Tuesday, June 18, 2013

This Relationship Corner: Work has no Gender

If you were alive in the 1980's, you couldn't escape The Cosby Show. It was the biggest sitcom on television, providing the template for many, many 80's sitcoms about the perils of raising a family in middle (or upper-middle) class America. One part of the show that always stuck with me was the character of Elvin, Sondra's chauvinistic boyfriend who absolutely believed that there was "man's work" and "women's work." The women of the Huxtable house, Claire in particular, took umbrage with that.

The Cosby Show was not just about breaking down the racial divide, showing an affluent African American family with two professional parents: a doctor and a lawyer. The show also made great strides on breaking down the gender barrier, refusing to buy into the idea that men, and especially women, had "their place." Elvin's beliefs that there was such a thing as "women's work" was quickly slapped down by every female in the Huxtable household. He was also given a counter-example in the form of Cliff Huxtable.

Cliff was an active member of his domestic partnership. He never divided the household duties into His and Hers. He simply did what needed to be done. As an impressionable 80's viewer, I never forgot the sight of Cliff in the kitchen, or watching the kids, or doing whatever was needed for his family. Cliff knew a very important truth, one I share with you today: work is work, it has no gender.

These past few weeks, I've had to take over all the household duties because my wife had another procedure, a followup to the last one she had. She had one job during her recovery, to get better. That left me with every other job, including cooking, cleaning, laundry, and everything else that needed to be done. Not once did I see this as doing "women's work." It was work that needed doing, and it was my job to step up and do it.

I know many men who have no problem steeping up and doing whatever needs doing in their families. If you want to know what it truly means to "man up," that's it. It's grabbing a scrub brush and cleaning the toilet, making dinner when you're tired, taking care of the kids after a long workday, and finishing every other domestic task on your to-do list. It's work, it needs to be done, so step up and do it.

If it seems my aim is towards men this week, you're right. Because even today, in the 21st Century, I still run into male attitudes about a man's role versus a woman's role. Many believe that the only way to live is for the man to be the breadwinner and the woman to stay home and keep house, and that means that men don't do household chores. Ever. That attitude is also used to tell women that they shouldn't have any aspirations outside the kitchen, so they should kiss those careers goodbye.

Quick question. What was considered "women's work" in World War II? While the men were off fighting in the European or Japanese theaters, the women were building battleships and planes and bombs. That was "women's work," because someone had to do it. The women stepped up. Throughout history, women have always gone to work alongside men. When the only things that stood between living and dying was the success of the farm, women were outside, getting their hands dirty, working.

I wrote a while back about needing to support each other's dreams. Part of that support is emotional, being a constant source of encouragement. However, another part of that support is practical, doing whatever it takes to make sure the other person can succeed. I've heard countless stories about women who wanted to go back to school or work, to pursue their dreams, and the only thing standing in their way were unwilling husbands who had no desire to help out around the house. These husbands didn't step up because they believed that household chores were "women's work."

A lot of men go into relationships, and marriage, with a very narrow view of gender roles. This might come from upbringing or the media, which despite The Cosby Show's influence still portrays very traditional gender roles. Men consider these things normal, and its often a shock to them when their girlfriends or wives don't conform to their expectations. They never thought that women would have their own ideas about the lives they wanted to lead.

It can get even more tricky when the man is not the main breadwinner. Today, more women than ever are the top earners in their families, and more men than ever are staying home to raise the family. Sometimes this is by choice, other times its forced by circumstance thanks to a flagging economy.

Sometimes those men do step up, get with the program, and do whatever it takes for their family. Other times, though, those men cling to their ideas of a man's role and a woman's role, refusing to contribute to their household. These same men may then wonder why their relationships are so strained, why it's always tense and they are always arguing, not realizing that they are the reason for it.

I can hear some of those men now, pointing to the women, asking why I'm not calling them out. If that's you, I refer you to my last article on ditching your defensiveness. Before you start pointing to others about how they aren't stepping up, make sure you are properly stepping up.

You also need to remember that it's not about keeping score, about earning points because last week you did X number of chores. Steeping up isn't about lording your efforts over the other person, or using them as an excuse to not step up later. It might be uneven for a while. You might feel like you are doing most of the work, and perhaps you are. It's also possible, however, that you only think you're doing the lion's share, when in fact you aren't.

Here's what you need to remember. Your family, your household, is your responsibility. That's the cost of being in a relationship. There's going to be more work, and you're going to have to do it. If you resent having to put in more effort, then you aren't ready for a real relationship, and I can easily tell you why you're having so much conflict. It's time to become an adult and take on adult responsibilities. Either step up, or step aside for those who will.

I know that some of you men reading this might realize that you need to change, but you don't know how. You feel trapped by what you believe are your obligations to being a man, to living up to these male expectations that come from your own upbringing and society around you. The good news is that, despite the stereotype, you can change. Cliff Huxtable might have been the model for enlightened men, but he didn't start out that way. He was just as bad as Elvin, but he was willing to put his relationship with Claire first, and his love for her gave him the motivation to be a better man.

That's your goal, your prize. If you truly love this person, then you have all the motivation you need to step up. Do it for them, and you'll soon find you want to do it for yourself. Not only will you reap the benefits of a better relationship, you'll also reap the benefits of being a better person. So get to work.

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