“Dude, I did the dishes for you!” A Candid Conversation About (and Invitation to Discuss) Modern Day Gender Roles & Their Ever Present Impact on our Relationships
As you may recall, I was supposed to upload a post a few weeks ago, as I do every other Wednesday. And I actually did. But then, when I went bed the night before it was scheduled to go out, I couldn’t shake this feeling that I shouldn’t post it. Not because the conversation or the topic wasn’t valuable, because it was – it is. Extremely so. But I had this nagging feeling that it wasn’t the whole story. It wasn’t complete yet. And I didn’t feel good about posting something that I hadn’t fully rectified in my own head. Seeing as how the original title was, “Why I’m Going to Stop Thanking my Husband for Doing the Dishes,” there was quite clearly also missing someone else’s point of view: my husband’s (and, to be honest, I was becoming increasingly uncomfortable with the idea of not saying thank you when someone did something worthy of being grateful for).
What I’ve come to realize since then is that the topic of the post is one that has stood the test of time. It’s about men and women, our roles, and how they have both changed and not changed over time, specifically with regards to child rearing, cooking and kitchen responsibilities. Yes, there are more women in the workforce today, and it is more acceptable for a woman to work full time and have a nanny (or husband, or family member, or friend) take care of her children. But it seems like even in this modern day, there is still an underlying narrative that women are more responsible for rearing children and taking care of the household than their male counterparts. I wish this wasn’t true, but if you look at the research, it’s there in plain sight. In 2012, only 16% of men stayed home with their children while their significant others went to work. That was up from 10% in 1989. Depending on your point of view, this upward trend is encouraging, but as you can see, we have a long way to go.
Stay at home moms, please hear me: I am one of you. I am a stay at home mom. I also work part time from home. I respect any person’s choice to stay home with their children – man or woman alike. But even if you’re a stay at home mom, do you want all of the responsibility for raising children and minding the household to fall on your shoulders? You may be an old fashioned gal who actually doesn’t mind this at all. In that case, good for you for knowing where you stand on the matter. For me and my experience, my answer is no – I want it to be a shared responsibility. And I’m thankful that in my life, in many ways, it is. But that doesn’t necessarily mean the same is true for you. What I’d like to explore is the narrative and the cultural norms of women’s expected primary role as the caretaker. Why?
Because since becoming a mother, this has come up close and personal for me. I have had to go on a journey of watching my body change in ways I never knew it could (or would), the frustration of not feeling in control, not understanding why my body wasn’t bouncing back the way I imagined it would, and perhaps most important of all, trying to understand this new identity that I was literally thrown into overnight. I was no longer Lauren, the girl who is married to Ted, who is a writer, a chef, a health coach, a blogger, a You Tuber. Who has all the hours in the day – and then some – to get all of her work done. Who has the luxury to enjoy the spaces between the moments, who can procrastinate her work for a few minutes or hours because she has all the time in the world to do it later or some other day. February 19, 2016, I became Lauren, the mom. Yes, still the writer, chef, health coach, blogger and You Tuber, but now without all the hours in the day to get it all done. And actually, now having to fill most of those hours either trying to catch up on sleep, or else taking care of her new daughter, not knowing at all what I was doing.
I have since settled into this new normal, this woman who tries to do it all (and inevitably fails, and usually needs a glass of wine or copious amounts of chocolate by the end of the week), who has sort of figured out how to parent, and sort of figured out her new identity as this hybrid woman, but who mostly hasn’t.
And the more moms I talk to, the more I hear the same narrative, no matter if they are stay at home moms like myself, if they work outside the home, if they don’t work but have a full time nanny or care anyway, etc. This one problem kept coming up with every single one of these women! And since writing my post, I have approached this topic not like a raving lunatic of a mother who is at her wits end and doesn’t want to thank her husband for doing the dishes anymore, but rather as an investigative reporter, strapping on her Nancy Drew hat so that she can get to the bottom of this perplexing pattern.
So, what is this phenomenon that I’m talking about?
That most of my mom friends – whether they were stay at home moms or full time working moms – all of them felt the same way about the household, particularly the kitchen and childcare responsibilities. They all felt like it fell on them to take care of it. To be sure, these women didn’t have to have a hot meal on the table for their husbands when they got home. No. Their husbands – like mine – don’t care about that at all. In fact, they are happy just to get take out, if that’s the only option! Rather, it was that they had no real awareness of what it takes to be responsible for having to map all of that out.
I explained it to my husband this way:
If I have to go out for an appointment, I have to make sure there is food in the fridge for Madison. I have to leave a note or else tell you directly what exactly she should eat and drink at any given meal. What’s more is that I can’t just make an appointment. I first have to check with you (husband) to see if you can watch Madison on that day, at that time, so that I can go to the appointment on my own. If you can’t, then I – not you – have to find someone who can babysit her. And if I can’t find someone – and you are not available – I can’t go to that appointment.
