In Which I Realise I am a Sexist Pig

For many years, embroiled in the welter of child-raising and relentless domesticity I was quite grumpy about the fact that Certain Men would do anything rather than change a nappy, take a toddler away for a couple of hours or clean the bathroom. "But you're so good at it," a Certain Man would say as he wandered off to tile a floor for three hours or so.

It wasn't until The Man left that I realised just how gender-specific the roles had been at our place. I never put out the bins or mowed the lawn. I had never used a cordless drill. I generally didn't even change a light bulb. In my mind I excused my lack of manly talents with the line, "but he's so good at all of that." Also I didn't want to mow the lawn, because who does? But then, he didn't want to clean the bathroom, because who does?

But over the last couple of years I have begun to tease out the pattern of our lives. Firstly we had very gender-specific roles because our parents did. We swore we would not end up blindly reflecting the lives of our parents, but that is exactly what we did. We became parents very young (we were both twenty two) and before long we were living their lives. He was out working to support his young family, I was home bringing up little children. We needed to conserve our small income so I did the bits that could be done with small children at heel - cooking, mending, home schooling, gardening, and he did all the bits that couldn't be done with a baby strapped to the chest - chopping firewood, gutting and rebuilding our bargain fixer-upper. There is nothing wrong with this pattern - it is very efficient and has been used for millenia because it works.

But like many modern families we had wanted something different. He had planned to be more involved with bringing up the children, we had planned to be partners in our daily lives, but then, we weren't. It was much easier to just coast along in out traditional gender roles. And once we were on different tracks it was so much easier to drift apart. He became more career oriented, I was completely family focussed. Again, none of this was wrong - he needed to concentrate on career because I wasn't earning, and I needed to focus on the family because he wasn't there on a daily basis. Both of us conceded that this was necessary. But it felt wrong to me. It wasn't what we had planned or wanted, but we couldn't stop for long enough to work out how to do things differently. Or we felt we couldn't.

In hindsight we had options, but all of them involved self-reflection and talking about how we felt (not our strong suits). If we had been determined I could have helped him build the house and we could have shared the child care. Then he could have been closer to the children and I could have become a far more practical person than I am now. As it was both of us became resentful trapped in our roles alone but didn't want to rock the boat because it seemed there was no alternative. And truly, The Man was much better at building a house, and I was much more calm and patient with the children. But I have just realised the true reason for that.

It takes thousands of hours to truly master a craft. At first you are really bad at it, and then you slowly get better by doing it over and over and over again. When we are young we are used to being really incompetent at all sorts of things as we start learning how to live. Then we become good at a bunch of things, mostly the things we have a bit of natural talent in, but sometimes just things we have to do. After we get good at a range of things it becomes unbearable to have to go back to being an incompetent beginner again. Plus, our perfectionist culture doesn't tend to reward adult failure.

The Man, who is an engineer, always liked tinkering around with tools, although he had never actually built anything until he started experimenting with making furniture for us out of wooden pallets and off-cuts, and then rebuilding our house. Natural interest plus talent plus necessity plus endless repetition made him an expert and should the bottom ever fall out of the engineering market he will be able to make an excellent living as general handyman.

I, on the other hand, possessed a useful pair of boobs that was the only thing that shut our first colicky baby up. Plus there were some equally useful hormones which attached me to the baby like duct tape. I have put in my thousands of hours of child wrangling, also read every parenting manual on the planet, and now, although small children aren't my natural forte interest-wise, I make a pleasant living hanging out with five-year-olds, because believe me, I know five-year-olds by now.

For me, unhandy as I am, the art of building was arcane and mysterious and 'impossible' for me to learn. For The Man, dealing with temper tantrums was overwhelming and exhausting. And yet, had we been humble enough to ask for help and guidance from each other, we could have learned. We would have learnt new skills, we could have learnt to be patient with each other, we would have become partners in parenting and building a house and life together. Instead we both felt trapped in lives that weren't quite right.

Now, I am not saying that we could have saved our marriage and that life would have been rosy had we chosen that different path - I just don't know. I think our differences lay deeper and were more intractable than that. I don't have regrets about the paths our lives have taken. The Man has a new partner who is a kind and positive influence on the children's lives, and I am happier than I have ever been, if still a little terrified of power tools. I do regret taking the safe and easy road though, and I am determined to take a more thoughtful, maybe more difficult, but certainly more rewarding route in the future.

