Thursday, December 3, 2009

Who’s doing the dishes?

In a recent article in New York Times Magazine, columnist Lisa Belkin, delved into the topic of the gender-based expectations and stereotypes we impart to our kids. Referring to the work of Abbie Goldberg, an assistant professor in the department of psychology at Clark University, she suggests that the way in which lesbian parents tend to divide household tasks – equitably, and not on the basis of gender – might be a good influence on their children. For instance, recent research has shown that girls raised by lesbians may be more likely to aspire to traditional male-dominated professions (although this could in part be the influence of feminist parents irrespective of their sexuality). Belkin writes:

Heterosexual couples might want to pay attention to these results. While the gay-marriage debate is playing out on the public stage, a more private debate is taking place in kitchens and bedrooms over who does what in a heterosexual marriage (takes out the trash, spends more time with the kids, feels free to head out with their friends for a beer). The philosophical underpinnings of both conversations — gay marriage and equality in parenting — are similar, in that both focus on equality for adults (in the case of heterosexuals, mostly wives). But even if parents who seek parity do so for their own sanity and in pursuit of their own ideals, might it not also be better for their children? Yes, if less conventional, more tolerant children are your goal. Because if the children of gays and lesbians are different, it is presumably related to the way they were raised — by parents with a view of domestic roles that differs from most of their heterosexual peers.

It’s an interesting point and more and more research is suggesting that lesbian and gay couples do tend to divide household tasks more equitably than their heterosexual counterparts. In some instances this means taking it in turns to pay the housecleaner. But in general it means that same-sex couples don’t fall into the traditional gender trap of one parent (dare I suggest the mother) taking on most of the household labour, while the other feels hard done by taking out the rubbish once a week. Ok, that’s a bit of a stereotype (!) But it is no secret that in heterosexual marriages, the bulk of domestic responsibility still falls to the woman, even when she and her husband are both working full time(for money). If you need more evidence to this fact, take a browse through of any number of blogs written by women about motherhood or marriage. The topic of ‘how do I get my husband/partner/boyfriend to help me more?’ is not an infrequent guest on their pages.

But I don’t think this amounts to a simplistic, ‘blokes should just learn to pull their weight in the kitchen’ argument. Even men who would describe themselves as very much pro-feminist and who aspire to spend more time with their children and create an equitable division of labour within their households don’t always manage this. There are undoubtedly some structural issues here; workplaces can tend to be unsupportive of men who seek to work less in order to spend time with their kids or do more dishes. But at the end of the day it is like gender socialisation just pulls us back into line, no matter how enlightened or critical we are of that line.

So it makes sense on an intuitive level that two women or two men living together in a relationship would do things differently. In lesbian relationships (and I am talking about lesbians more than gay men simply because there is more research out there on lesbian parents) there are two women doing what women in today’s society are expected to do; taking responsibility for both domestic chores and household income. Who does what job has to be negotiated. This includes who has the babies.

It seems to me that the experiences of same-sex couples gives us some clues about how gender operates in the world more generally. Gender socialisation is not some amorphous, abstract idea that no-one cares about expect first-year university students (although they may care more than most). It is really the fundamental expectations and assumptions that structure our everyday life (all the little things we do or don’t do without even thinking) and certainly a huge part of how our relationships play out at the day-to-day level. Of course our kids pick up on this.

Food for thought anyway … once someone has made the dinner.



  1. Now that I have kids, I spend a lot of time hanging around with heterosexual mothers, and (apart from men not being interested in changing the status quo) it interests me how much heterosexual women also seem to have invested in maintaining the "I'm the one who knows about the baby" idea (therefore "I need to do all the baby-related work"). Obviously I haven't done any quantitative studies! but I'm surprised by the number of my straight friends who, for example, get up with the baby on their morning off to dress/change nappy/pack nappy bag/ pack food bag so daddy can take the baby out.

    However I did love the story of a straight friend who was tired of her husband honking the car horn impatiently while she ran around getting kids organised to go out. She waited until it was some event important to him then went and sat neatly in the car, arms folded, silently assuming that he could get the kids ready.

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  3. I have had conversations with some of my heterosexual friends (women) about how they feel compelled to maintain control over all the child-stuff in the house (as ozrainbowfamilies mentions). One friend thinks she must be a control freak because even though she complains constantly about her husband not pulling his weight with their son and not understanding the full extent of everything she has to do, she still does exactly what you talk about and packs little lunch boxes and writes out instructions when he takes the baby for a day. My friend and I couldn’t decide if this behaviour is a chicken or egg thing. Does her husband not feel obligated to play ball in the baby-department because she takes control first, or does she take control because he expects her to? I suspect a bit of both, with a touch of gendered assumptions about who makes the best carer thrown in.

    That being said, when I went back to work full time and my partner took over full-time caring of our son, I have to admit I found it harder than I expected to keep track of everything I needed to do with the baby. I started to forget to pack baby food if I had him for the day and have been caught out with no spare clothes on more than one occasion. This never happened when I was at home full time. I’m not sure if this is because my brain is suddenly more stretched (with work ‘n all!) or because somewhere deep-down I am now sitting in the back seat with my feet-up assuming my partner will organise the baby-side of the household. It was nice to get back into the groove of being with baby full time over Christmas.