Superman of the House

When Bryan Parys’ father died, he was told that it was up to him to be the ‘man of the house.’ He was 4. Twenty-three years later, he’s still trying to figure out what his father meant.

In 1987, just a few weeks before he died of cancer, my father recorded his final thoughts onto an audiotape. Among his slow, breathy reflections, he made sure to leave messages for his three kids. His charge to me?

“A lot of the weight of the man of the house will be on your shoulders.”

I was 4. A week or so after he died, I refused to leave the house for preschool, claiming that I needed to stay home to take care of my mother. “I’ll be OK, buggy,” she said. “Why don’t I make sure your Superman pajamas are clean for when you get home later?”

“Can I wear the cape to bed?” I asked.

“Heavens, no!” she cried. “You’ll choke in your sleep!”

♦◊♦

Who is the man of the house? At first it seems like a silly question in a culture that often sees equality in simple terms: women can vote, be CEOs and stay-at-home moms; we must have wrapped up that issue. But even if it is an antiquated phrase, we still see it emblazoned on IRS forms and bellowed with fist-pounds in church services.

At 28, I have been happily married for over seven years, and I don’t think my wife Natalie or I have ever used the phrase “man of the house” seriously. The idea directly contradicts an egalitarian relationship and implies that we are expected to take on predefined roles like “bill payer” and “toilet scrubber,” even if those tasks do not fall in one’s individual skill set or career goals.

But we both grew up in an evangelical Christian context, so we’re no strangers to the following controversial verse, often read at weddings, from the New Testament book of Ephesians 5:22–23a: “Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church.” In contrast, husbands are to “love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.” Thus the order was set. Husbands love; wives submit.

And even though I wrote countless papers in college lauding the work of feminists like Betty Friedan and Susan Sontag, the idea that I had to “take the lead” stuck with me as I walked down the aisle and beyond. That’s precisely where my problem began—I clearly rejected the words “man of the house,” but I subconsciously still believed that I was the one with the cape on my shoulders. The dissonance of thinking I was at once succeeding and failing as a spouse made even the simplest decisions impossible. Take for example the last time we tried to order pizza:

“You want pizza tonight?” I offered.

“Yes! Pepperoni? From Dominos?”

Since this was her favorite food from childhood, had I stopped here she wouldn’t have been the only one feeling lucky by the end of the night.

Instead I countered, “Too many chemical additives. Let’s try something more local. But I don’t want to call. You call.”

“Why do I have to call?”

“OK, fine. Let’s just eat there.”

“Yeah, let’s go!”

“Hmm. But then we have to leave a tip,” I said. “You sure you don’t want to just call?”

And so on, until I argued us into such indecision that it got too late and I ended up making pizza with stale bread in the toaster oven. We ate in silence, and I choked down the crusty reminder that I’m incapable of making decisions. Sure, it was just pizza night gone awry, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was stopping us from ever taking steps forward.

♦◊♦

Natalie is literally afraid of heating oil in a pan, whereas I annoy guests with lecture tours of my vintage cast iron collection. Conversely, I haven’t looked at our bank statement in years, because she knows I’ll lose sleep no matter what number is listed under “available balance.” But her taking the lead there doesn’t let me off the hook—in fact, it threatens to make her look like my personal accountant.

I may seem to transcend outdated gender roles by spending an entire Sunday afternoon working out of a Julia Child recipe for leek-and-potato soup, but I can’t remember the last time I cleaned the bathroom, swept a floor, or did a load of laundry without first looking for a way out of it. That is, despite the way I think about gender roles, there are still some hangers-on that tell me I am still the main creator in the relationship, and she is the one that cleans up around and after me.

Now, she’s pregnant with our first child, and at the time of this writing, I have no idea what sex our lemon-sized fetus is, and I can’t even decide whether I want to know beforehand or not. That may seem like an understandable and common question for a budding parent to dwell on, but for me, there’s a lot more at stake. I’m tired of pushing things off, knowing that if I talk myself into a circle of indecision, Natalie will eventually carry the load for both of us. What good is it that I think myself helpful because I make dinner? Chances are she’s just going to throw it up for the next few months anyway.

♦◊♦

I never let go of my father’s words. I was the man of the house—how could that role just end? But he didn’t mean for me to confuse that phrase with what our cultural history has done to it—to see gender as a vessel of prescribed, hierarchical roles. Instead, it was a call to serve, knowing that if I turned the focus off myself and help alleviate the grief around me, then I would learn to deal with his death. He was teaching me how to be an ever-present father while anticipating his own absence.

I still don’t want to be the man of the house. But I do want to be the man of my house—my body, my mind. We have to be the men of our own individual lives if we ever hope to happily enter into an equal partnership, let alone try and pass on what we know to the next one. My mom was right—not only does wearing a cape support the myth that you can fly, it’s a willful lie that’ll choke the man right out of you.

