Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Women's Lib

My generation of women was going to be liberated. We were going to go to college to learn to be scientists and doctors and mathematicians instead of teachers and nurses and stewardesses. We were going to share housework and cooking equally with our enlightened spouses who would willingly vacuum, wipe, dust, iron, do laundry and cook whenever it was needed, not just when they were asked, and never grudgingly. We were going to learn to fix our own cars, our plumbing, and raise barns. We were going to be able to do all of this because we’d be sharing the domestic and child-rearing duties with men who wanted to learn to do all the things we women had had all to ourselves for so many years, and who wouldn’t mind or protest being Mr. Moms. We were the “Enjolie” generation – if you remember the commercial – “I can bring home the bacon! Fry it up in a pan, and never, ever let you forget you’re the man. ‘Cause I’m a woman….Enjolie!”

It hasn’t worked out that way. Oh, sure, lots of inroads were made, and I certainly don’t want to cast stones or aspersions on women who forged the way into previously male-dominated careers. It is now possible to have a full roster of female doctors at one’s beck and call, send your daughter off to the Navy or Army or Air Force, to have women as bosses or employees in pretty much every field, and go to private female only schools and colleges with excellent reputations and results. It’s possible, not the norm.

It was a huge fight and lofty dream. That anything at all was accomplished in the face of male resistance, female reluctance, habits that have endured for centuries, and political and religious fury against upstart women, is a wonder. Women were fighting for equality at the same time that minority races were fighting for equality, and I sometimes wonder if we didn’t all settle for what we could get, rather than what we deserved and hoped for.

Women are still getting paid as little comparatively as they were when the women’s lib movement started. The burden of domestic work and child-rearing still falls to women, whether they work outside the home or not. More fields are open to women, but there’s more exploitation and use of women in the workplace than there was before. Courtesy between the genders, and respect for one another seem to have hit all time new lows.

Now instead of being honored for holding house and home and family together, women who do so are considered to have settled for less, as if work that was previously exhausting, time-consuming, and unpaid now has even less merit than it did before. We’re expected to work all day in a job for 2/3 pay, then come home and do everything here, too, and we’re supposed to be pleased by this change in our circumstances – that now we have twice as much work and stress, and less than half the respect; I suppose having an income is supposed to make up for that.

I know it’s not like that in every household, but it’s like that in more households than anyone really wants to admit to, I think. Particularly with respect to housework and childcare. I have yet to meet a significant percentage of men who talk about doing housework routinely; I never meet any in the cleaning goods and laundry soap aisle, and I have yet to see one carrying a broom that is not a shop broom. I don’t see men with children on any days other than Saturday or Sunday, unless it’s a school event, and I don’t see them grocery shopping for a family, only for one person or for emergency items, like milk or cream of mushroom soup.

In the thirty-odd years since women’s lib first came across my consciousness, I have met one househusband. One. One man who actually does not work outside the home, who has raised the three children in his family from infancy, one man who does the laundry and considers it his responsibility, one man who grocery shops and cooks and helps with homework every night. His wife works and helps out around the house, too. One.

In contrast, I have met thousands of housewives, working wives, single mothers, women swimming in a combination of guilt and anger at the double load they are now carrying of working outside the home and inside it with equal dedication. And they are exhausted, tired in their souls, and feel shortchanged and taken advantage of, and eventually, they become numb to their own situations. I have also met men who seem to carry the entire burden of work and family life, but not in the same proportions.

It really saddens me to see how badly awry women’s lib went, and the unintended consequences that predominate our lives, decades later. I’m no exception. When I first got married, I worked. I hadn’t graduated college yet, so I had a crappy secretarial job, followed by other crappy office jobs as we moved to follow my husband’s jobs. I handled the bills, I did the laundry, and my husband used his domestic ineptitude to get out of doing chores, and I let him get away with it because all of that stuff needed doing. The less he did, the more I did. I dug my own hole.

By the time we had our first child, I was working full time in the financial field, and it was my health insurance that covered my pregnancy and delivery, since my husband was in commission only sales at the time. I was commuting an hour or better each way for a job that no man would take, and certainly not at the salary I was getting, and I was dropping off Spawn at a babysitter, picking him up, doing the grocery shopping and the cooking (if I wanted anything to eat other than tuna casserole, my husband’s one culinary capability), all the housework, all the laundry, and nursing Spawn. I would fall asleep on the toilet, standing up, leaning against the wall, holding Spawn in the middle of the night, I was so tired. Day after day, hour after hour, it ground me down.

