balancing acts
March 11, 2004 05:08 PM

Is living together a balancing act for most cohabiting couples? Or do they accept a certain imbalance by default?

Brigitte posted a WHB question on the subject last weekend, which I am just now getting to respond to.

It seems like my personal experience in this is atypical. Why, I wonder? So many feminists I talk to have this feeling of "ack, I do so much" in their home lives - that they bear more of the housework, more of the nuturing, and they're discouraged by this.

Ordinarily, if I saw my life being different from others', I'd assume it was because I tend not to make a lot of assumptions about how one "should" live (well, I do, but only in my head, not in the choices I actually make). But I have to assume that other feminists examine their choice of partner and living arrangements just as I do. So, it's not assumption on their part that women are supposed to be the caregives that drives this imbalance in their lives.

Is it the culture? I think it might be. Namely, there is still a cultural perception of women as secondary that can result in either more or less freedom for any given woman. There is the freedom to truly choose any profession, including staying at home, for instance. And there is also the double-edged assumption that women will need and ask for time off to balance family concerns - which means women are penalized less than men might be for the same action. But there is also the tendency for women to make less, in part because of this assumption, which then reinforces the assumption that women are the most likely to do more at home (because they have time to, because we expect them to). I think a lot of families make their decisions on household duty split based in part on whose job is most rewarding (economically or otherwise) or time-consuming. In a dual professional home, there's a good chance the man gets the rewarding but time-consuming and inflexible job. And the woman gets shafted.

But I don't believe this is universally true. And I do think it's as much about the choices that are(n't) available to men as those availabe to women.

So. A lot of our culture enforces a certain household stupidity on men, which is really silly. Boys ought to be taught to do their laundry and be encouraged to babysit and all that Suzy Homemakery stuff. It's about self-sufficiency. And girls ought to be taught that home stuff is supposed to be shared, not that it's a sign of how much mommy loves you.

That seems to have worked on us. My partner had an independent, divorced dad who taught him all those household things (cooking, laundry, all that). I had two parents who split cleaning and kid duties and made me join them. I'm sure my parents had to negotiate, but they did a pretty good job of modelling that there's not a lot daddies only do (except perhaps cars and science) or mommies only do (except, um, social studies?). Of course, it helps that both of us are the sort of people who only deal with the unpleasant household stuff when it seems too out of control/messy/whatever. The rest of the time, either it's part of someone's routine or no one does it. We're cool with that.

But just because it comes easily to us doesn't mean it couldn't come with more effort to others - say, as it did out of the necessity of my mother's career in my parents' house. Rather than focusing on the vows of marriage and relationships, I think it might behoove us to pay more attention to domesticity. People should discuss this stuff in advance, make an agreement and revisit it. It requires attention and maintenance, just like any aspect of a relationship. And no, no one ever attains 100% perfect balance all the time. You pick what you care about most, and focus on balancing that.

There was more to the question, about gay couples and (my inferrence) other beyond-hetero families. I can't really answer that. Honestly, it's not something I talk to my gay and otherwise friends about, nor something I research. I have a suspicion that poly families, as much as they seem to be deliberate and considered around other issues, might be particularly good at negotiating this one. But it's only a suspicion.

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