Monday, January 17, 2011

Bringing Bacon Home: Modern Domestic He-conomy

by Benjamin Doerr

My wife and I arrived home the other day in the midst of an argument.  Nothing serious - just your run-of-the-mill disagreement – but I was mad.  I was wrong, and I was mad about it.  What’s a guy to do?

Storming into the house I turned the silent treatment up to 50 (not to 50!), cranked a little Otis Redding and dove into some thick, therapeutic alone work – house cleaning.  That’s right, first it was a sweep of the floors (my god they’ve been begging to be swept), then I mopped the kitchen, and soon the
cleaning frenzy spread like a runny nose at daycare; into the bedrooms, into the office, then a load of laundry was thrown in with a short pause to put dinner on.  As the meatloaf warmed, the Brussels’ sprouts steamed and Otis sang his final chorus of “Amen” with a, “…even in your home, son, you got to let your light shine,” it dawned on me:  I am the very model of a modern manly-maid!  But, let me be clear: I am proud of this - and I dare say I make a good home.    

It is no secret that there is a shift in the domestic structure of today’s home.  The traditional and limiting gender roles of the mid-20th century continue to be broken down and families are negotiating their own blend of roles in the household.  Though, as the domestic structure of our forbearers begins to look more and more foreign to our contemporary approach, one thing still holds true: If the family is to thrive within the home structure the economy of that home has to be managed

For all its faults, the home structure known to the Cleavers and the Bradys was simple and organized.  It was a postcard of the perfect life, where Dad went to work, mom kept the home, and the children were well presented and well behaved.  It is also true that the backside of that postcard might show dad sleeping with his secretary, mom downing a bottle of wine in the pantry, and the kids doing drugs with their beatnik friends – but I digress.

What the simplicity of the mid-century home structure offered was a system of management that assigned duties to everyone in the home.  Duties that, when carried out, provided the home with stability, food, hygiene and comfort.  What is depressing and constrictive about the gender roles of the mid-20th century is simply the gender assignment, and requirement.  So, as we throw away gender assignment to these roles, how do we assign them?

As much as I love to think of myself as a modern man, willing to build a complex structure of role assignment in the home that most liberates the soul and best supports the nurturing, in each of us, of positive qualities from each gender,  the fact is that my wife and I basically took the gender assignments of the 1950s household, drew a line between Man and Woman, and then swapped sides.  I do earn a modest income (I am, after all, a modern home-maker), but for the length of our marriage, my wife has been the principle earner of the family. But, while she may bring the bacon home, I’m the one who cooks it and our role reversal includes the obvious and sometimes entertaining.  For instance, I stay home with our one-year old daughter and keep the house; running errands, laundry, cleaning, and all of the cooking (not just that involving bacon).  Then, one evening my wife came home from a client’s office and glanced over my shoulder at the marinara I’d been slaving over for an hour.  She then reached into the fridge, cracked a beer and as she sat on the couch asked, grumpily, “There’s no meat in that?” 

But our roles can be much more subtle and nuanced, too.  For instance, when it comes to the overall care of our daughter, we share that duty pretty much as team – two parents joined as one caregiver.  Mid-night soothing duties seem to be divided organically, with little discussion or frustration, and I would say we split poopy diaper duty pretty evenly, too.  Truly, beyond income and keeping house, the lines become pretty blurred, but having the two “big ticket” items well divided and organized seems to help our household thrive.

Ours, though, is not household without tension.  A hard week of demanding clients can have my wife frothing with frustration that she has to carry the financial burden of this family, and I have - on more than one occasion - stated that I can clearly understand why Sylvia Plath put her head in an oven.  But all poetic drama aside, we enjoy our roles and we’re good at them.  This is, perhaps, the most important distinction between the mid-century home structure and our contemporary one.  There is much more opportunity for us to take on roles within which we thrive, and help our partners and children to thrive. 

So, as we continue to deconstruct the destructive and limiting elements of the mid-century family structure and build anew, my hope is that we will have the clarity to see the importance of structure in our homes so we don’t “throw the baby out with the bathwater,” so to speak.  I hope we have the vision to search out the roles that best fit how we function, and to find partnerships that support and are supported by this movement.   It is important that we build a home economy that is conducive to our growth as individuals and as family units.  Like Otis Redding sings, “Even in your home, you’ve got to let your light shine.”  In the meantime, I’ve got floors to sweep and dinner to prepare. 

1 comment:

  1. Ben, this is beautiful and might I say poignant. You nailed it. Latest issue of Yes! magazine was devoted to these issues. What Andre and I say is it all comes down to the freedom to choose (and of course contextual and logical factors) and how we might preserve and protect this freedom for the other. I am choosing to be the primary care giver. This is what is liberating.