I have discovered that I can indeed mow the lawn, although I have now given that up as I bought a new house with no lawn at all, and gave away the lawn mower. I can also take out the bins and change a light bulb, and today I used the cordless drill! The Boy showed me how it works when he was home at Christmas time, and today I charged up the battery and actually used it to drill some holes to add an extra shelf to the old sets of shelves I am currently using as a kitchen dresser. So far that takes the range of tools I know how to use to three. I can sand with the electric sander, drill a hole, and wield an adjustable wrench for a myriad of purposes. Very proud! Mind you, this man built an entire hobbit house with three tools (chainsaw, hammer and chisel) so I figure I'm just about there..

I am happy that my girls are getting to see a mum who is capable of having a go at most things, and willing to be very, very incompetent as I work out how to do very basic home improvements. I am also very happy to be at a stage in my life where I can look back at my many failures and say, "Oh well, I tried really hard and my intentions were good.. and that's what matters."


Anonymous said…
You are amazing, Jo. Look at what you're learning, you're accomplishing. And such deep and honest reflection.

I "believe" in certain sexual decision of labour. But really I just use that to pass on jobs that I find distasteful or require a bit of brut strength. So in our last house, it was Mr S who had to keep un blocking the drain. Hey, he has no sense of smell so it doesn't bother him. Much. (And I used to get him to change pooey nappies. He probably did more changing of those than me.)And in this house, he does the pool.

But otherwise we share tasks. Washing, shopping, cooking, cleaning. Though I clean more because he wouldn't bother otherwise.

Neither of us do much handyman work. He finds it boring and never developed the skills. Our kids are thus even less skilled than him. I have painted the inside of our old house. Mr S used the spray painter to paint our ceiling. When I bemoan his lack of handyman skills, Mr S generally reminds me I could learn or he uses his other favourite line. He finds that boring and to be skilled in it requires repeated practice. And if he was doing it every weekend, I would find it (and him) boring. Which is true. As you say, skill is honed from repeated attempts and I wouldn't want to have him separate from me doing all these jobs after we've been separated for the week at work.

Now my boys have that separation that might be worse than a sexual decision of labour. The division between things one thinks one can do and having to pay someone to do. (The latter generally means going without as labour is so expensive.)

Oh and I'm feeling much better. Thanks. Though I am now taking an asthma puffer. Never had asthma as a child! And today I had a dodgy tummy. Had to stay close to the loo. Last week I had an unexplained rash. It really has been a term horriblé. Age? Work burnout? Bad luck? I don't know. But I have to take more care of myself.
fran7narf said…
I think you are spot on about how we veer off to where we are naturally more talented as well as the gender role that tends to imprint itself on us so well. It makes perfect sense to divide the labour of a marriage and inevitably, you end up lacking in some of the skills that you need to go solo. I had a scrumptious little Ford Capri when we lived in Western Australia. I loved it so much I brought it over with us when we moved to Tassie. I was taking my eldest daughter to her first job interview with a local drafting firm and was driving through a green light when an elderly lady turned abruptly and hit us. I had the right of way but she was confused by the lights. She was driving a small, brand new car and her husband had recently died. She had a drivers license but hadn't driven in 20 years as her husband did that...If Steve was to shuffle off the earth sometime soon, I would have a hell of a time working out how to pay bills online. My daughters only just showed me how to use an ATM recently! Steve chops the wood, answers the phone, does a lot of "man" things and I know that the hole in my routine and my daily living that him leaving would leave would devastate me almost as much as the leaving itself. We get used to living with someone else and how much space they occupy and in delegating as it's more efficient that way. No-one asks a car windscreen wiper to deliver oil to the engine, and that's what happens in a long term relationship. It's almost inevitable. Even in the most equal of relationships (is there really such a thing?) there will always be something that someone does better and so they get the job. You have so much that is new around you Jo. You have been incredibly brave through all of this. Your new life has given you so many opportunities to learn and to expand your horizons. You forgot to add in "light and keep a fire going". I think that is one of the fundamentals. Thank you for sharing your thoughts with us here. I love reading your blog posts because they make me think. I love your shelves by the way. I am thinking of learning to use more of the power tools as well. Steve bought me a Dremel and it's sitting in the spare room, spanking new, waiting for me to use it. Life really is full of opportunities to pick up and explore. Thank you for sharing your explorations and for your honesty. Hugs from snotty Sidmouth.
Jo said…
Lucinda, I am glad the division of labour in your house suits everyone, and clearly it is something you discuss. Sign of a healthy relationship! I love the way you have resolved the handyman issues - just don't do it. Brilliant!