You, on the other hand, can make an appointment whenever you feel like it without having to do anything but check your calendar to make sure it doesn’t conflict with something you may already have scheduled. Nothing to do with Madison or cooking or meal prep. Just having to do with your life.
Lauren before Madison used to be able to do the same thing. Lauren after Madison, can’t. I’m not mad about it. I’m not even saying that it’s right or wrong. I’m just trying to get used to the idea, and trying to figure out how I feel about it.
The confusing thing in all of this is that none of these women – myself included – have husbands who are, well, jerks! These men are all understanding, loving, caring, and amazing fathers who really and truly do appreciate what we do, and really and truly love spending time with their children. And they say so too. And, by the way, they also do household chores, sometimes on their own accord, and sometimes after being asked. But they do do it. And credit must be given where credit is due.
So why, then, is it that all of us keep feeling so under appreciated? What is the missing link?
I still don’t know the answer, and if you have one, please enlighten me. Awareness is probably a good place to start, but I haven’t gone down that road yet. But after a week’s worth of discussions, Ted and I decided that part of it is ancestral. It’s like a meme, a behavior that is passed down through generations. And traditionally, men provide and women take care of the household. So it’s almost as if there is part of our blueprint – for both men and women – that women are preconditioned to gravitate more toward being the caregiver (and therefore cooking and preparing meals for the family) and men gravitate more toward going outside of the house to provide. It doesn’t make it right. It’s just what it is.
And the problem with that is even if you’re a modern man who believes in women’s rights and even fights for them, who loves that women are in the workforce, unfortunately, old attitudes die hard. So what’s happened is that the woman feels like she is supposed to somehow keep up with her preconditioned duties while she also tries to make a living outside of the home. And for those women who don’t make a living outside the home, I find that we downgrade our incredibly important and tough – albeit rewarding – job of CEOs of our households, and we somehow feel like it is our role to do it all by ourselves since we don’t bring in a salary. I don’t want to take away from how grateful I am that my husband is the primary breadwinner (because he is), but I also can’t deny that being a mother is the hardest job I’ve ever had. And should income even be a factor in this conversation? I don’t know.
I’m so grateful to my husband for being the man that he is, being such a great father, being such a great provider, being such a bright light. Which makes this conversation all the more hard to have. But I can’t deny my – or my friends – feelings about all of this, and it’s important to talk about. Not in a blaming, finger pointing kind of way. But rather in an investigative, soul searching kind of way.
It’s a conversation that is too important not to have, and too important not to know where you stand on it – no matter your position.
Below is my original post:
As a former pastry chef and health coach, it should come as no surprise to you that I am the chief meal officer of our home. That is to say that I do all of the meal planning, 99% of the cooking (I taught my husband how to roast veggies and make salads, but other than that, it’s all me), and thus 99% of all the meal prep.
I easily spend 20-25 hours a week on meal planning, grocery shopping, and cooking.
To be clear, my husband does not expect this of me. He always tells me how grateful he is that I cook for our family. And yet he admits that if I were to stop, he wouldn’t take over my role in the kitchen. He would just go out to eat a whole lot more, while roasting veggies and making as many salads as he could in between.
I can be a messy chef. I use a lot of dishes. The sink gets very full, and I end up doing dishes at least half a dozen times a day. That amount has only increased since my daughter came along because I make all of her food. And in case you’re wondering, it is a lot of freakin work (and soiled dishes).
My husband does dishes sometimes (though lately, he’s been doing them equally as often as I do), but there was a week solid where I don’t think he did a single dish. Ok, maybe he did a few, but in the grand scheme of the amount of dishes washed that week, it was negligible. I explained to him that I was feeling really overwhelmed with having to grocery shop for and prepare all the food for our family, and do all the dishes, and be Madison’s primary caretaker, and – oh yeah – still have a fulltime career as a freelance writer, blogger, YouTuber and vegan gluten free pastry and healthy chef (I know, I’m tired just writing it).
I asked if he would mind please stepping up and doing some of the dishes a little bit more, at least his own, because every dish that he left in the sink felt like a personal insult that completely disregarded how hard I work to keep the health and nutrition of our family up to our standard.
He said, “Of course!” because he’s awesome like that. And for a while, he got into a rhythm of doing the dishes a lot more often. The roles completely reversed for about a week: he surpassed the amount of dishes that I was doing.
I have to admit, I was starting to feel guilty about it.
One night, as I was sitting at the table working after Madison had gone to bed (and after a long day of chasing her around the house, feeding her, cleaning said food off her body and the floor, bathing her, playing with her, having my hair pulled and my nipples bitten – yes, I said nipples), Ted finished doing the dishes.
