The Egalitarian Myth

If you want to crush the spirit of any young, single, feminist, just tell him or her about the egalitarian myth.

I heard of this concept when I attended a seminar at a counseling conference. The seminar was on how to tailor counseling to fit the needs and demanding schedules of working mothers. The speaker gave suggestions such as getting the client books on tape if she doesn’t have time to read or encouraging her to take longer showers if showers are the only time during the day that she gets to be alone. Okay, I’m thinking, not revolutionary, but helpful.

The the speaker goes on to share a little about her own experience as a working mother and the ways that gender roles in her marriage changed after children. She tells us she and her husband were both committed egalitarians, but once they had kids everything changed. She started doing stereotypically “female” tasks and  he stereotypically “male” ones- the egalitarian myth.

Ouch. Are you kidding me? All that time defying stereotypes and *POOF* gone with the first child- along with a flat tummy, nights out on the town, and full control of your bladder (or so I’ve heard).

Okay, I’m thinking, so what you’re saying is that even though you and your husband are both working and both parents, the existence of kids has dictated that it’s necessary your husband sticks to weekly lawn care and car maintenance and you stay on top of the cooking and laundry daily? Even though you have a doctorate and a successful career similarly to your husband, somehow you’re still the one changing dirty diapers and cleaning the toilet while your husband, what, goes out and hunts for the evening’s meal?

Hmmm. This is so interesting (and crushing to my delicate feminist spirit).

Now I’ve been a committed egalitarian (in theory, obviously, since I am not married) for as long as I remember. Though I believe a male should be the head of household, I also believe that this is misconstrued, misinterpreted and misused in many ways and in many marriages. Again, I confess I’m speaking out of ignorance as a single person. However, I do believe that it is Biblical to be egalitarian in marriage roles. I have a hard time consenting to a rule book that says I’m in charge of the housework, dishes, and laundry that I hate for no reason other than the fact that my 23rd pair of chromosomes is made of two X’s. I would rather be mowing the lawn any day.

Still, I can see how this egalitarian myth thing could play out…According to parents everywhere things just don’t go the way you’re expecting when you have kids. No more time to paint your nails, frequent coffee shops, vacuum under the coffee table…you just survive, and on much less sleep- particularly if you’re still nursing and have a baby stuck to your breast every three hours.

All this to say- I’m wondering what the egalitarian myth might look like in my marriage someday (assuming I get married), and quite frankly, I’m wondering if there’s anything I can do to defy that myth…

I’m interested in hearing what you have to say about this. Particularly if you are married.

9 thoughts on “The Egalitarian Myth

  1. No advice here… my marriage has the stereotypes going strong. I think as with any marriage it takes communication, communication, and more communication. Still working on that one.

  2. First, I have a question. What do you mean by “I believe that the male is the head of the household?” To me that was a shock, as I do not agree and am surprised that you do. As far as falling into the stereotypical roles and the egalitarian myth, do not get disheartened. In any marriage, you have to find what works and fits best for that couple. When it comes to chores and seemingly menial tasks, couples tend to work together to develop a system that makes sense for them. For instance, in the summer when I am not teaching, I do more mowing than Ryan and more cooking and cleaning and laundry. I typically walk Berk etc. However, in the fall and spring when I am working 10-13 hour days due to coaching, he takes on those roles. It becomes more of a thing you do for each other not in spite of one another. Also, you will probably find that there are certain things that each of you prefer to do. I think this is where the myth comes into play. It just so happens that it does not occur to many girls to change a light bulb, or to tile their bathroom floor. Similarly, it doesn’t occur to many males that cleaning is more than just picking up the room. This being said, there are many girls who change light bulbs and many guys who are wonderful cleaners. Therefore many couples fall into the stereotypical roles because that is simply what they know and what they feel more comfortable with. That may not work for you especially since we grew up stacking the wood and mowing the lawn and raking the leaves. I still do the lawn stuff. Ryan cooks a lot, but so do I. It is all about finding a balance that suits the couple. And when both parties in the couple hate the chore, i.e. cleaning the bathrooms, take turns:) Fear not- there is no reason that kids should make any of that change. Besides the fact that the females have to give the milk, if they choose to breast feed, males should be every bit as connected to the diaper changing, feeding, bed time, and play time routines, and judging by Juli and Tino, Tino wants to be a part of all of that and enjoys it. Also, they are a great example of defying the typical stereotypical roles, and Tino is always neat and tidy and keeps his house that way and a great cook.:)

  3. my godsister has three children and her husband is a stay-at-home dad. she is respectful of him and he takes the “lead” in some areas, but obviously communication is important in either model. i would say that have a healthy, happy, egalitarian marriage. as far as gender stereotypes work, it made sense for them for her to have the high-powered corporate career and for him to spend most of his day either working from home (in a previous life, he was into indie filmmaking) or taking care of the kids full-time. i don’t think egalitarianism is a myth, but i do think some women are feminists when it’s convenient, trendy or conducive to a certain stage of life…e.g. they aren’t swooning over a man.