I finally quit my job, knowing full well that it was going to make our financial situation dicey at best, but it was that or a nervous breakdown for me. I had asked for help, but my husband just didn’t get that I wanted REAL help, not token help. He just wouldn’t pick up the reins, and I couldn’t hold them anymore with all I had to do. He was, I think, deliberately oblivious to the amount of work involved in keeping house and home together, especially with child care added in, and I got tired of asking and pleading.

I felt guilty, like there was something wrong with me for not being able to do it all, for not being the “Enjolie” gal who could do it all and dance around, smelling great and being svelte. I felt like I had disappointed myself first and foremost. My expectations for myself had been swollen to unspeakable heights, powered by the vague promises of women’s lib and society’s revised expectations, and disguised by the ungrounded optimism of youth. I had bought into unrealistic expectations and found myself wanting, rather than finding those expectations flawed.

It was years before I got over believing my worth would only be validated by a paycheck. My husband, like so many other men, was the same way. He’d come home from his job, and there I’d be, taking care of two tiny children, both in diapers, having not had enough time to change out of my nightgown or comb my hair, and ask me, in frustrated and angry tones, what I had done about starting a home business, so that I could contribute. In retrospect, I almost wish I had hit him with a frying pan and walked out for a week. It made for some unhappy times.

By the time Doodle arrived, I had settled into valuing myself, realizing that if my husband wanted to be oblivious and horrible and snotty about my very real, very important, very unrecognized contributions to our family, he could just keep his crap to himself. I’m pretty sure I told him off a few times; I know I got pissed as all hell one year and went off and stayed in a hotel for three days (after Doodle was weaned), and I never heard another word about starting a home business after that – he needed the experience of trying to concentrate on adult things while taking care of three children under 6 to realize that he was asking the impossible.

One time when he came home from his job long after the dinner hour to find we’d eaten, I’d cleaned up and put the kids to bed, he had a meltdown about how he deserved a hot dinner, etc., etc., after a long day at work. I looked him square in the eye and told him he was being ridiculous, that there was no reason in the world for the rest of us to delay our lives and all that that comprised, just because his schedule was erratic and unpredictable, that he could show up at 6 for dinner, or he could heat his up in the microwave, but that I was done joggling the kids meals and bedtime around, just so he could play Daddy at them at his convenience. I thought his head would explode. He stormed around the house and then out of it. I went to bed. When he came back, he woke me up to yell at me some more, and for several days, I got the cold shoulder and silent treatment. Then he called his mother to complain, and she read him the riot act. Twice, if his subsequent behavior was any indication. I never heard another word about his entitlements with respect to dinner and the children’s attendance upon him.

Dealing with my own unrealistic expectations and altering them has been hard. Dealing with my husband’s unrealistic expectations has been harder. It’s been, without question, a rocky road for both of us, and women’s lib is not entirely to blame. The strange thing is, I don’t know what it was that men got out of the women’s lib movement, other than that they were not to open doors for women any more, nor were they supposed to dislike ambitious women who worked for pay. I think the whole question of keeping home and family together got left out of the discussion and has been glossed over and ignored for decades now. Maybe today’s young couples are doing a better job of working it out, but it sure doesn’t look like it from the rants, raves, and weepfests I hear or read about.

I think we would have had many of the same arguments and struggles one way or another, and I know for a fact we’re not alone. I hear this same thing every time women gather, along with the same worries, the same reluctance to admit we can’t do it all, not the way we had hoped to anyway. I don’t think my husband was any different from any other fellow of his generation, our generation. Nobody gave him an instruction booklet either. We just have to write our own as we go along, as best we can.

2 comments:

Geo said...

"Entropy" would have been so much more fitting than "Enjolie".

Alda said...

I really love this post because it brought up so many issues I would like to talk about with other women.

I have a wonderful husband. I don't feel like I _have to_ do anything. We were both single parents when we met so we were both used to doing it all.

Here is my advice for women who are feeling overworked. You have to ask yourself all the time "Why do I think I am the one who should be doing this work?" Older children and men are capable of cooking for themselves and washing their own clothes. Just don't do it and they will have to do it for themselves. If you believe that your time is just as important as theirs you won't feel the least bit guilty.