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.