Fran, yes, it's not until one partner is absent that the gap in your own capabilities becomes apparent. Also, it seems too, too hard to try something that your partner does effortlessly. Because why would you?? Seriously Fran, learn to pay those on-line bills. With your IT capacity it will take you 5 minutes to work it out, and then you will have a whole new skill!

I worry about my parents. If either of them dies, the other will have a world of upskilling to do. And when you are older and in shock and grieving, that is not the ideal time to learn new things. As in your very sad story. That poor woman. I hope your daughter got to her job interview though?

I had to look up to find out what a dremel is. Ooh, goody, aren't you going to have fun with that! I may need to pop over and borrow it!
Anonymous said…
Hi Jo, I enjoyed this thoughtful post. Rom and I met in our "maturity" and now have an empty nest so of course we were going to have an egalitarian partnership. But he has never owned a home before and never paid attention to his dad's work (builder) because he was the scholar and his brother was the next-generation builder! By the time we met, I had been a single parent for a dozen years and I've had to show him everything. It is an odd dynamic because he is willing to do any kind of work, but I have to identify it and "assign" it because he can't see what needs to be done. He did figure out how to fix the lawn mower once, from YouTube - I was quite impressed. In my neighbourhood it seems to be all women who mow lawns and do the gardening. I am not sure what indoor tasks their spouses are doing at that time, but I see the men are still "assigned" the barbecuing!
Jo said…
Dar, yes, lots of men who won't cook will BBQ. It must be more manly or something. I like the sound of your partnership, it sounds like you have worked things out to your satisfaction. Rom must be very secure in himself to have you direct his handyperson efforts:)
Anonymous said…
Hi Jo, Sometimes I get frustrated because Rom can't seem to look around and see what needs to be done, but on the flip side, when I say, "This needs to be done and this is how I usually do it," he will just do it as I say, thinking, "Oh, so that's how it's done" and rarely questioning. Works for me :)
Fernglade Farm said…
Hi Jo,

I know those shelving units! I'll tell you a funny story about those units. One day the editor and I were visiting over at some friends place and they live in an amazing house - it really is awesome - and they keep cows, pigs and chickens too. Anyway, they asked us for a bit of help and we ended up spending the entire afternoon making one after another of those shelving units and they took up an entire wall.

Nice to see you have learned how to learn. Tools are very useful items and a drill is no different to knitting needles or a sewing machine.

I reckon it is good for your kids to learn from you, and to see when things go wrong. Perfection is over rated anyway. Nice also that you can learn from your regrets - for that is what they are.

I grew up in a house with two sisters and a single mum, so I have rather mixed feelings about dads anyway and who knows what they think. On the other hand, it is good to learn a broad range of skills regardless of the gender role that is assigned to them. Most of that assigning is purely arbitrary from what I can see anyway.

Nice job with the shelving units too.


Anonymous said…
Before Reg and I started dating, I lived by myself in an 80 year old renovators special - I did a lot of stuff myself, and outsourced what I couldn't manage, so I well knew my way around a power tool or two. One of Dad's Rules was "buy the best tools you can afford", so I had a decent albeit eclectic tool kit. No saws though, because um. Dad didn't want me to cut my leg off because he'd have to explain to mum so if I wanted anything cut, I had to call him. (After Dad died, I discovered the lovely chaps at Bunnings and Mitre 10 will cut stuff for you. This is a useful tip. Write it down.) In fact, I suspect one of the many things that made me attractive to Reg was my tool kit (and my scintillating wit and stylish good looks and I lived right near a pub. Ahem).

Reg is a very Handy Man and is very good at the manly handy things, so he has taken over responsibility for that stuff though. I'm sure he'd like me to take over the garden, but I keep reminding him that I outsourced that when I lived by myself! So, deal is I *let* him do stuff. I would be absolutely delighted to delegate some housework tasks to him, however, he keeps bringing up lawn mowing... He does cook a couple of nights a week, though. I'm not completely thrilled with our division of labours, but I've outsourced the stuff I really hate, and hey, if everything was completely even, I'd have nowt to write about!

