The Story Economy Blog

And Now, It’s Time to Talk About Men and Women

allen with babiesMy husband (that's him to the right, with our two babies) doesn’t want me to write about this topic. He’s afraid that no one will ever hire me again if I speak out, and there will be no more food on the table.

But as with our disagreement about Tess of the d’Urbervilles, I think he’s wrong on this one, too.

Because how can I write about everything else in my life and my business, and not write about the fact that I’m, you know, a girl?

But I’m probably not going to say what you think I’m going to say. So hang with me a second.

First of all, what inspired me to write this post is the backlash against Sheryl Sandberg’s book, Lean In. I’ll just say clearly: I have read the book and I like it. Even though I have no desire to climb the corporate ladder myself (I’m a do-my-own-thing kind of person), I agree with her viewpoint that women hold themselves back for a whole constellation of reasons (none of which are they are stupid, weak, or inept) and that the more female leaders we have at the top, the more opportunity will filter down.

My problem isn’t that people disagree with her—because there are other kinds of arguments to be made about the gender gap. My problem is that people are attacking her and the book without reading it or having much of an idea of what it’s about. I’ve watched this happen over and over on blogs and through eavesdropping on conversations.

People are making assumptions. And let me tell you, boys and girls, it’s not getting anyone anywhere.

Which brings me around to what I want to write about—which does have to do with you, even if you’re sure it doesn’t.

The House of Cards is Falling

Last year on my birthday, lots of people wished me happy birthday on Facebook. It’s lovely to hear those little bing-bong Facebook alerts all day, and read the nice things people say. But one comment stuck with me, in a not-so-great-way. A woman I don’t really know posted something like, “Make your husband do the dishes today!”

The problem is that, as our culture stands right now, this is still a normal thing to say.

Except my husband does the dishes every day. And he cooks. And grocery shops. And cleans. And takes care of the kids. And makes their doctor’s appointments. He’s a stay-at-home-dad, and I work full-time to provide for the family. I don’t feel guilty that I’m not doing all the typical things women do, and he doesn’t feel guilty that he isn’t a man with an ulcer, a drinking problem, and an asshole boss. We’ve released each other from it.

Trust me, neither one of us is a martyr. We’re not any smarter or better than any other couple. And lest you think he is some sort of new age hipster sensitive guy, let me tell you, he has a temper like a firecracker, and there is nothing in his background to suggest this path. I mean, in his earlier years, he started a club among his friends called “Bachelors for Life” and swore he would never have kids. He only changed his mind at the age of 40.

Out there in the world, if I’m around people who don’t really know me, and I engage in any kind of conversation about working full-time and having two kids under the age of five, they tilt their head to the side in that sympathetic way, and say, “Oh, you must be so busy!” I feel the weight of their assumptions cascade around me. I know it doesn’t come from a bad place in their minds. But I’ve checked around, and my male colleagues don’t get the sympathetic head tilt. They also don’t get called “working fathers.”

For my husband’s part, he’s already been told by another stay-at-home-dad he knows in our neighborhood not to bother with the local mom’s group: they weren’t interested in a guy joining. (Not to mention that I have to make these bizarre third-party introductions between my husband and the moms at the preschool regarding playdates, because my husband is always afraid they’ll think he’s hitting on them. Which turns out to be a valid fear.)

We’re definitely not the only people redefining the roles according to what we want to do, versus according to how it’s always been. It’s just not normal yet. Which means that strangers can post comments on Facebook that hardly anyone would call out as weird. And TV commercials and TV shows can keep portraying men as incompetent around the house and with the kids (but A+ for trying, dads!), while the superwoman wife swoops in and fixes everything with her knowing smile. (I now hate most family sitcoms all TV commercials that sell household products.)

My husband and I have an amazing and blessed life. So this is not complaining. Far from it. I only point these things out because reversing the roles has been such a gift. It’s allowed me to see how everything to do with roles for men and women cracks open and shows itself. And that it’s all just a house of cards, built solely on assumptions.

But it’s a deceptively strong house of cards, because a society long ago had the foresight to reinforce it with industrial-strength glue. And it’s glue that’s now reached its expiration date. So it’s peeling and cracking. And like all toxic stuff, it’s off-gassing like crazy, pitting all kinds of people against each other in one last attempt to distract from the crumbling: stay-at-home moms against work-outside-the-home moms against have-it-all-moms against childless women against single moms—and all of it against men, many of whom are either getting scolded for not spending enough time with families, getting scolded for not being committed enough to their career, or getting suspicious looks from the moms on the playground.

