I never thought that feminism, in allowing me to freely work to help support my family, would let my partner to opt out of doing the same.
I always thought feminism was about choice — educating young women and supporting them in various ways as they grow into adults so they can be accepted and successful in any pursuit they desire. I thought that historically society's default role for women was that of home manager and caretaker. I was brought up to be thankful that feminism had given me the choice to be successful outside of "the home," and I was educated, supported, and encouraged accordingly.
I currently work a soulless nine-to-five job. I got my bachelor's degree in mass media, and my professional history has mainly been working as some variety of receptionist or front-office staff in typically male-dominated workplaces. The first and only place that I ever worked that was mostly women was in yet another previously male-dominated industry (What industries outside of nursing and teaching weren't previously male-dominated?) I've always done my job primarily for the paycheck. That is, I've always done my job as a means to take care of myself and my responsibilities, and I've been thankful for the plethora of jobs now open to women so that I may do so. I'm just still not qualified to do most of the good and meaningful ones, and "good" (read: lucrative) and "meaningful" are still rather mutually exclusive, short of owning your own business, and particularly if you live in a rugged little hamlet like mine in the Colorado Rocky Mountains.
I grew up in a household in which my father worked and my mother stayed at home once she'd had children, having once worked as a registered nurse. I regarded both working and staying at home as a means to take care of themselves in the interest of each other and our family and to support their own interests and responsibilities. I strive to do the same. My parents were a part of the Silent Generation; they came into their early adulthood in the 1940s and '50s.
Contrast this, if you will, to my husband.
He was raised by parents who came into their early adulthood in the 1960s. His mother was the steady source of income as a hairdresser, while his father jumped from job to job because keeping him on staff would make him too costly for any given organization, as my husband will tell it. My husband, who was gainfully employed as upper-management for a retail store when we met, has done similar job-hopscotching, repeatedly living for months at a time off of unemployment. He now works full-time from home for part-time income as a travel reservations agent. Working retail made him want to drink too much, he says, so instead he has a wife that hammers away at her soul-extinguishing nine-to-five and considers having a 1.5-liter bottle of vodka in the house at all times necessary.
I, too, have worked a series of jobs, except that I never skipped a beat between them. I might have had a weekend, once, between the last day of my old job and the first day at my new job. I always quit them willingly, believing I'd found something better.
The kicker is that we have children, for which we should both be equally financially responsible, in my opinion — and particularly if we are having a hard time making ends meet. I would feel differently if I was making a good living for all of us, doing something I enjoyed. But somewhere along the line, my husband decided that his life was for the living, and to heck with virtually everything else. Somewhere along the line, someone told him that this was OK. I kind of wonder if that "someone" was the parenting style of the 1960s and '70s (and beyond, frankly).
He snowboards, he races cars, he skateboards. I work, and then I work on doing more work by writing, and then I work on opening my own work, having gotten as far as I can with limited income and limited time to investigate a few select entrepreneurial storefront business ideas all as a means of buying myself more time to be with and take care of my husband and children, which is all I ever really wanted to do in the first place. (Shhh — don't tell feminism).
In other words, I do what I must to try to ensure my family's survival and my children's eventual success as responsible human beings.
I am also exhausted. I once jokingly asked my husband about taking me out for a date night when I knew that neither one of us could afford it; we couldn't afford it because he'd been working his travel reservations hobby-job and because I prorate his half of the bills to accommodate his being the smaller earner, believing his promise 14 years ago that he's going to make it big (or even just sustainably) in car racing if he just has enough flexibility. He responded by asking why I don't take him out instead.
Ouch. Thank you, feminism, may I have another?
The men of my parents' generation would have raked my husband over the coals, but I am stuck having to be thankful for the mind-numbing job that I work and on which my husband is content to ride, just as sure as he rides his snowboard four times a week — and boy, do I get an earful from him if a kid is sick and he has to miss a day snowboarding to take care of them, when I would give my eyeteeth to take care of them myself.
If one partner is overcompensating to work harder and longer than the other and you still can't afford to repair your home, to put away savings, or afford trash service, something is broken.
The "default" profession of women of being home or of working in some kind of flexible, meaningful capacity that seems to still come so easy for many has completely eluded me because it seems like society no longer holds men up to the professional standards that they once did — or even to the professional standards that women are now held. This might be a bit of "turnabout is fair play," but while girls are busy being taught how to be successful in the workplace in addition to being successful the home, boys are still not taught how to wipe condiment bottles before putting them back in the refrigerator or how to make a bed and not just pull the covers up and over or how not to freak out if the baby vomits.
