If you were to walk through the back door into our mudroom, you would be greeted by a row of deep red onions dangling from green stems, strung across the room like a row of purple Chinese lanterns.
If you were to continue upstairs, into our office, you’d find some usual office-y things (computer, desk, bookshelf), but you would also see a box of fluffy golden chicks gathering under the red glow of a heat lamp, as well as a bucket of pear cider sitting beside a jar of red wine, both in the throes of fermentation.
Before that, before even getting to the back door of the house, you’d have to walk by eight garden beds, several still overflowing with kale, celery, tomatoes (all kinds!), cabbage, squash. The zucchini, green beans, sugar peas, and broccoli have all been torn up by now, their lodgings cleared for a winter crop of beets, lettuce, carrots, onions, and yet more kale, cabbage, and broccoli.
Skirting the garden beds you’ll find a chicken run that extends from a coop in a L-shape along the back fence. Grape vines, now fruit-free, wind themselves through the fence of the run, and, inside, three hens loiter under towering sunflowers, waiting for falling seeds.
Under the edge of our roof, flanking each side of our patio, sit two large barrels that drink the runoff from the gutters; these barrels become engorged in the rainy Oregon winter, and then, in the dry summer, quench the thirst of the garden.
All of this fecundity occurs in the back part of our suburban lot. Much as we’d like to, my husband and I don’t live in the country. We’re suburban homesteaders, working with what we’ve got, often to the perplexity of our neighbors.
I say, “we,” but that really isn’t fair. Aside from occasionally helping with the harvest, collecting eggs, or locking the chicken coop at night, I have done nothing to make all this happen. My husband, Michael, grows the vegetables, raises the chickens, collects the rainwater, brews the cider, cooks the meals, bakes the bread – he even makes our lavender-scented soap – and, since the school year began last week and I returned to full-time work, he does this all while being the primary caretaker of our nine month-old son.
And yet, despite all he contributes to quite literally keeping his family fed and happy, to many Michael does not count as a “provider.” Or, at least, he doesn’t fit what seems to have become the widespread definition of the term.
I grew up in an evangelical Christian subculture that was cocooned, thanks to geography, within the LDS (Mormon) subculture. In this nesting doll of conservative religions, “provider” was shorthand for the God-ordained duty of the man to work outside the home and make money to support his family. The woman, in contrast, was meant to burrow into domesticity and learn the sacred arts of homemaking. She could work hard in the house – cooking, cleaning, laundering, and feeding and clothing and caring for the children – yet her work did not fall under the canopy of “provision.” She could be a mother, a wife, a homemaker, but not a provider. She might make the bread, but the one who wins it, he “provides.”
I still catch myself assuming that this shorthand is limited to the circles of my upbringing – but now I have come to understand that this is simply not true. The connotative meaning of the word provider is fairly universal in contemporary America, even in the broader, more secular culture that ostensibly has less rigid gender roles.
Take Walter White, my favorite television anti-hero. (Because, let’s be honest, everything I am thinking about these days has some connection to Breaking Bad.) Even the scientific, nonreligious Mr. White roots his identity in this moneymaking notion of provision; his desire to provide for his family in the face of a terminal cancer diagnosis drives him to earn the big bucks cooking methamphetamine.
I remember one particular scene from a third-season episode, in which Walter begins to suspect that his meth-cooking ventures might actually cost him his family. Gus Fring, his kingpin boss, knows exactly how to manipulate Walt away from his self-doubt, when he says: “What does a man do, Walter? A man provides for his family. … When you have children, you always have family. They will always be your priority, your responsibility. And a man, a man provides. And he does it even when he’s not appreciated or respected or even loved. He simply bears up and he does it. Because he’s a man.”
This exchange, which proves effective and lures Walt deeper into the drug world, demonstrates the power of the provider label, and also how it is a fundamentally gendered term. Walt’s terrifying (and riveting) characterization is an extreme but potent example of how our cultural ideals and expectations of men are tangled up with post-industrialist, capitalist values.
There is plenty of irony at work here. If Michael, earned a paycheck by cooking professionally for strangers as a chef, instead of cooking for his family for free, he would be seen as a provider. Similarly, if our income stemmed from his green-thumbed work, he could be considered a farmer instead of a mere gardener. The implication is clear: when domestic work is professionalized, only then can it be seen as masculine.
It is no doubt because of these gendered ideals that, when people inquire about Michael’s situation, I catch myself wanting to use terms like “farmer” and “homesteader” rather than the inert “stay-at-home dad,” which makes it sound like Michael just sort of lounges around the couch all day, never leaving the house. Even the acronym, SAHD, is a total downer. Most of these inquirers respond positively to the fact that he is a primary caregiver, but their follow-up questions – “Does he like doing that?” “Does he plan to go back to work soon?” – carry the assumption that, as a man, being at home must feel like an odd fit, a step down.
I recently had a friend remark that men receive undue praise for completing domestic tasks, and I agree with him in part. It is still too often an unexpected surprise when a man stands up to clear the plates at a dinner party instead of his female partner. But something shifts, I think, when that domestic work becomes full-time and completely supersedes a career beyond the home – thus pushing the man beyond the traditional sphere of provision.
This is not to knock the breadwinners, of course – that happens to be my shtick these days. I’m well aware that my paycheck bankrolls Michael’s backyard homesteading efforts. The work I do is important, and it’s good that our culture recognizes that. The problem is that the work Michael does – which is also the full-time work of millions of women and increasing numbers of men – is viewed as less important, and for those men who choose to do it instead of pursuing a career, it’s seen as compromising their masculinity.
And yet, despite this baggage, I like the word provider. There is something raw and weighty about it, something that captures the essential significance of parenthood. The fundamental role of any parent is to provide for his or her children, whether than means earning an income or growing and preparing food or washing a load of rank diapers. I want to keep the word provider, but somehow detach it from its gendered, monetary roots. I want to reclaim it, to crack it open and fill it with new, expansive meaning that extends beyond the capitalist model connecting manhood to moneymaking and devaluing work traditionally done by women.
Ultimately, despite our cultural conflation of manliness and earning power, both breadwinning and breadmaking are inseparable gestures of provision. The money I earn? Michael makes it count. Michael turns the straw-money into edible, life-giving gold. And this, perhaps, is provision in its purest form.
[This article originally appeared at The Good Men Project.]
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.]