I can’t think of a single group of people for whom maintaining this structure and then not noticing it is good. I can’t quite put all the pieces together, but I don’t think gay couples escape it either (and if they do, they don’t escape a bunch of other crap). Because that expiring, off-gassing glue is melting off that crumbling house of cards, running down all over the floor. And we’re all stepping in it. Losing our best shoes to it.

Of course you can sidestep it. I mean, of course. We’re not a bunch of victims.

But you can’t unstick yourself unless you first notice that it’s there to begin with.

So my fight isn’t about more female leaders as heads of companies and heads of state. I’m aligned with that idea. But I don’t knowit firsthand. The same way I don’t know what it’s like to be a single mother. No one woman represents every experience, the same way that we’d never expect men as different as David Sedaris and Jack Welch to represent the same experience.

My fight is to get you to notice the ways in which you’ve been part of constructing things. Not because you’re bad or stupid or a victim or an ass or have made the wrong decisions. But because not enough people are even noticing. If men and women don’t notice in equal amounts, we can’t change anything. Not our households. Not institutionalized policies. Not the subtle messages to kids. Not the looks women get from other women. Not pay inequity. And not the leadership gap.

Maybe you’re tired of hearing about gender. “Geez, let’s just focus on talent!” you say. I’ve heard that before. It sounds great: sign me up!

Except for one thing: we still have this mess of gooey glue everywhere, and collectively, our feet are stuck in it. That will be the case as long as it’s still normal to say, “It’s your birthday: make your husband do the dishes.”

The conversation on gender is about to break wide open, people. I can smell it, the way you can smell rain in the air before a big thunderstorm. And there will be a lot of different arguments. I, for one, welcome a loud public debate. Let’s get rowdy and have smart debates about stuff—because there is no one right answer. I definitely want my daughter and my son to hear this debate. I want them to grow up noticing stuff.

Now, if you’re living by yourself in the woods, or in some idyllic commune, you probably don’t need to listen. But if you are a man or a woman actively in the world—whether that means working in the home, outside of the home, splitting the chores, doing all the chores—and/or you are raising children, and/or you just want to be relevant for the future, you should probably listen.

Because it definitely has something to do with you.


  • Vicky

    Posted by Vicky on 04/10/13 4:05pm

    Amen! I'm completely with's happening! I get those same comments from friends, relatives, and those who don't know me terribly well. My husband works full-time outside of our home, but he also does the dishes, helps with the laundry, and does other wonderful things to support me so I can focus on my business. (Actually, he and the kids take turns doing the awesome is that!?) Everyone here contributes because, well, we ALL live here. We had a family meeting about it and that's how we decided to set it up. I don't think there's a right or wrong way to do this stuff. I'm a firm believer in creating a system that works for YOU. And that's precisely what we've done in my house. :) Rules be damned, I say!!

    • Judi Ketteler

      Posted by Judi Ketteler on 04/10/13 4:10pm

      Thanks for your comment, Vicky!

  • Sarah B

    Posted by Sarah B on 04/10/13 5:48pm

    Thank you for writing this! It's not easy. I owned two retail stores for 15 years, have 3 kids... lots of weird comments over the years. I sold the businesses almost three years ago to try to be a "normal mom" ha ha ha... that's caused all kinds of new issues... ~ sb

  • Tandy Pryor

    Posted by Tandy Pryor on 04/10/13 6:03pm

    Just brilliant Judi! Get it out there on that 85 Broads Blog!

