Gendered ideas in our own heads are far more difficult to disrupt than we realize. There I said it, and you may not like it. But give me a chance to explain.
in 2009, I became the sole breadwinner for my live in family. This family consists of myself, my husband, and our cats. This was an outcome we had discussed from the start of our relationship. For my part, my career was going to put me into a pay range that would always out earn his potential. He said then that he’d like to one day be a stay at house husband. When he got laid off in 2009, we decided to give it a shot. Fast-forward to now. We are still enjoying the arrangement, and it is working for us.
When we started this arrangement, I did research. I read Liza Mundy’s The Richer Sex. I was saddened, but not surprised, at how many of the anecdotes (the book presented the personal experiences of 4 or 5 different couples), all reported negative experiences. From husbands sabotaging their wives, to the very same wives bending over backwards to save his ego. According to a 2014 Time story almost 1/4 of American families have “female breadwinners” – what isn’t specified to how many of them are married or partnered, I assume some percentage are single mothers. When we talk about this 1/4 of American families, much of the discussion around stay at home husbands focuses on male ego. Ok there is some nonsense about the “destruction of the traditional family.” Based on divorce rates, single parents, and other non-traditional family structures, I feel it is safe to say that the traditional family is slowing dying, already dead, or perhaps never really existed.
What I found more interesting in the experience and in Mundy’s book was that often both men and women struggled to break out of their gendered thinking.
I discovered is that MY gendered ideas were a potential problem. I had concerns that it would grate on him, that he would few less like a man or something. I assumed he would eventually resent me because I made the money. He would feel emasculated – which really says a lot of about how I subconsciously felt about household work. Obviously, it must be less valuable than my money making work… right? This experience was similar to the research Mudy conducted. Women being unable to accept that A. the husband could do the housework, take care of kids, go grocery shopping without her guidance (or management). Her research found that some woman actually felt their husbands/male partners were less manly by adopting this role. For my part, it took me months to accept his claims that he wasn’t unhappy. I cannot honestly say when my thinking shifting. It most likely happened when I started encountered other people’s reactions.
The other people problem.
When it comes to other people, the average response I hear is “well he’s looking for a job right?” This assumes that his own value is monetary based work. I’m disappointed in myself for thinking this way, and I am just as disappointed to hear it from other women. Women fought to have their household contributions recognized as valued contributions. Yet, when a man does this work, it is suddenly worth even less.
Mundy’s research also points to many couples struggle due to outside influences. I assume a constant barrage of “well-meaning” family members asking when is he going to get a job would wear down anyone’s resolve. In my case, I think I’ve worn down my family’s resolve. I’m the weird one, so this is just one more weird thing I do.
The second response I hear is that he is a loser. As feminists, we are often accused of not caring about men, of course many of us have heard that. But we also know that patriarchy hurts everyone. This is a clear example of gender-bias. He can only be a valued member of society, I’d say to most people he can only be a “man,” if he has a job that brings in money. Certainly there has been negative responses to women making making the choice to be stay at home mothers or wives. Still there is a pernicious level to how people respond to him. It is, for some people, unthinkable that he would chose a caretaker role.
Third, and what I find the most grating response…the patronizing “he’s taking advantage of you” response. Evidently, I am a reasoning being until I say my spouse stays at home. He’s tricked me out of doing the cooking and grocery shopping and cleaning. Oh woe is me. Again, this speaks to unconscious. gender bias. Allow me to unpack what may be behind this thinking: 1. Men are out to take advantage of women (predators). Should that be the default thinking? 2. The woman as inept (prey). I can’t possibly be making my own choice – this is similar to the response many people have to women who do not want children. They simply don’t know better – which again assumes motherhood and traditional marital roles are somehow innate. They are not. These ideas only reinforce are already gender-toxic culture.
It’s 2015, and my husband and I are still happily enjoying our “nontraditional” household. We’ve had our struggles. I learned that while my mother, my teachers, my professors, and friends encouraged me to be able to support myself financially – no one taught me how to support a family. I was taught to support me – and really only me. I’ve learned to recognize more of my own unconscious gender-bias, and now I’m working to dismantle more of my biases in this process.