It was 7 p.m. by the time my husband got home from work ― delayed by a stop-off at the grocery store to pick up the necessities: milk, eggs, Kotex pads (the long ones).
Perched on an exercise ball in the middle of our living room, a warm towel fresh from the dryer splayed on my lap as I folded laundry, my welcome home greeting was followed by a request. “Can you make dinner, please?”
Shedding his wool coat and shooting the cuffs of his collared work shirt up his arms, he nodded, already shoving his fingers beneath the running tap water to ready for dinner prep. “On it.”
This is where I’ve gotten used to adding a quick dash of humility, a sign that I feel guilty for having trumpeted my good fortune. I married a mensch who matches his own socks and our daughter’s, too! I’m hashtag blessed!
Translation: I’m sorry if you spend hours cooking, doing laundry and scrubbing toilets while your partner sits on the couch watching a football game or playing video games. I don’t mean to rub my shared workload in your face like a jerk.
The word I tend to hear when I let slip that my husband makes homemade cinnamon rolls or stows his own socks in his drawers is “lucky.”
“Wow,” the women — it’s always other women — say. “You’re lucky. I wish my husband did that.”
From the looks of a recent study published in the journal Gender and Society, we are certainly outliers in my house. Reviewing survey data from around the nation covering the years 1976 to 2016, researchers from the University of Chicago found that while attitudes in the U.S. have become more focused on a workload balance that’s equal across genders, a majority of Americans still believe cisgender women should do more homemaking and child-rearing. And while studies show the average modern dad is spending three times as much time on childcare as our granddads were in 1965, that three times as much is still just a self-reported (with wide margin for error) eight hours a week.
Our understanding wasn’t automatic. It’s been hard-earned. Now I ask, but that’s only after years of demanding.
Raised by a mother who largely stayed at home and a husband who liked it that way, my husband knew little about home labor when we were first married, and even less about cooking. I still tease him about the mess he made out of an attempt to prepare Lipton noodles before we were married, on a night when my maid of honor and I sat, camped in our living room, piecing together centerpieces for our wedding.
“Our understanding wasn’t automatic. It’s been hard-earned. Now I ask, but that’s only after years of demanding.”
For much of our first few years of marriage, I worked 60-hour weeks as a newspaper reporter and hours at home too: cooking, cleaning and collecting his dirty, crumpled socks from the spot on the living room floor.
The birth of our daughter was the proverbial straw. She screamed. She pooped. She clutched at me with her pincer-like fingers, pleading for me to hold her at every second.
The louder she cried, the louder my voice became. Please, clean out the dishwasher. Please stir the cheese sauce. Please make the cheese sauce. Please don’t make me say please.
In those early days of parenting, I turned passive-aggressive, angrily ignoring towers of dishes in the sink or laundry piles on the bathroom floor, treating him to increasing amounts of silence as days passed without him making a move to clear either and life with a baby created mountains more of each. He’d ask me what was wrong, and I’d grunt out “nothing” or “I don’t want to talk about it.”
What I meant was “Everything is wrong. Why can’t you just see that I need help?”
What he heard was me closing a door, refusing to let him inside. He couldn’t read my mind. He certainly didn’t know I just wanted a load of laundry run and dishes stacked in the dishwasher.
His attempts to fix things were sloppy but well-intended: bags of my favorite candy brought home from the grocery store to cheer me up, calls home to see if I’d like him to pick up pizza for dinner. They’d work to thaw my frosty demeanor, and I’d take care of the dishes, the laundry, the vacuuming and the dusting. But then the house would start to get messy again, and the cycle would repeat itself.
We talked. I screamed. We even went to couples’ counseling.
It was through arguing that I learned that he wanted me to speak up more. Arguing (not fighting) was productive for us because we communicated, we used our words. The more I learned to spell out in words what I needed, the better he became at anticipating my needs.
At 18 years, our marriage is still imperfect. But we’re loving and we’re learning.
I am the primary breadwinner, with a salary that has outpaced my husband’s in all but two years of our 18-year marriage — the years immediately after the birth of our child. I do some of the household chores, but when I work my second and sometimes third jobs, he does even more.
“What he heard was me closing a door, refusing to let him inside. He couldn’t read my mind. He certainly didn’t know I just wanted a load of laundry run and dishes stacked in the dishwasher.”
He is the baker of fragrant loaves of fresh bread on weekends and thick, homemade sauces on weeknights, the one who returns home from work late in the evening after trips to the grocery store and turns to the stove to prepare wholesome (and sometimes not-so-wholesome) meals for our family of three.
And yet I’m no more lucky than the hundreds of thousands of men whose wives come home from long days of paid toil only to shed their coats and roll up their sleeves to turn to the domestic work that remains ― to this day ― an expectation of their gender.
I’m not lucky. I’m equal.
For our daughter, raised in a home where Mom has always worked three jobs to Dad’s one, this is the norm. Mom may spend the evening in her office, editing photos from a recent family portrait shoot (one of those three jobs is as a photographer), while Dad runs a mop over the dining room floor and readies a lasagna for the oven. Mom may rest on the couch on a Sunday afternoon, book in hand, exhausted after working five long days at her day job and then spending Saturday shooting a wedding, while Dad mows the backyard.
She sees parents who have figured out an equitable rhythm. That’s wonderful, but it’s not lucky.
Lucky is finding the four-leaf clover. Lucky is winning on a scratch-off ticket. Lucky is making it through the intersection before the light turns red.
To say it’s lucky that my 40-something husband can and does make his own dinner, places his own towel in the bathroom hamper, and calls to ask if he can pick our daughter up from soccer practice when he gets out of work early takes us from a sign that he is an adult to evidence that I’ve scooped the bonus prize out of the cereal bag of life.
But there’s nothing lucky about opening your box of breakfast cereal in the morning and finding corn flakes inside. The problem is opening the box and finding nothing at all.