:
believes that every household needs one primary caretaker, that women are, broadly speaking, better at that job than men … The maternal instinct is a real thing, Kelly argues: Girls play with dolls from childhood, so “women are raised from the get-go to raise children successfully. When we are moms, we have a better toolbox.” Women, she believes, are conditioned to be more patient with children, to be better multitaskers, to be more tolerant of the quotidian grind of playdates and temper tantrums; “women,” she says, “keep it together better than guys do.”
The article goes on to describe how, despite the fact that “college students of both genders almost universally tell social scientists that they want marriages in which housework, child care, professional ambition, and moneymaking will be respectfully negotiated and fully shared,” those egalitarian aspirations typically remain unrealized. By and large, we continue to live in a reality in which the bulk of domestic labor is left to women, regardless of who is working outside the home.
We’ve all heard of the second shift, a nickname for the phenomenon of working mothers coming home to an additional “shift” of domestic duties. The second wave of the feminist movement unleashed a surge of women into the workforce (so much so that we’re now at the point where women actually account for more than half of that workforce), but there has not been a parallel pendulum swing going the other way. Work on the home front continues to align with traditional gender roles, despite the destabilization of gender roles outside the home. There may be a balance of male and female laborers in the workforce now (speaking in terms of numbers only), but there has not been a corresponding rebalancing of labor in the domestic sphere.
And guess what, chicas? It’s partially our fault. According to Miller, both men and women police these gendered lines. Women fall into ‘gatekeeping’ behavior by not trusting men to adequately perform domestic duties. We’re afraid they won’t do it “right” — i.e., like we would do it — so we just do it ourselves. This creates a feedback loop of gatekeeping on the part of women, and learned helplessness on the part of men, until voila, you have a huge imbalance.
I used to balk at this gatekeeping argument as a way of explaining the inequity of domestic labor. It seemed a little like blaming the victim. But then I began to catch myself doing it. I noticed, for example, when Michael would dress Julian for the day in clothes that I had neatly categorized, in my own mind, as pajamas – and I was annoyed. I wanted to correct him. I probably did a few times.
While I was on maternity leave for three months, Michael and I were both at home full time, and because I was breastfeeding around the clock, we fell into a pattern where I did the primary childcare duties, and Michael handled most of the other domestic stuff, like cooking and cleaning. (I literally cannot remember the last time I cooked a meal. It’s been months.)
So Julian and I developed a nice rhythm, we were pretty in sync with one another, and when the time came for me to go back to work, it was somewhat of an adjustment for Michael to suddenly be on all-day baby duty three times a week.
The first day after my leave ended, Michael called me that afternoon to say that Julian had been crying inconsolably for the past half-hour. “Do you think he might be hungry?” He asked. I’m not sure what I actually said, but in my mind I bitchily replied, “Hmmm, you think? Maybe try feeding him before calling me and asking me to intuit his needs from afar.”
Those first few days were a bit rough on the home front, and I began to wonder if perhaps Julian and I did indeed share some mystical, unique bond that Michael wouldn’t be able to match, because he didn’t, as a man, have access to that oh-so-magical maternal instinct.
Well, fast forward four weeks to today. Actually, we don’t even have to go that far. Within one week or so, ladies and gents, my husband had transformed into a bearded, tattooed Donna Reed. These days, I come home from work to see a cute little baby boy cuddled in the Moby wrap with his dad, who is cooking something awesome for dinner.
Michael has mastered the art of putting him down for naps, feeding him with a bottle full of breastmilk, and, hardest of all, the art of intuiting when Julian is hungry, tired, or just needs to cuddle. Michael is a cloth-diapering wizard, an amazing cook, a master gardener. He’s established a seamless rhythm with Julian that is simply beautiful to witness.
One of the unforeseen benefits of me returning to work has been this: Julian is now deeply bonded to both of us. He is just as content to be in Michael’s arms as he is to be in mine. This means that when I’m at work, or at lunch with friends, I feel completely at ease because I know Michael is fully adept at caring for our son.
I’ve also realized that those initial glitches we experienced didn’t have anything to do with the fact that Michael is a man; they had EVERYTHING to do with the fact that he hadn’t yet been forced to be primarily responsible for Julian’s daily care.
I told you earlier that I was sitting in my office while I was reading this article. Let me flesh that scene out for you a bit more. I’m in my office, sitting at my desk, pumping breast milk. My shiny new iPhone is next to me, and it keeps buzzing because Michael is sending videos of Julian, just up from a nice long nap, honing his elephant-grabbing skills on the play mat. In the foreground of the video is a happy baby, rested and fed; in the background I can see a row of clean cloth diapers ready to be folded, and off-camera is Michael, with joy and ease in his voice as he eggs Julian on, telling him that pretty soon he’ll be in Cirque de Soleil.
What annoys me most about Miller’s article is that it ostensibly calls women out for reinforcing the idea that men are inept caretakers, yet by framing this caretaking conflict as a woman’s dilemma, the article subtly perpetuates the myth that dudes can’t hack it on the home front.
The woman interviewed in the article, Makino, sees her choice to stay home as revolutionary. “The feminist revolution started in the workplace, and now it’s happening at home,” she says. But I don’t see her choice as revolutionary. Totally legitimate, absolutely — but not revolutionary. I don’t think it’s a giant leap forward for women to opt to stay at home simply because they are women.
What WOULD be revolutionary would be to stop seeing the home as a gendered space. That’s where the revolution still needs to happen. Not with women continuing to be responsible for the bulk of domestic work, but with both sexes letting their domestic Gods and Goddesses shine forth by actively choosing to home-make and co-parent together.
This means that, yes, men need to be left alone with their own children and forced to fend for themselves on a regular basis. And if this means that your baby has mismatched socks, or that he wears pajamas all day, that is totally fine. YOU WILL ALL SURVIVE. Not only that; you’ll be better off.
[Am I giving the article a bad rap? Do women make better caretakers? Are domestic gender roles a positive thing? Comment and share your thoughts.]