  • Darrell Wallace

    Posted by Darrell Wallace on 04/11/13 11:48am

    I have just (3 months ago) swapped roles with my wife. She is now the breadwinner and I am the stay at home Dad. We have four children between 14 months and 8 years old.
    I agree with everything you have said. we are not unique or special, we are not trail blazers, we are fortunate to have the opportunity to be in the position to be able to do this. I know I count my blessings everyday.
    I want my children (2 boys and 2 girls) to see a world where everything and anything that they choose to do is considered normal. If they want to have kids and stay at home, or be a woman that never has kids and works her way up a corporate ladder then they should feel free and unencumbered to make those choices. Please let us not encumber another generation of people with the premise that they must do what society expects them to do in terms of gender roles and stereotypes.
    As a male stay at home parent I sometimes get odd looks or the questioning glance as to what my motives are, but unfortunately it is the pseudo criticism comments that my wife gets about leaving the kids when they are young, or having to pick up the pieces when she gets home that hurt us. Unfortunately the older kids get it as well.
    I like your take on things, keep up the good work

    • Judi Ketteler

      Posted by Judi Ketteler on 04/11/13 1:09pm

      Darrell, thanks so much for sharing your story! I still have optimism for our generation, but I honestly don't know if the real changes will happen until the next--the one we are raising. I love what you said about the next generation, and I agree completely that I want my kids to know that there is no one right way a family is structured.
      -- Judi

  • Terri Boes

    Posted by Terri Boes on 04/11/13 1:21pm

    It's funny that you should mention the birthday comment about making your husband do the dishes. There are 2 days of the year that I do not do the dishes: my birthday and mother's day. As I still have one adult son living with me, he usually opts to do the the cooking for that day (I don't cook on those days either) and that leaves the dishes for my husband. He absolutely hates doing the dishes and does nothing else around the house the rest of the year either. We own a large house that is over 130 years old that is on 3/4 of an acre so there is always plenty of maintenance, repair, yard work, cleaning, etc to keep a person busy but he does none of it. It's hard to raise your chlldren to step out of gender roles when your husband won't.

    • Judi Ketteler

      Posted by Judi Ketteler on 04/11/13 1:37pm

      Terri, I wish I knew the magic words to tell you, but I don't. I can share from my perspective, which I don't know if you'll find helpful: I hate dishes and housework and laundry & I've always been lousy at doing them (even when I was single, and even when I lived at home--you can ask my mom!). But when my husband asks me to help him, very specifically, I do. LIke he'll say: "would you mind folding these loads of laundry tonight?" And of course I do it, b/c he is asking me and I love him. We've become good at realizing that we can't, in fact, read each others' minds. We have to be specific about what we need, and be straightforward & sincere when we ask & not attach it to past resentment or anything else other than what we need in that moment. It's taken a while to get to this, believe me! I don't know if that helps you at all. But I would certainly try something.

  • Christine Luken

    Posted by Christine Luken on 04/11/13 5:48pm

    Thanks for the great article, Judy! My husband and I are childless by choice, and receive a lot of grief from well-meaning people. Some people look at us with pity in their eyes and ask who will take care of us when we get old. I tell them with all the money I save by not having kids, I plan to hire a hot-looking male nurse to take care of me in my golden years! ;) Then of course there are people who say, "You're still young! There's time to change your mind." Sorry, not happening! There's nothing wrong or incomplete about my family unit. Honestly, I don't think there are too many truly "traditional families" out there anymore.

  • Alexandra Hughes

    Posted by Alexandra Hughes on 04/17/13 10:24pm

    I absolutely LOVE your article! I am a Mama of three young children and an entrepreneur growing and running three businesses. My partner works full time (evenings and weekends often, too). He ain't no hippy man either yet there has never been any assumption that I do the childcare or housework for being the girl. Sure, I chose to leave my employee-life to create a more flexible and balanced life for myself, but he still carries an equal weight in the home and with the kids. Why is it that people are so surprised that he cooks, cleans and washes up? That I get weekend time to myself while he is with the kids? Isn't this the norm today? Sadly not. I speak openly about our division of tasks in hopes that others pick up on how it can be.

    Even with my clients (passion-driven Mompreneurs), I often find myself reminding them of the critical value that support in the home has in order to ensure we can live our dreams and do what we love. I invite them to reflect on these assumptions and come together with their partners in an arrangement that works for both of them, for a happier union and a healthier role model situation for their kids.

    • Judi Ketteler

      Posted by Judi Ketteler on 04/18/13 1:01am

      Alexandra, it sounds like you are doing great work with your clients! Thanks for your kinds words about my post. As I'm seeing from these comments & comments on Facebook, there are so many people who are way ahead of the assumptions. We just still keep carrying around these assumptions as a society though. I believe it will get better if we talk about it and share our experiences!
      -- Judi

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