He can do more than you think

Photo by Jakob Owens on Unsplash

“Oh, he’s useless when I’m not around,” the implication went, as she explained how her husband couldn’t do anything around the house.

Funny, I thought. In his day job, he managed a team and some pretty complex logistics, so could he really not manage the dishes?

Was he lazy? Or so overwhelmed at work that he was frazzled at home?

Right then, he walked into the kitchen, where we’d been discussing his lack of ability to multitask. Awkward.

What’s for dinner, he asked. Your favourite, she said coyly. Somehow things flipped and it was like he became a kid talking to his mother.

Did my friend’s tone secretly drive her husband crazy? Is that why he wasn’t picking up his fair share at home?

Since it’s International Women’s Day tomorrow (#BreakTheBias) it seemed like a good time to ask: instead of getting men to ‘believe in women’ more at work, why don’t we get women to ‘believe in men’ more at home?

The traditional social contract for women to be homemakers puts men in breadwinner roles.

Tomorrow, there will be a lot of debate over the ongoing collective renegotiation. Women can do ANYTHING! *This* ten-point checklist is how women can run the world.

Despite all the hype, what Jessica Nordell wrote about everyday sexism in the workplace still rings true:

“Women’s successful solo projects are valued slightly less than men’s, and their successful joint projects with men accrue them less credit. They are also penalized slightly more when they fail.

Occasional “stretch” projects have outsize rewards, but as in the real world, women’s potential is underrecognized compared with men’s, so they must have a greater record of past successes to be assigned these projects.

A fraction of women point out the unfairness and are then penalized for the perception that they are “self-promoting.” And as the proportion of women decreases, those that are left face more stereotyping.”

Clearly a lot remains broken in the workplace, largely due to outdated social contracts around ‘a woman’s role’. (I realise that the heterosexual couple and nuclear family role is just one lens to look through, but it’s the one I’m most familiar with.) As The Wife Drought by Annabel Crabb points out:

“Why is the work-and-family debate always about women? In our fixation on the barriers that face women on the way into the workplace, do we forget about the barriers that — for men — still block the exits?”

Assuming men are ‘useless’ at home is just as unfair as believing that women are ‘useless’ at work.

When my friend detailed her husband’s (her words) “incompetence”, it made me think about how we talk about our partners’ domestic abilities (or lack thereof). There’s a difference between having a vent and a deeply-held belief.

How would you feel if you knew someone you loved believed you couldn’t do something? It wouldn’t make you want to do it. If they’re such an expert, let them do it! Plus, it means you get to do less.

“I’d do more around the house if only you asked,” said every man ever, to which every woman retorted, “Why should I have to LODGE A REQUEST when I already have SO MUCH TO DO and you could figure it out LIKE I DO and GET IT DONE?”

One of my friends became the sole breadwinner during the pandemic and her husband suddenly had to do a lot more at home, including taking care of their son. There wasn’t time for a formal ‘handover’ — he just figured it out.

Recently she told me how her toddler cried for “Daddy” during the night when he woke up from a nightmare. How did that feel, I asked. She was matter-of-fact: “This is part of the deal.”

She loves her job, her kids, and her husband. She makes it all work. That single conversation showed me that gender equality comes down to trust. We need to trust men at home just like men need to trust us at work.

Gender equality means letting go of displaced guilt.

When I realised that so much of the ‘girl, you can do ANYTHING at work’ pep talk material came from Boomers, I saw how the challenge for millennial women isn’t self-belief on the professional front. My friends know they can do anything. They just feel guilty when they break away domestically from the social roles that their mothers or aunts played.

We don’t always have role models. We don’t always have the vocabulary for this new world. But I like how Hanna Roisin coined the term the seesaw marriage where couples take turns in different roles and make practical decisions around who the breadwinner is at any given moment:

“The beauty of the arrangement is that theoretically, no one feels trapped in any role.”

There might be some years where it makes more sense for my partner to be the higher earner. There might be years where it makes more sense for me to take on that role. I like the idea of those roles being something we perform instead of being who we are.

Identity isn’t a fixed thing. We all grow and change over time, and shouldn’t we be allowed to do so? Maybe my partner will want to pursue something important to him that’s unpaid, or vice versa. Who knows? I like that it’s unwritten, and so does he, and I think that’s why we work well together.

Getting men to step up to more housework starts with breaking down exactly what needs to get done.

In Drop The Ball: Achieving More By Doing Less, Tiffany Dufu calls it a Management Excel List (MEL) — it’s a spreadsheet of every task that needs to get done. Not all couples want this level of equality at home. But many women do, and they just don’t know where to begin.

Maybe they’re scared to let go of the reins on the domestic front, from a subconscious belief that as a woman, it’s “their” duty to hold everything together at all times. I went through this phase myself and haven’t done the MEL exercise (yet), but I was surprised by how much subconscious cultural baggage I was carrying.

I let it go by reminding myself that earning money for your family is one way of taking care of them; managing the household is another. You can earn all the money in the world, but if your kid doesn’t feel like anyone really loves them, what’s all that money for? Equally, you can love your kid fiercely, but if you rely on them too much for your sense of identity, is that fair?

Tomorrow, for International Women’s Day, I’m going to be tuning out a lot of the noise around ‘believing in yourself as a woman’. Instead, it’s about believing in each other, having faith that through letting go and deepening our trust in those we love, we give everyone more room to breathe.

Photo by Becca Tapert on Unsplash

Read more from Adele Barlow here.

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Adele Barlow

Adele Barlow

Writing stories (www.adelebarlow.com) and helping companies tell theirs (www.copyand.co)