Over the last few weeks, a weird sort of "almost conversation" has played out in my blog reader, with bloggers I read writing about relationships and what happens to them when the chores aren't split equitably. It was clear that at least some of the writers were reading each others' posts, but no one was linking to the other posts, possibly because everyone was looking at a different aspect of the issue. Whatever the reason they did not want the dots connected, I'll respect that and won't link back here, either. But if you are curious and want to see the links, let me know and I'll send them to you.
Long time readers of this blog will know that I have some thoughts on the subject of chore division and relationships. As I wrote most recently, I struggle to understand the dynamics at work when a smart, educated woman- a woman who is not, or at least does not need to be, financially dependent on her partner- tolerates an inequitable arrangement at home, but is clearly unhappy about it, because she writes posts or comments about it on the internet.
Occasionally, I try to ask a question about this on a post similar to the ones I've been reading lately, but it doesn't really go well. Either the blogger and commenters are as puzzled as I am, or the mere act of asking that question provokes ire, and I am told that asking it is offensive and/or boring. Or a symptom of my privilege. Or that if I read more feminist theory I would understand. Or any number of other codes for "go away." I believe strongly that people should be able to write about whatever they want on their own blogs, and if they send someone away, that person should go- so I go. But I feel like we're missing an opportunity to learn something important.
I think the problem is that I have been asking the question in the wrong places. Most posts on this topic are too polarized to host an open discussion. One side or the other is clearly painted as "right" and there is usually an undercurrent of implication (or even an explicit statement) that if you disagree, you aren't really a feminist. I don't think that is true. I have read posts written by feminists with opposing viewpoints. I think that perhaps this is one topic that can be looked at from multiple feminist viewpoints. And maybe they are all valid- but they aren't getting at the questions I have, so I'm frustrated.
Therefore, I've decided to try to ask my question here. I acknowledge that given my past posts, this might not seem like a neutral place, either. But it is the best I have, so all I can do is try, promise to be open to different viewpoints and respectful in the discussion, and explicitly ask my commenters to do the same.
To help keep things neutral, I've decided to lay out the scenario with invented people. To keep the discussion focused, I want to stipulate that we're talking about fairly privileged women here: professionals with the means to leave their partners if they wanted to without plunging themselves or their children into poverty. I do this for a couple of reasons: (1) if the most privileged and powerful women among us can't sort this out, how will we sort it out more generally? (2) It decreases the chance that the whole thing will derail into a discussion of my privilege- something I readily admit I have in spades, but which I don't think is germane to this discussion, since I see the dynamic I'm talking about played out most prominently among women with every bit as much privilege as I have.
I'm also setting this up as being about heterosexual couples- this is
primarily because I do not feel qualified at all to comment about
whether or not this dynamic also plays out in homosexual couples. I think that would be a fascinating question to explore, though, and if anyone wants to do so in the comments, please feel free. I'd love to read your thoughts.
Anyway, here is the scenario: Consider two couples, Janet + Steve and Joan + Tom. Both are dual career couples with a couple of kids. Both are genuinely loving couples. Janet and Joan both consider themselves feminists, and if asked, both Steve and Tom would say that they consider their partners to be their equals, and that they think men and women in general are equal. However, Janet and Steve have an equitable home arrangement, while Joan and Tom do not, and Joan is unhappy about this. Joan and Tom argue about it with some frequency, but the issue never resolves between them, leaving Joan quite frustrated. Janet and Steve argue about the chores from time to time, too- after all, chores basically suck and most people would rather be doing something else- but for some reason, their arguments resolve the issue at hand, and Janet is pretty happy about her home arrangement.
What do you think? Why can't Joan and Tom resolve the chores issue, but Janet and Steve can? Is the different dynamic within these two couples due to a difference between Janet and Joan or a difference between Steve and Tom? Or is it something external to the couples? Or are there multiple differences at work? What might they be? For instance, do you think the amount of money that each partner makes plays a role?
I'm most interested in why Joan and Janet's situations play out so differently. I am less interested in the cultural influences that make us tend to see the woman as the lesser partner in a relationship, except to the extent that these influences inform the different outcomes. Remember- Janet isn't living in a bubble, and neither is Steve. They're exposed to these cultural influences, too, so that can't be the whole story. Why do the influences have different effects on Janet and Steve versus Joan and Tom?
Anyone who has read my unicorn post knows that I identify more with Janet than Joan. So why do I care about this? Isn't this essentially a solved problem in my own life?
I care because of the message we're sending to the young women coming up behind us. Every once and awhile, I get an email from a young woman who has stumbled on my blog and doesn't quite believe what she is reading. She wants to know, how do I arrange my life so that I can "have it all?" because most of what she reads these days tells her she can't have it all, or at least not all at once. And how do I "make" my husband pull his fair share of the work around the house, because she has correctly intuited that this may be an important component of "having it all" (a phrase I actually dislike-what is "it all", anyway?- but am using as a convenient short hand).
I wrote my "logistics of having it all" post in answer to the first question. But I have no answer to the second question, because any answer I can come up with runs afoul of the fact that different women- who seem to be very similar to me- have a completely different dynamic in their relationships, and I have no idea why.
These young women are scared. Our cultural vibe these days is telling them that they can't aim high in their careers and also have a family. And even on feminist blogs, they overwhelmingly read that the uneven split in chores is cultural, is bigger than any choice they might make, except, I suppose to choose to stay single and child free.
Hell, if I thought that, I'd be scared, too. When I thought that, I was scared. I've written before about how the constant message about the "impossibility" of combining a career in science and motherhood almost scared me away from the life I'm now leading (and loving). We seem to have taken that meme and extended it to all careers, now, and I don't think good things will come of that.
I don't know how to balance this concern with the fact that women must be free to speak their truths about their relationships, except by speaking my different truth. I am not blind to the cultural forces that seek to dictate how we arrange our relationships. I know that they are strong and pervasive. But I also know that they are not all powerful, and they do not necessarily overwhelm individual's choices, because couples like Janet and Steve do actually exist. I am half of one.
The fact that I do see the cultural influences on relationships is another reason I care about this topic. I want to change those influences. The most powerful way I see to do that is to change the dynamic within our own relationships. It is to find a way to swim against those cultural influences, and show our kids what an equitable relationship looks like. Sure, we should also call out the sexism and false assumptions in our TV shows and ads- but the sexism is there because it sells, and it sells because it resonates as true to a lot of people. I think we have to figure out how to change that, and maybe the way is to make the sexism false in more cases.
But I don't really know the answers, and I don't want to pretend that I do. I want you all (or at least the ten of you who are still reading!) to help me find them. Post your answers to the questions I've posed here. Post if you identify with Janet. But also, please post if you identify with Joan. Know that I am not trying to "fix" your relationship- I assume that it is working for you. I am not judging you, and I do not think you are stupid or weak. I may not understand your choices, but my assumption is that you have good reasons for making them. I want to hear what those reasons are. So comment. Comment anonymously if you want to. And any men reading out there, I'd love to hear your viewpoint, too. You are the other half of the equation, and my own husband has been singularly unhelpful in helping me understand why his behavior is different from so many of his peers. He says it is just "obvious" that it should be so. But clearly it is not obvious, so please- enlighten me.
I'll be reading and responding to comments, and in the unlikely event someone gets mean or rude, I will step in to moderate. But remember, I have a day job, and they don't pay me to blog! So there may be a time lag.
Update 4/30/12: I wrote a follow up post summarizing what I learned from this discussion.