My dad was the primary wage-earner in our house. My mom set aside nursing at a private practice to have the babies and care for them as most women did. Actually caring for the kids was only a small part of my mom’s life. There were no tasks at our house she wouldn’t tackle save for auto repair and/or maintenance, and that only because she didn’t need to.
My mom laundered: washing, drying, folding, and ironing when necessary. The kitchen floor was a slick sliding wonderland when misted with the Niagara, Faultless, or Magic Sizing overspray. She cleaned: vacuuming, spot removing on floors or furniture, dusting, window cleaning, stripping the linoleum of, then reapplying the floor wax, washing the kitchen cupboard fronts, emptying the cupboards to wipe them out and reorganize the contents, removing our fingerprints from walls & doors to extend time between painting, scrubbing the bathroom fixtures, fighting the good fight against shower mildew. She organized: the cupboards, the kitchen drawers, the bathroom drawers, the desk drawers, the dresser drawers, the closets. She knew our shoes, coats, and socks, the scissors, tape, and gift wrap, the tweezers, toothbrushes, and band aids. She kept the garage tidy and organized: house paint, garden tools, buckets and boxes within easy, predictable reach. Mom sewed. She made curtains and table coverings. She made clothes for us and herself. She made clothes and blankets for our dolls. She repaired clothes, extending the life of “work” pants and shirts with patches, replacing lost buttons, mending frayed edges. She made custom oversize neckties for Dad to wear at breakfast, keeping his dressed-for-work self spot-free. My mom shopped for and cooked the food. She kept the budget, writing every expenditure by date in a ledger. She paid the bills and balanced the bank accounts. She collected cans to turn in for cash when the month’s-end money drew exceedingly tight. She hauled firewood from pile to living room wood-burning fireplace insert. She mowed the lawns. Pruned the trees and shrubs. She weeded and edged the flower beds. She picked rocks from the vegetable garden, transplanted seedlings, weeded some more. She corralled raspberry canes and kept slugs away from strawberries. Early afternoon when Dad came home, she made coffee and they’d talk about their day. My dad would change clothes then work on something until dinner.
There was no separation of jobs at our house. There was no Men’s Work or Women’s Work. If it needed to be done, it got done. No matter who did the doing. My parents each had their strengths and preferences: my mom was/is a far better ironer than my dad, but he knows how to iron a shirt. My dad was why we had a dog, so he did the pet grooming. There was no talk about both doing the “same” amount of housework, they just did the housework. Rooms got painted, the cars kept running, we could always find a ruler or paperclips. My mom appreciated my Dad’s daily trudge to work and he appreciated her attention to detail around the house.
When old enough, my sisters and I found ourselves conscripted into this lifestyle of work. Tasks of vacuuming, dusting, and dish detail were easy starting points, freeing time for mom to paint louvered closet doors and gut the linen closet. Outside we raked, mowed, and weeded. We learned how to use a squeegee and give windows a final wipe with crumpled newspaper. I learned how to change a tire on the car, and do other basic auto maintenance. I learned to operate the small garden tiller. I didn’t want to learn the chainsaw but became proficient at splitting firewood with a maul. I learned how to build a fire. I learned how to care for house painting tools. I learned to drive a car and a motorcycle. I learned to sew and cook and iron. I learned how much I disliked dusting. Eventually my mom returned to private practice nursing 2 days per week. We girls became responsible for dinner on those days, and had great fun with Betty Crocker’s New Boys and Girls Cookbook.
All through the years of projects and plans, not once did I hear my parent’s talk of either one not doing their “fair share” or of some task not being suitable for a man to do, etc. Yes, my parent’s held the Evangelical belief that, “The man is head of the household,” and yes, my mom had an almost maniacal capability for projects, but when it came to work, we were all the same. It wasn’t until later, when I started to hear the voices of feminism, that I learned few woman shared my upbringing. It seemed crazy to me that a woman shouldn’t use power tools or drive trucks, that a man shouldn’t plant flowers or iron shirts. All people have differences, like my parents: different strengths, different preferences, but to be inherently better or worse based on the arrangement of a few chromosomes was ludicrous to me. That women would only have worth if they worked 9-5 outside the home was equally ludicrous. Thirty years have passed since the Enjoli woman sang of bringing home the bacon, frying it up in the pan, and never letting the listener forget he was a man. With more two income households than ever before, the absurdity of that song has long been proven. While women still fight for equal pay for equal work, everyone tired, converging at home around 6 o’clock for dinner, dishes, homework, a few laundry loads, are all hands ready to help ease the burden so all can have a little down time before sleep? Where the woman would be expected to work away from home, make dinner, clean up, ready all for the next day, and then be perky and fresh at bedtime is ludicrous. Only with the equality exhibited by my parents, an equality based on love and respect, can two-income households thrive.
When we became 3, we decided Spouse would keep working since he had a better paying job than I did. He was better paid, not for being a man, but because he had worked more consistently at the same job than I had. I who dabbled in jobs or businesses was more of an income liability. My very part-time commitments would be doable, juggling Junior with Spouse or Grandparents, or taking him in tow. Early on in parenting I struggled with multi-tasking, finding even dinner-making an almost insurmountable feat. Going to the office for a few hours here or there allowed for focus and task completion, my entire self able to sigh contentedly. On days when Spouse had covered a shift with Junior, he delighted in making dinner, setting the table with linens and candles, having my food plated and wine poured when I walked in the door. He was partly trying to prove he was better than me, but moreover, he was taking care of our kid and me. He understood my fractured thought processes and knew I’d eventually adjust. He was grateful that I was willing to be the primary caregiver for our child.
Our shared value of a happy adjusted child growing into an adult has him understanding when dinner is not ready, when the house is messy after a busy day of life, has me understanding when I return from weekend working to discover that, while the breakfast dishes never found the dishwasher, trees fell, nails met hammers, lunches out were enjoyed. If I’m spent after a day of karate, spelling, read-alouds, Nerf, interpersonal neighborhood relations, Spouse will sequester me away after dinner with iPad or book, and he will, after 11 hours away, happily return the kitchen to pre-dinner clean. So I could work the odd all-day yesterday, Spouse took a personal day to ferry Junior to karate, introduce some new math concepts, and cut more firewood. Never do we bitch about stuff undone. Never do we compare money earned or tasks completed. We respect what each of us brings to our family. We are equals, both working for the best.