Recently, a friend of mine drew my attention to this piece: Mother, Writer, Monster, Maid. Here’s a very small excerpt from a very lengthy, thought-provoking piece. And this is what provoked me into writing this blog entry.
“In fact, I have been far, far too able. The older I get, the more I recognize the leveraging power of ineptitude. My husband can’t cook well; I do the cooking. My husband accidentally shrinks a few sweaters; I do the laundry. My husband can’t lactate; the baby comes to New York. In his inability to do things, he is excused from labor. In my rush to excel, to shine, to be a good wife and mother, I have done nothing but ensure my labor will be lengthy and unpaid.”
I’ve read a lot of articles on the double-bind that mothers-who-work-outside-the-home (WOHM) face. Or, for that matter, those faced by mothers-who-work-at-a-profession-inside-the-home (WAHM). I am a mother and, for a couple of years, I stayed home. For many more years since then, I’ve supported our family with work outside the home. She’s right. Many women fall into the trap laid by their “rush to excel, to shine, to be a good wife and mother.” But there are exceptions, and, sadly, we often have to make ourselves into those exceptions.
Roughly 19 years ago, I chose to accept my husband’s ineptitude, instead of fighting it with my own “eptness.” Due to myriad factors, I had to re-enter the workforce earlier than I expected or wanted to after the birth of my daughter. I started out part-time, and she learned to acclimate to days without full-time mommy in a wonderful, warm and caring environment —to this day, she bewails how it ended too soon and sings its praises because it was so nurturing compared to the (gasp) public schools she went to next. I thought that would last for a year or two before I went back to full-time work. I didn’t really even know what kind of work I’d go back to, since I’d left one industry behind and hadn’t really settled on another since her birth.
Six months later, my husband unexpectedly left his job. The job that supported our family. So I did the only reasonable thing I could do. I convinced my boss at the part-time job to take me on full-time. Since that day, I have supported our family on my income, turning a transitional job into a career.
Even after returning to full-time work, I could have chosen to continue cooking for us. I could have chosen to continue doing laundry for us. I could have chosen to continue all of the homemaking that I’d done during the nearly two years I was home full-time. God knows, my husband was inept at all of those things. Rather than deal with that ineptitude, it might have been easier to swoop in, after a day at work, or get up early on the weekends, and cook for the week, throw in three (or four) loads of laundry and then try to have some “mommy” time. As hard as that would have been (and I know many working mothers who do just that and are exhausted), I chose a different and, in some ways, harder road. I chose to let my husband be inept.
Granted, he was willing, and a lot of husbands aren’t. But as any of you readers who have stayed home with a toddler know, it’s not easy to do all those things your child needs AND all the upkeep involved in running the home. Especially when you’re just learning how to do all those things yourself.
He was a lousy cook. He didn’t LIKE cooking. So, for a few years, we ate mostly pasta, except in the summers, when we ate mostly grilled meat (which he found he was good at making). He didn’t know much about laundry, either. There were plenty of mishaps, including miniature sweaters and pink men’s underwear, that came out of the laundry room. But slowly, he learned. There were lots of nights when dinner was simply fuel, needed to keep the body going, but not very enjoyable. Letting him be inept gave me the opportunity—the freedom from chores—to be as involved a working parent as any full-time, professional, management job, with a minimum one-hour commute each way, could possibly let me be. (I sense there’s still some anger and resentment there, do you?)
I kept the responsibility for grocery shopping, dry cleaning and most weekend meals. The joyous “Mom’s cooking yummy dinner tonight!” was a regular Saturday and Sunday exultation. But, as I said earlier, that all began nearly 19 years ago, when I came home and told my husband that if I was to be in charge of the income-producing, he’d have to be in charge of all the home stuff. Mostly, I said this for selfish reasons. I didn’t want to miss any more moments of my daughter’s childhood than I absolutely had to. I wanted, more than anything, not to be burdened with double-duty; not to be too tired and frazzled to really mother her. Ultimately, the simple (and difficult) truth is that I didn’t step in when my husband wasn’t competent at housework.
Today, he’s not a very inventive chef, and sauces and seasonings are a challenge if he’s not working from a published recipe. But he has a small, tasty and well-executed repertoire of winter and summer dinners. There is almost never a laundry mishap (and those are almost always caused by an error in identifying if something needs dry-cleaning.) We no longer get pink clothing at all. And he’s much better about vacuuming than I ever was. The joyous cries of “Mom’s cooking yummy dinner!” still echo through the house, but less often than they once did. Generally, I cook less often, and my cooking is less drastically better than his. He even (sometimes) does grocery shopping.
Throughout these nineteen years, my husband went back to full-time work outside the house for several years, and took on some freelance work for several more. Still, weekday household chores have remained his responsibility, simply because even when he worked full-time outside the home, his job took fewer hours and had more flexibility than mine.
So, to all the women who are far too able, please try to let your husbands be inept. The only way they’ll learn that parenting and family AND homemaking are a partnership is if we let them learn how to participate fully. Pink bras and socks, pasta dinners and bounced checks (hopefully very few of those) were part of the learning curve for us. They might be for you, too. But letting go of our need to have these chores done our way, and to our standards (even if those standards are pretty low), is a critical step for us to take. As a woman working outside the home, or as an independent entrepreneur, our priorities are divided, constantly. Ultimately, I think we can “have it all” only if we have half of all there is.