I would love to be able to opt out of financially supporting my children, because Lord knows I do plenty of supporting them in every other way already, which is what mothers do. But to admit as much — and for me to go so far as to do so — would be deemed regressive and irresponsible. That is a luxury now only afforded to men like my husband and an army of mommy bloggers who wax poetic about how much they love their wonderfully providing husbands.
I don't want my husband to be doing a half-assed job at homemaking. Yes, I can hold my own in the workplace, but I'd much rather be cleaning my house, running around with my kids, and making meals. I can't do any of that to any degree of satisfaction, and my husband kind of sucks at all of those things (although he tries, sort of, sometimes), and he has apparently given up on work coming first and putting dreams and hobbies second, which leaves almost no room for anyone else's dreams and hobbies (read: mine). If I wanted to be able to have a little bit of flexibility with my time and enjoy taking care of my family now that I have one, I could not have a more opposite arrangement. It's as though I rolled skee-ball, and if "stay-at-home mom" was the bullseye, not only did I miss that, but the ball rolled right back over the "part-time job" slot, dropped past the "job that doesn't pay much but at least I like doing it" slot, and here I am, working my life away for a soulless job that pays just enough for me to cover a parent-and-a-half's-worth of supporting our kids.
I don't have a choice, any more than the women who felt like they were chained to their KitchenAids did, but they got to build an entire movement around it. I guess I just never thought that feminism, in allowing me to freely work to help support my family, would enable my partner to opt out of doing the same — and at the expense of my own interests and hopes for our family. And yes, my old-fashioned worldview includes wanting to occasionally be made to feel special by my partner wanting to work hard enough that we, together, could afford a date night.
There was an article floating around for a while, and it centered on an old-timey list detailing the ways in which women should be exemplary housewives to their husbands. The accompanying text pointed out how awful it must have been to be enslaved in such a manner as to have to, for example, make sure that the children were cleaned up just prior to their father coming home from work. I read the comments, and I was struck by the overwhelming number of women who said that their parents embodied a model similar to the one the author had ridiculed, and that their parents' relationship was actually built on respect. Each recognized the other's role in the success of the family as a whole, and not only did it make for a pleasant home, but their mothers seemed to not feel slighted in the least. Many of these commenters said they themselves had purposefully modeled their own families in a similar way; that is, in a way that continues to be at once so easy for so many, and yet so difficult for me.
I could not feel any more disrespected as I run around stuffing the kids into the car on subzero-degree snowy days just to get them into daycare so that I can go to work while my husband books the occasional ski lesson in his socks while our home is practically crumbling down around us and he knows how tired I am, how stressed I am about having no money to be at all forward-thinking for our children, and how I write or look for other (better? More meaningful? Maybe even just telecommute?) jobs until the wee hours while he snoozes and then sleeps in while I get the kids ready the next morning — because he can. Because we asked for it. And because I should be thankful that I "get" to work and that I am always — always — the financial bridge that gets us from one of my husband's jobs to his next while he rides and races.
Because if there's one thing that feminism taught me, it's that I need to try to take care of myself and take responsibility for my choices.
I am angry in the same way that women who felt forced to stay at home must have been angry. I'm angry that I push paper around when other mothers push their children around in strollers while the sun is still out. I'm angry that I have to fit all of my family's grocery shopping within the space of an hour's lunch break, frantically throwing things in my cart as I speed by the mother with her child in her cart, calmly checking the list she'd spent the morning preparing while that child watched Sesame Street. I'm angry that I smell sunscreen, or see a friend's post about making play-dough at 2:30 in the afternoon, or glance over at the mother checking carefully selected books out of the library with her young children while I hunt for stay-at-home jobs on the computer and feel the twisting, actually physical pain of regret over the loss of the most valuable of times with my young children. Regret — the immensity of which I know I will not overcome in my lifetime.
My husband is part of a growing number of men who have discovered the loophole in the feminist movement — the one where we say we'll work, and so they no longer make as much of an effort to, in virtually every professional and domestic capacity. Considering how large this problem is (see Hanna Rosin's 2010 Atlantic article "The End of Men"), I fear it's more of a social mindset thing than a my-husband-might-be-kind-of-a-slacker thing.
Either way, I have lost my freedom, and feminism has won me no choice.
Update: After publishing this article, Carisa asked to write a response piece, which you can read here. —Dan