After I gave birth to our first child, I thought a lot about the gendered division of labor in parenting and how I was blessedly removed from it. I saw that many new-ish mothers were managing the lion’s share of the baby care, and I was happy to be sharing both the beautiful parts and the difficult parts of being a new parent. I was grateful that I was parenting with another woman, not because women are better at parenting or even because they are willing to do more of the work of parenting, but because I simply didn’t have to worry about how sexism impacted my choices as a parent. Whether I worked or stayed at home, whether I got up in the middle of the night with the baby or my partner did, whether we utilized daycare or not — whatever happened, I was free to make my choices without worrying that those choices were constrained by gender roles, expectations, or performance.
While I may not have worried about it so much, my choices certainly were impacted by gender. I was raised as a female, and I always believed I would be a mother some day. In my culture, women are expected to be naturally nurturing of children and are supported and validated as they enter the stream of parenthood. It was expected that as a new mother I would take time off if I could, or even if I didn’t that I would be on the “mommy track” for some time, putting parenting before my career. Gender roles were there all the time, but I didn’t notice them because my partner was a woman.
Of course, as you probably know if you read this blog, my spouse turned out to actually be a man. Now that I know he is a man, my relationship with my own gender has changed. I no longer get a free pass around my own perception of gender in our choices.
Nothing has changed about the way that we share in the work of the home. For us, parenting is still collaborative and we are both equally responsible for all aspects of keeping our family running. But like everyone else, we make choices about how the bills get paid, how the house gets clean, how the laundry gets done, how the kids get home from school, and how we meet our obligations to school and other communities. I feel good about our decisions — about how we make decisions, about the support we give to each other, and about how we actually divide up the labor of our home. But like everyone else, I have a monkey that lives on my shoulder and makes judgements about how I live my life. And because I am both partnered with a man and staunchly feminist, that monkey can now comment about what my choices say about the operation of sexism in my life, and particularly about how my family appears on a continuum that stretches from Leave-It-To-Beaver to completely egalitarian.
A couple of weeks ago, I made Jello Jigglers for my daughter’s class on Halloween. It made me really happy. I loved Jigglers when I was young. I remember when my mom made them, and it made me happy to pass them along to my daughter and her class. But I remember my mom making them, not my dad, and now I’m making them, not my husband. There’s a part of that that feels really good, and part of that that feels like I’m June Cleaver. I like to think that I would have made Jigglers whether I was a man or a woman, but I’m not sure I would, and I have no way to find out.
The truth is that I was lying to myself back when my kids were younger and my partner seemed to be a woman. I thought that I didn’t have to worry that much about gender and sexism in my own home because by our very existence as a family we were subverting stereotypes and messing with the heterosexual family model. I assumed that my kids would get a heavy dose of anti-sexist messages simply because they had two moms that defied heteronomativity, two moms that showed them that moms can do anything. But my choice of partner can’t give me a free pass on feminism, sexism, and gendered messages.
There is nothing wrong with making Jello Jigglers for my kids, no matter my gender or sexual preference. But I find that the fact that I have lived as a mother inside of both a lesbian and a heterosexual marriage gives me a unique view of the meaning I ascribe to my actions and the meaning that others, including my own children, might ascribe.
In an earlier version of this post, I listed for you, the reader, the choices that our family has made that might seem to work along the lines of the traditional division of labor, as well as a sort of rebuttal of all of the ways that we are actually egalitarian in our approach. I really want to show it to you, but I’m not going to. That’s just the monkey talking, and it really really doesn’t matter. The truth is that we both do what we can. But I can’t relax in ignorance about it the way I used to because I know that my family now embodies a heterosexual structure, and my choices aren’t just my choices, they also echo the patterns that heterosexual families have established in my culture.
Back when our kids were very little, I said that I would find decision-making hard if we were a mixed-gender couple because I know our decisions would never just be our decisions, they’d always be both ours and a part of the way that women and men interact around housework, childcare, and the management of the family. Now I am living that reality. Nothing has really changed — I’m the same and he’s the same — but how I see the two of us has certainly changed.
That’s why yesterday when I answered the phone and the caller asked if she could speak to “the lady of the house,” I answered, “This is she.” In a prior life, I just would have laughed and hung up the phone. But now I am the lady of the house, the only adult woman in my family, and the one who has to be not only the woman, but also the archetype of woman. When I do things, they are not just independent acts, they also either align with or push against the archetypes of mother and wife.
Then the telemarketer launched into her spiel and I recovered my good sense, said, “I’m not interested,” and hung up the phone. I am the lady of the house, and it feels both good and challenging to lay claim to that status, but it doesn’t mean that I have to talk to telemarketers.