“There dude,” he said, “I did the dishes for you.”
Every muscle in my body stiffened, and I had to quell the sudden urge to punch him right in the middle of his pretty face. I know he didn’t mean it the way it came out, but I was livid.
“For me?” I asked him through gritted teeth, “You did the dishes, for me? Did you not do the dishes for us? To keep our home tidy? Did you not do the dishes for Madison, who I and I alone am solely responsible for nourishing? Did you not do the dishes because that is what a strong parenting partnership does out of mutual love and respect and need?”
I. Was. Furious.
He. Was. Silent.
I spent the next thirty minutes trying to explain to him all the reasons why his comment bothered me so much. And to his credit, he understood, though he maintained that the argument was merely semantics (and insisted that it might be time for me to read Men are From Mars, Women are From Venus, which I have since started reading). He explained that he wanted to do things that made me happy, and he knew that him doing the dishes made me happy, so he did them.
Gotta admire his good intentions. And yet it made me want to smack him even harder. You want to make me happy? Get me a massage (which, incidentally, he did a week later!). Get me a piece of jewelry that I wouldn’t otherwise buy for myself. Give me a foot rub. But the dishes? The dishes????? Please do not do the dishes for me. Please just do the freakin dishes.
I wish I could say that it had been, but this wouldn’t be the last time he told me he did the dishes “for me.” The only difference was that the next few times he said it, he would always giggle and quickly follow it up with, “For us, dude, I mean for us.” And more recently, he’ll finish up the dishes and say, “There! I did the dishes!”
Miraculously he has managed to escape the wrath of my fist, and one night I said to him, “If I called you every time I had finished doing the dishes throughout the day, I would be calling you at least six or seven times. Is that what you want me to do?”
He laughed. Point taken.
But then it dawned on me:
My friend posted an article a few months ago about how women are seen as project managers of the household because their partners tell them – lovingly – to just ask for what they want. But here’s the thing: that makes your wife the project manager, which in case you didn’t know, is a highly paid job. You know why? Because it’s hard! It requires a lot of balls up in the air, and all – yes all – of the responsibility for making sure things get done. So when a man tells his wife to “just ask” for what she wants, he’s basically just making more work for her. Why can’t it be a collective? Why can’t it be a partnership? Why can’t we sit down together and determine what needs to be done around the house – as a team – and decide – together – who will take on what job?
And to that point, I have realized that my husband’s notion that his doing the dishes is a favor to me is completely my fault. Why? Because every time he does the dishes, I’m so grateful and feel so guilty that I didn’t do them myself that I end up thanking him. I feel so bad that he’s worked all day and that I was the one who made such a mess (even though it was to feed him too), that I feel the need to thank him (and never mind the fact that I work all day too). And so, I’m the creator of my own problem.
The issue here is the intention behind the thank you. I’m all about saying thank you when someone does something that I’m genuinely grateful for. In fact, we should say thank you more often than we do. But when the thank you comes from a place of guilt rather than pure gratitude, that is when martyrdom starts to rear its ugly head.
And the point of this conversation is to make sure we aren’t a generation of women who are martyrs, doing what we think is expected of us while secretly repressing our feelings of not feeling appreciated. That is what this post is about.
By thanking Ted for doing the dishes out of guilt, I’m teaching him that I don’t expect him to be doing them as often as I do them. And that’s on me. If I really want him to do them more often, contrary to the post about women as project managers, I need to tell him that (update: I have since done so, and he has become a dish wizard. It’s amazing). Because if I don’t, how will he ever know? We need to be able to have an open and honest conversation about what we expect of each other, and how we are feeling.
To Ted’s credit, he listens to my rants and takes it all in, and he makes the necessary changes. It should also be mentioned that he also is solely responsible for taking out the garbage and recycle in our household. I never ever do it. He also vacuums 98% of the time, and he does it once a week. I do it once a month, if that. And he gave me his blessing to post this. Because the thing is, I’m not trying to hate on our husbands and partners. I’m trying to give us all some insight into all that we go through, into how words and actions affect us, the women who are working so hard behind the scenes to keep it all together, and the husbands who feel the weight and pressure of having to keep a roof over their family’s heads (I’ve learned that even if a woman works full time, the man still feels this pressure).
So, where do you fall in this conversation? Agree? Disagree? Agree with reservations? Disagree with reservations?
This conversation is important. It can make or break a marriage, and how we handle ourselves is the modeled behavior that we bestow upon our children who, even when you don’t think are listening and watching, absorb our interactions by osmosis. So let the discussion begin. Leave a comment below, and let’s commit to being in a place in our relationships where communication is open, honest, inclusive and harmonious. Let’s show our children what a good relationship looks like, both the one with ourselves, and the one with our significant others. This may be hard to talk about, but in my humble opinion, it’s the only way forward.