  4. All I have to say about this is after kids, a mother needs to do whatever she needs to do to get that moment of peace or she’ll go crazy! And for me, that means letting my husband help me with the laundry, dishes, or whatever needs to be done. At first, I had a hard time accepting his help after I had Gabriel. I was feeling the opposite of how you’re feeling, role wise. I wanted to be the “perfect” mother and wife for my husband, without help. But after a while I realized that there’s no such thing, and for me to try to attempt to fill that impossible role was going to drive me mad. So I had to learn to accept help from Travis, and other loved ones in my life. Which does mean my husband taking on the “roles of a wife” if just to give me a peace of mind for the moment. Keep in mind, I have a husband who is willing to go that extra length to help me out. Thankful I married him! :)

  5. I think that we have a pretty egalitarian house. Drew does the laundry, I cook, and we both do the lawn. Sometimes I help with laundry, and sometimes he cooks. We try to split tasks up by what we each would prefer to do. Sometimes we do fall into gender stereotypes in our roles (he takes out the trash and cat litter…because I don’t want to and I load the dishwasher because he doesn’t want to:) ), but I think that the whole idea behind an egalitarian household is that you don’t have to follow stereotypes or one specific pattern, you as a couple decide what works for you at a particular moment in your journey.

  6. Egalitarianism is a myth and for the navie. Regardless of how hard some people will try to have a “Egalitarianism household” (whatever that is) or anything Egalitarianism the huge majority will fail and fall back into they are more naturally inclined to. You can’t get rid of millions of years of evolution in DNA by “idealistic” beliefs. Most social mammals on earth will display what may be considered stereotypical behaviors for females and males that resemble to stereotypical roles for human females and males. Just look at our closet ape relative we splitted from, the common chimpanzee species. In the end, humans are just animals with “big brains”

    • Thanks for your thoughts, Tony. Though I do agree that some differences in men and women are innate, I disagree with your assertion that the ideal of an egalitarian household is naive or that evolution is the full reason for gender differences. If you believe in evolution, you could also use it as an argument against biological sex roles- in arguing that women have become nurturers or the “weaker” gender because they have been delegated certain tasks (child rearing, cooking, etc), over others, thus causing them to evolve into humans better suited for those tasks.

      I believe- and I think comments above support- that the answer is somewhere in the middle. Gender differences exist because of a combination of biology and socialization, and who can say which traits are due to which phenomenon? Each person must come to terms with his or her gender, and each couple will fill the household roles accordingly.

  7. In my experience, the problem is rarely as simple as divvying up specific household tasks. My lifestyle is completely different from my husband’s lifestyle, even though I’m a feminist and we both agreed to parent as partners. It went in baby steps for us: I was breastfeeding (and btw, babies rarely eat every three hours, they tend to eat almost constantly through the evening as they gear up for a stretch of sleep and then eat every 2-5 hours the rest of the time, which translates to “kiss your evenings goodbye” if you live in an area with unreasonable breastfeeding laws), so I did online classes while he went on campus. Then I was pregnant again and was too sick to work, so he ended up taking the car for work and school…which meant I was stuck at home with a toddler, with no means of leaving the neighborhood. I was also getting an allowance, and every penny I spent was under scrutiny. Now both of my little ones are old enough to be away from me a bit, so I’m trying to go back to school. Guess who is doing 100% of the work to figure out childcare? Guess who will be responsible to get the kids (with their perfectly-packed diaper bags!) to and from daycare each day? Who will be leaving in the middle of class to fetch a sick kid from the sitter? It is so much more than folding towels and scrubbing potties. Society does not value the work mothers do. We provide slave labor, caring for the young, sick and elderly at no cost, with no benefit for ourselves, but try to get through life without having a child and society will crush you with its pity and condemnation. Add to this the way the U.S. tax code is rigged to punish working mothers and the whole thing starts to look menacingly institutional. It is completely disheartening, but the truth of the matter is that it isn’t enough to find a good guy who loves and respects you. He may leave the toilet seat up or (god forbid!) ask you what’s for dinner, but politics will leave you with no choices.

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