Thursday, July 29, 2010


I read a post in the Daddy Dialectic blog the other day about gender equality at home and it got me thinking...

As I've mentioned before, our family is moving. Ava recently got a new job, and, as such, we are extracting our lives from Cincinnati and transferring them to Lexington, KY. However, before Ava got the new job, she had applied to and been accepted for a research methods training course that would take place at the end of July. To manage the kids in her absence, we had decided back in April to take them to my parent's house for the week of Ava’s training. That way, I would get some help with the kids and my parents would get some extended face time with their grandchildren. So when Ava got the new job, we had a decision to make. Do we cancel the training and the trip in order to handle the details of moving or do we just tack another event on to the previously scheduled ones?

We weren't thrilled with the first option - we knew that the training was going to be a good one, and I didn't relish the idea of disappointing my parents. So, making the second option work became our focus. After a while of discussing how to fit both the trip and the move into the month of July, we realized that this arrangement presented us with an opportunity. We were worried about what to do with the kids while the movers were in the house. Pip likes to be involved in any house related activities and keeping him out from under the feet of the movers without upsetting him was going to be a challenge. The obvious solution to this was right there in front of us: schedule the move for right after Ava's training and keep the kids at my parents for an extra couple of days. The kids were going to be there anyway and by keeping them with my parents for a bit longer, Ava and I wouldn't have to bounce them from house to hotel to new apartment on the day of the move.

And yet, Ava and I were uneasy about the idea of doing all of this at once. The week away was already going to be a big undertaking. Adding the move was going to draw very heavily on our physical and psychic resources. Plus, Ava and I both felt a certain amount of guilt about our assigned roles. Ava felt guilty for leaving me to manage the children without her for so long. I felt guilty that Ava would have to drive twelve hours from the site of the training in order to meet the movers and chaperone all our stuff down to Lexington.

We eventually put the guilt aside. Keeping the kids with my parents for the extra days was the best available plan and, in practice, it worked out very well. But all our uneasiness did get me thinking about where that guilt came from and what it means for us.

My first thought was that our guilt emerged from the reversal of industrial-era gender roles existing within the plan – i.e. more often the wife/mother would take the kids to her parents while the father would do the moving work. In this theory, our guilt would be a result of our blatant violation of an established cultural inheritance. This kind of violation, even when I know it’s insignificant, still makes me feel strange. For example, having Ava mow the yard seems odd to me. That’s my job. More importantly, it’s my job because my dad mowed our yard and his dad mowed their yard. It’s just what I am supposed to do.

However, this theory would also lead us to expect that neither Ava nor I would experience any guilt about the plan if our roles were reversed. I don’t think this is true. If Ava took the kids to her parents and I handled the move, we would both still feel guilty about not being able to help the other with their task.

Which leads me to another consideration…

In our family we have established a certain expectation that most household tasks are shared. At various times, Ava and I both take the lead in doing laundry, cooking food, cleaning bathrooms, or bathing the kids. While we certainly have our own tasks, the lines that divide one person’s responsibilities from the other’s are much less distinct than they were in my parents’ household. I get the sense that this increased scrambling of household tasks is true for many families now. In many of the families that I know, each parent ends up doing a little bit of everything and in the process the traditional domestic roles of husband and wife, father and mother become pretty hazy.

Now our moving plan ran completely counter to this sharing framework of organization. Instead of spreading out each job across us, it demanded that we undertake our tasks wholly and completely for a number of days without the ability of the other to assist in any physical way. It was in essence an old school division of labor that took advantage of our individual skills and played to our specialized foundations of knowledge. By the standards of basic economic theory, it was rational and it was efficient. Each of us did what we could do in order to accomplish the larger goal of moving our family from one place to another. As such, one could argue, it was a plan based in the idea that equality can be found in diversity. It was just not the kind of equality we were used to.

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