When I lived by myself, I knew the garbos, and they'd grab my bins when I forgot to put them out. I can't change a tyre (wussy girlie wrists), but I'm in the RACV, and I found a good mechanic for the rest of it. I also knew a lot of women who lived by themselves, so between us, we had a really good network of lady-friendly tradies (ones that don't charge a squintillion bucks, rip you off and call you little lady. They all call you love, though). I could hang a door, and I built a cupboard for my pots and pans, and I painted the entire house inside *and* out... and I give you the tip, painting the outside of this joint is getting outsourced!
GretchenJoanna said…
I think about this a lot now that I don't have anyone to share duties with. While my husband lived I was content to let him habitually do however many tasks he was willing for: barbecuing, lawn-mowing, toilet repair, (understanding and) maintaining the swimming pool and the cars, etc. I knew I could learn to do "his jobs" if I wanted to, but why should I, when his doing them gave me more time for things I liked, such as reading to the children or cooking or sewing or writing.

A friend of mine who had a husband and three sons made it a matter of policy that she would never fill her car's gas tank herself, because then "it would just be one more thing on her list of chores," which she thought already long enough. I always admired her smarts, and wished that I had been self-preserving to that degree.

Now I either have to do these unfamiliar tasks myself, or find someone else to do them. Finding Someone Else seemed like it would be the easy solution, since I have so many good friends and neighbors, and resources to pay people. But I am by personality averse to asking people, or going to the trouble to find the right person for a job, if there IS a good person for it.

So I have started doing things that I really would rather not do, and it is satisfying to find that I can. I fixed a toilet, and unplugged the kitchen drain, and the most amazing thing was that I assembled a riding toy by looking at the confusing pictorial directions. That toy sat in its box in the garage for a couple of months, though, while I tried to get out of doing it myself, and when I finally saw that I was the one elected, it still took great psychological effort to begin the process!

I know my situation is very different from yours, and my marriage was very different -- but as you say, these division-of-labor things are pertinent to all marriages and always have been. If one looks at different cultures and eras of history, it's fascinating to see how things change, but also how so much remains the same, and I'm afraid that most of the time, the old saying, "Menfolk work from sun to sun, but a woman's work is never done," is too true, and women end up working longer and harder than the men, whatever the tasks. I remember noticing when I lived for a few months in Turkey how the men in the villages would sit playing backgammon in the coffeehouses while the women were out harvesting the olives, minding the children at the same time.

Thank you for a thought-provoking post. God bless you in your new stage of life where you are finding out how competent you are. XO
So lovely to be back and to read your wonderful prose. Always so thought provoking. Gender roles very traditionally divided here...and I'm not proud of it.
My parents had traditional gender roles and their unhappiness for a multitude of reasons is something I shan't delve into.

But when I moved out by myself - single woman, no partner - I am grateful to say that I had unknowingly picked up from my mum a lot of the handy skills tha I'd need to help maintain my house.

Mum painted the lacquer on the front door. Mum fixed the front steps when it broke. Mum instilled the basic skills of gardening in our heads (despite our every attempt not to learn because that meant more chores). Mum taught us not just to sew, but to sew well. She taught us how to repair loose buttons, hem trousers/skirts, create with a sewing machine.

That's not to say that my dad didn't teach me things - just that my practical skills came from my mum.

Since leaving home, I became braver, more willing to try what I don't know how to do after research and maybe a YouTube video or two.
Some things I will need to pay to have done - strong as I am, I can't do everything. And I'm not ashamed by that.

Be proud of your 'give-it-a-go' attitude! It's a great confidence booster and the freedom is liberating. :)
So well said Jo. You can voice what many of us think. I applaude your attitude and your new life! cheers Wendy
Mimi said…
Dear, lovely Jo. This post made me want to cry and applaud both at the same time. You are to me, so competent, that it makes me weak at the knees (in a good way). You put me to shame with your capable and staunch 'must do' mindset. I was you in my earlier life, and surrendered much of that 'me' when I married my lovely man. We agreed at the outset, to have an old fashioned marriage, and after so long on my own, bearing so much responsibility, I welcomed that change. I am now happy to be living a life where the man of the house does the traditional 'manly' things and leaves me to be the 'Earth Mother'. I yearned for this life when I was alone with three sons, one with a severe disability, but am wise enough now to realise that those days shaped who I am, and made me fearless. I fear nothing...not poverty nor politicians, not being alone nor being in illustrious company, and certainly not garden shears and power! That, I will have always, and it makes me very clear on what I will and won't tolerate in my relationship and in life in general. I know that being the person you are, you will overcome all obstacles and build the life you deserve too. Sorry, I'm not articulating this all that well, because I have 'Glee' (the all singing-all dancing TV series) in one ear, being school holidays and all. I just wanted you to know that you have my admiration and respect, and that as you tread this path you are on, there will be success and failures even now. We won't discuss my efforts at rose and vegetable gardening, and assembling the sewing storage centre I bought on sale three months ago, and which is still in pieces in a corner of my craft room. Pruning and reading instructions respectively, were never my forte`. Love, Mimi X
Jo said…
Dar, sounds perfect to me:)

