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Life is Short, Laundry is Eternal
An SJ author shares his take on parenting and gender roles in modern families
By Scott Benner

Robbinsville’s Scott Benner left the corporate world 12 years ago to become a stay-at-home dad to his two kids, and his book is an often humorous look at connecting with his family in between mopping the floor, doing the laundry and taking out the trash. Benner, whose daughter was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes at age 2, also shares insights on parenting a child with a chronic illness. He has selected this excerpt for SJ readers.

 

There’s No Such Thing as Gender Specific

When I first became a stay-at-home dad, I thought about certain tasks that I was performing in very gender-specific ways. Eventually my new life helped me to understand that there is no such thing as a woman’s or man’s task when it comes to raising family—only parental responsibilities.

Life Is Short Photo Shoot_9167-color[I’ve been reminded] over the years to question things that didn’t make sense to me. The more I investigated the standards that I was accepting without thought, the more I found that I was doing a great many things out of habit or sense of propriety. I wasn’t bothering to decide what I thought of the world; instead I was happy to just see it through my parents’ eyes.

I grew up in a home where my father didn’t vacuum, but that doesn’t mean that men don’t vacuum. It’s merely an indication that the circumstances of my father’s life didn’t lend themselves to this task being taken on by him. It makes sense, right? My father woke up at the crack of dawn every day; he went to work and only returned after the day was done. It would be strange for him to also be responsible for the upkeep of our home. My mother didn’t change the oil in our cars or climb the roof if the gutters needed to be cleaned, but she did maintain the aspects of our home life that her schedule and skills allowed for. Of course, the other possibility is that my dad was a sexist ass and wouldn’t dream of doing something that he deemed to be “woman’s work.”

…Maybe the things that I believed were rules were really no more than decisions controlled by happenstance, and maybe the people deciding “it” didn’t have my sensibility. So, I began to really pay attention, and this is what I saw.

Both men and women are to blame for continuing the idea that there are tasks only done by one or the other. However, if I had to say who was more at fault for this, it would be the guys. There is no doubt that sensibilities have changed drastically since my father walked past our vacuum cleaner guilt-free, but some men still resist doing things that they feel aren’t gender specific to them. My mother never went to sporting events with us; she didn’t take us to practice or sit in the stands while we played.

My mom did her chores and my dad did his, but if my father painted a room, then my mother acted as his support staff, making food and bringing drinks. I never once saw my dad bring my mother an iced tea while she was hanging the laundry to dry, but she surely brought him a drink when he was taking care of his end of their agreement. I don’t see my mother’s support as negative or subservient; I just think of it as supportive, and I wish that more men had that component to themselves. Most women I know today are more involved with the aspects of parenting that were deemed “father’s work” back in my dad’s day, and I see them adjusting to these new norms nicely. When men get dragged to the other side of that imaginary gender line, they go kicking and screaming.

Don’t get me wrong; men do more today than ever in the past, but they still do it partially under protest. They may not be launching that protest so that their wives can see, but they do put on quite a show when it’s just the guys listening. Everything is made out to be a chore. “She wants me to …,” “My wife is making me …,” “I would but I have to take the kids …”—you get the picture. Unless it’s sports related, men bitch when they have to do things that they don’t want to do, me included sometimes. We can be like little kids in that regard.

The entire show that we put on is wrapped in machismo so that not wanting to help doesn’t appear to be rooted in laziness or lack of interest. It’s one of the actions that I’ve witnessed over the years that make me saddest for fathers. You see, the only way to show another guy that you aren’t soft, whipped, or taking part in “woman’s work” is to malign the parts of family life that fall under that heading. I think that when men do that, they create the sense that being involved in any way with these moments lessens their manhood. And I, of course, believe just the opposite is true.

There is no such thing as gender specific when it comes to being a part of your family. I’ve seen my children do the most amazing stuff in the craziest places, places that the men I know and their fathers have never been. If you only interact with your family in certain situations and ignore the parts of life that you aren’t as interested in, then you will only partially know the people that love you the most.

Kelly and I have been together a long time. We knew each other, then dated, lived together, and finally married, all before the age that most people find a serious relationship.

I’ve known Kelly since she was a girl in her late teens, and she’s shared a few stories with me about her childhood. The one that comes to mind right now may seem innocuous, but it carries an important message. Kelly grew up in a home with an older brother and two younger sisters. Kelly loved and excelled at gymnastics, but her sisters were accomplished soccer players. Kelly once told me that her parents would go anywhere and travel great distances to see her sisters play soccer, but her dad hardly ever once saw her perform a gymnastics routine. It didn’t matter if she was practicing, competing, or about to win a medal, her dad didn’t enjoy gymnastics so he didn’t go to see her.

I could tell that this part of her childhood haunted her, and one day I asked her father why he rarely saw her perform. He answered simply, “I don’t like gymnastics.” He didn’t realize then, but he did appear to understand when we spoke about it later, that his condemnation of gymnastics all those years ago hurt Kelly as if he had said that he didn’t like her personally.

It may be too late for me to explain this in a way that will help Kelly, but I want men to understand that when you say you don’t like something that your child so closely identifies with, you are telling that child that you don’t like who he or she is.

I’m writing this today only one day removed from taking Arden to a gymnastics class. I have to tell you that there are about a thousand things that I’d rather do than watch gymnastics, but those aren’t what I was doing yesterday. It doesn’t matter if your children are in a bad play, singing off key in the school chorus, or participating in a sport that you absolutely hate, their activities are for them, and you get to experience their joy, struggle, frustration, accomplishments, and defeats as they participate.

I really believe that if you don’t witness your children living their lives, it is very difficult to properly help them make their way through that life. Your children’s teachable moments can act as teaching moments for you as well.

Sometimes, these moments are so small and, at first glance, may seem insignificant. Maybe it’s something as simple as shopping for a dress or being behind them for support as they make a decision about what binder to buy for school. Our children are just that, children. Almost everything they do is new to them, and even when it seems that they’ve been at it for long enough to not need you, they still like to know that you’re there. A lot of these moments happen when you don’t expect; they happen in department stores, car rides, and during boring events such as dance recitals.

Men can continue to avoid these moments in life if they want. They can make fun of them behind their wives’ backs to save face with their friends. You can be sure that more than a few jokes will be told about the guys who do these things with a willing heart. I just wish that those guys would stop saying, “I don’t do that, my wife does,” in a tone that’s meant to belittle the moment. Peer pressure at this age isn’t pretty; it’s kind of sad, actually.

Privately most guys wish that they had a closer relationship with their fathers, although publicly they mock those relationships. It just doesn’t make sense. Don’t you see that you are sending your children down the same path that you privately wish you had never had to walk?

Eventually, someone will break the cycle. One of the men in your familial line will put his foot down and say that’s enough. Why not let it be you? There are a million great experiences waiting to enrich your life if you can just get the idea out of your head that they aren’t for you.

October 2013
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