—Linus Bohman photo/Flickr

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About Bryan Parys

Bryan Parys is an essayist, music reviewer, and instructor of writing at the University of New Hampshire. He earned his MFA in creative nonfiction at UNH in May 2010, where he started work on a memoir titled Wake, Sleeper. The book explores how the loss his father shaped and butted heads with his Christian upbringing.

Comments

  1. Thank you so much, Bryan, for this piece. I really resonated with the way you seem to both struggle with and embrace your father’s parting wish for you and your role in the family. I have been very interested lately in how gender roles and stereotypes either help or hinder us in our attempt to navigate our most personal and intimate relationships, both with our partners and with ourselves. What I heard in your story was not only a deep examination of what it means for you to be a husband to your wife, but also what it means for you to be Bryan (sorry if that’s super cliche). I recently got married to my partner of almost six years now, and it’s been incredible to discover that all sorts of childhood narratives are drifting to the surface for both him and me. I’m glad to hear that you are embracing your art and writing through some of this stuff. I’m also selfishly appreciative because I resonate with not only your content but also your form – you’re a great writer!

    • Yes–that navigation of roles is so tricky. But you totally hit on the answer by connecting it with childhood narratives. There is something about openly owning our stories, and openly absorbing the narratives of our loved ones that truly digs into this love stuff. It’s tough and harrowing, but so worth it. I know that ‘memoir’ and the like is often seen as navel-gazing, but the writer Patricia Hampl once said that the grand arc of history depends on us to parse and claim our histories. For if not, as she says, who will? Thanks for finding me over here–looking forward to more State of Formation stuff from you!

  2. Powerful piece. And powerful stuff with which we are saddled. My life as a stay at home dad as well as my partnership with my wife look nothing like the societal norms of yesterday, or even really today. I, like you, have tried to fly in the face of them, but I find myself subconsciously bound to them at times. Even two years into my gig staying home I struggle with not earning money. I know my value. I sure as hell know I hold up my end, but I can never get totally past the whole “bread winner” mentality. Culture and society have such a tidal influence on us. My experiences have been quite different from yours, but your piece resonated with me powerfully. Thanks for sharing.

    • Thanks, Mitchell. I totally understand what you mean. Even with enough head knowledge to know that money doesn’t equal human worth, so much of our culture sees them as intrinsically connected. (Alain Boton’s book “Status Anxiety” traces the ideological and philosophical roots of this problem in amazingly lucid ways. I’d heartily recommend it, if you’re interested). Funny enough, I actually aspire to be in your position as a stay-at-home dad, and hope that someday I can carve out a situation that allows me to do that. I don’t want to miss important kid-times commuting!

  3. Great piece! I certainly appreciate your glimpse into “morbid logic crashing against a security blanket of fantasy” (superman cape) that I can sympathize with all too well.

    I also had – much like our shared lack of tolerance for dairy – a bordering on pathological hurdle when it came to ordering pizza delivery. I still, to this day, don’t know why. But I’m sure a psychiatrist could have a field day with it. Thankfully, I’m over it now. Maybe a gift from the universe for your 29th birthday?

    Wait – you suggest that you dining out would require tipping but that ordering in would . . . not? Would it require you to grab the food and then shut the door, shut the lights off, and hide in the back room until the delivery guy left? Would it mean murdering the delivery guy? A-Tron deserves better. Far better.

    Also, smart money is on Ephesians 5:22 – 23a NOT being read at my upcoming nuptials. There’s a better chance we’ll all eat porcupine.

  4. Warren Wegrzyn says:

    Ha! I love it – we go for a “strengths-based” division of chores (aka – I turn white shirts pink in the laundry)… and “Natalie is literally afraid of heating oil in a pan” – that is Danielle to a tee – we were popping pop corn and it was like she was going through a minefield! I particularly like the tension you present between consciously attempting to refine cultural norms while at the same time realizing their holding power. Having a “role” is blessing/curse, but not having one can be a significant challenge as well… I am excited to think about this more… thanks!

  5. Female Feedback says:

    Great post, thanks.

    I cringe when I hear someone say to a boy “you are the man of the house.”

    A terrible thing to do to a boy . . . . and to the rest of us.

Trackbacks

  1. [...] the estimable Good Men Project Magazine is now up on their website. The article is called, “Superman of the House,” and it parses some similar themes I’ve mentioned here regarding my ever-in-process [...]

  2. [...] out this post by Bryan Parys over at The Good Men Project. Entitled Superman of the House, Bryan reflects on the message he received from his dying father, “A lot of the weight of the man [...]

  3. [...] Men’s Anti-Violence Council blog. They wrote a piece in response to my recent article, “Superman of the House,” as published in The Good Men Project Magazine. It may not mean a book deal is on the [...]

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