Chris, yes, gender assignment is a bit arbitrary, especially since most handyperson jobs don't require actual strength. I like your phrase 'learning to learn'. That is exactly what I am doing in this very new (to me) area of expertise. It means learning a new language and thinking a little differently, but then I had to do the same to learn to be a gardener. It took interest, a lot of reading, a lot of talking to people who knew more than me and asking questions, and evaluating results. I am sure I can do that again. Oh, and being willing to make those mistakes..

Miss Maudy, thanks for those dating tips, tool kit plus live near pub, got it. It does sound like you also manage to have conversations about your divisions of labour, which again puts you way ahead of the field compared with, well, me:)

Gretchen Joanna, aren't we both finding out how competent we are, no matter that we don't necessarily want to be! Isn't it always the case that while we never ask for character development because it usually comes with nasty strings attached, the feeling of satisfaction from attempting and succeeding at something new and difficult is heady! Good for us xx

Sarah, lovely to see you again, and follow your adventures! I don't see traditional gender roles as a problem unless they are, if you know what I mean. They suit many partners.. but it would be a shame if a man had no idea how to iron a shirt or a woman, for instance, no idea how to use a drill. Still can't believe that after all those years of renovation, and I had no idea how to even put a drill bit into a drill, let alone what all the other buttons were for.. I think we become entrenched, and then our brains stop working. And then the other partner can't believe that you can do anything in the other sphere.

I am pretty sure my dad has my mum convinced that he has no idea where any of the tupperware goes in the kitchen. After forty eight or so years of marriage..

Erratic Perfectionist, welcome to the conversation:) What a great role model your mum was. Anything a parent can do to convince their kids to give things a go must be doing something right. I want my girls to see my trying and failing and learning that both go together and it is ok to keep failing right up until that moment where you succeed..

Wendy, thanks:)

Mimi, thank you, my dear:) It is lovely to see that you have worked out a solution that is right for you in your marriage - the difference being of course, that you know you can do what you need to do, and if you ever need to do those things again, the skills will be there. And as you say, having to do everything gives you a sure knowledge that you are capable of anything you set your mind to. I love that you acknowledge your 'areas of difficulty'. Mine are administration, groups and dreading social occasions (the social occasions are fine, it is just getting there that kills me. That is one very useful function of a partner..). Also sewing anything is an uphill battle. But I will conquer sewing as well as power tools!

Hi, Jo! Wonderful post. I have been surprised by the division of labor in my own home--I don't think I ever anticipated how it would divide so easily on gender lines, but it has. Some of it was just who came into the marriage knowing what. I'd never mown the lawn, the Man grew up mowing the lawn. I was the only one who'd ever done much cooking, so I became the cook. Overall, I'm not much bothered by it, except for those days when I seem to be the only one in the house doing anything toward its care and upkeep.

I also wish I were handier. To be honest, the Man's not all that handy himself, so sometimes we're really in a pickle.

Jo said…
Frances, speaking as someone who often finds herself in a pickle, I sympathise. And yet we muddle along, don't we?

And I do understand exactly how we just fall into those gender divides - it's how we also fall into parenting as our parents parented, mostly when we are tired and can't think straight..
a wonderfully thoughtful post - has us all reflecting on our own situation! as I live by myself I have to put the bins out, change the light globes etc - but there are some things that I argue need to be done my a skilled tradesperson (okay, tradesman). and I don't mind doing that. it keeps small businesses in business, and keeps my drains working! ps I will admit I still get my dad to do things for me - or at least ask him to have a look before I get the tradesman...

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