Sunday, September 13, 2009


"If divorce has increased by one thousand percent, don't blame the women's movement. Blame the obsolete sex roles on which our marriages were based."

Betty Friedan, Speech, New York City, January 20, 1974

Ironing is one of my least favorite tasks – I’d rather clean the toilet bowl. Before my husband got his new job, his clothing didn’t need to be ironed because he was the most fashionable one at any lab he worked at, since he didn’t wear socks with Birkenstocks. But now he needs to look more professional. I hope he knows that each garment I grudgingly iron is done with love.

While I was ironing this afternoon, I remembered that ironing was my mother’s first “job” while she was a stay-at-home mom. She got ten cents for each of my uncle’s shirts. Before she became pregnant with me, she worked at an insurance company. When I was young, all my cousins’ and friends’ moms didn’t work outside the home, but I didn’t think much of it at the time. One time, I do remember thinking it was odd that my mother used my father’s money to get him a present. Even then, I was aware that she didn’t truly have her own money.

When Scholastic had a book sale at my school, I bought a book that transformed my idea of family. I remember picking a book called, Hello Aurora by Anna Catharina Vestley. In it, Aurora’s father is a stay-at-home dad, while her mother works outside the home. The dad was getting his Ph.D. in Philosophy, so he’d use ideas from philosophers to help Aurora with her problems. That book opened my eyes – no longer was it a given that the dad worked, while the mother stayed home.

Soon after, something changed between husbands and wives in the 1980s. Several of my aunts and uncles divorced, as did my two best friends’ parents. I should’ve suspected when two of my aunts went back to school – an education became their tickets to freedom. Those who didn’t have an education struggled to reenter the workforce with little skills to offer. When I was a teenager, I decided that I’d always work, so I’d never be trapped.

I’ve virtually always worked since I was sixteen. And for the first couple of years of our marriage, I made a lot more money than my (at the time) graduate student husband. When I became a graduate student too, my stipend and part-time job made us about equal in pay. But since I’ve had children, I’ve earned less income, and since he got a new job last year, I’ve earned A LOT less.

One of the nice parts of our relationship is our equal distribution of responsibilities. When he’s worked more out of the house, I’ve done more inside the house, and if I’ve worked more, he’s done more. When I was student teaching, my husband took my son one day each weekend so I could write lesson plans. My husband spends a lot of time with the kids, and when I work in the morning, he takes them to the bus stop. He also does all the food shopping because he enjoys it more than me, plus he thinks the supermarket he shops at is cheaper than the one I go to. He also cooks the occasional dinner on the weekends. Marriage is supposed to be a partnership, which was something I didn’t understand as a child.

I see marriage differently now. Roles aren’t as clearly defined as when I was young. Less people feel trapped (Maybe that’s why the divorce rate is so high). I also see what is considered worthwhile work in a new way. There’s worth in working outside the home, just as there’s worth in the drudgery of housework and shuttling children to their activities. There’s even worth in ironing, though hopefully when I’m working full-time, I’ll have to do less of it.


  1. Hmm.. Marriage. We've been together for 7 years, I don't think we're going to do the marriage thing, and if we do it will be for tax purposes. As for tasks, we are lucky that are likes and dislikes in terms of chores and complementary and our indifferences overlap. I like ironing, so what little ironing we have, I do, but I don't like brooming so I don't do that, but I'm indifferent about vacuuming or moping, etc. I cook fractionally more often... It's because I get better results! mwahaha! ; j Mostly joking.

    I never took gender roles seriously, and neither did my parents... My mom just wanted to spend all her time reading, my father enjoyed pushing work as far as he could doing 18 to 20 h days 'til he was past 40. Their attitudes weren't dictated by gender but merely by what they wanted to be doing, same goes my couple I think. : j
    Of course I still see women and men let themselves get trapped by the illusion of predeterminism (of one kind or another) and wind up rather unhappy because of it. Shrug.

  2. Alesa, our European friends seem to wait longer, even until after they have a child or two to do it. Almost all Americans we know live together for a time and then get married.

    But I have an aunt who has been with the same guy since about 1976, has three grown children, and still isn't married. She finally told her kids they never got married.

    I never thought I'd be so traditional but when I had a child, I fell into it.