It had been bothering me for awhile now. Something she would say late in the evenings after the kids had gone to bed, or while taking a stroll with the family on the weekends when the baby was quiet and the other kids were chatting away about nothing in particular. It was something so benign that under other circumstances, it might even have been nice to hear.
“Why don’t you ever take me out?”
And yet after hearing it for so long, I could not longer find the place in me where it felt nice. All I heard was criticism, that in addition to being home with three kids every day, and I was supposed to find the time and the energy to invest in wining and dining my wife the way I had done years ago before three kids, a house, a seemingly endless list of chores, and six months with no sleep. And then one day she said it again, and without thinking I replied, “Christ! Why don’t you take me out for once?” After all, I’d thought, we’re not Ward and June Cleaver—so, why am I always on the hook for wining and dining?
Early on, my partner and I both had visions of a very traditional relationship guided by very traditional gender roles. But as time went on, both of us began to feel dissatisfied. Staying at home was not her vision of motherhood anymore than my vision of fatherhood involved returning home at 5:00 PM to a newspaper, pipe, and my slippers. And yet, despite sharing work inside and outside of the home, our careers failed to progress at an equal clip. Her career outpaced mine, and over time, a small gap in earnings grew to the point where it fiscally made more sense for me to work less and stay home with the kids as she worked more.
Temporary though it may be, this has not come without some struggle. The rule book has long been written for gender traditional families, and failing to conform to those norms has left us fumbling through the negotiation of finances, relationship maintenance, communication, child care and household chores. For example, working full time as a husband is providing for my family. As such, there are no auspices that the money I make belongs exclusively to me. The money belongs to the family. And so, even when my partner buys something extravagant like a nice pair of shoes, I feel validated in a sense that her ability to buy those shoes communicates to others that I have provided well for my family. Conversely, when my wife is working full-time, I have a hard time feeling any ownership of the money she makes. I feel weird buying myself things and the sense of pride at extravagant purchases no longer belongs to me.
Similarly, taking over more responsibilities at home has involved a struggle for domain. Making doctor and dentist appointments, feeding the kids, even going to the gym, all involve fielding a barrage of questions: did I Yelp the doctor or dentist to make sure s/he had good reviews? Did I look to see what kind of pain medications they used at the dentist’s office? Did I feed the kids mac ‘n cheese from the blue box or the orange one? What kind of background checks do they do at the gym childcare center—and how often did I peek through the window to ensure the kids were being well cared for?
Studies show men who share household responsibilities are supposed to have happier, more fulfilling relationships. And yet, these studies are based on traditional household models where men are working outside of the home. The scant studies that do include stay-at-home fathers, tend to have such a small group of stay-at-home dads that they are forced to group stay-at-home fathers, unemployed fathers and fathers on disability—despite the fact the roles of these men may be very different in the home. The question then arises: how do you ensure a happy relationship when fathers stay at home and mothers work? Is it simply men doing more chores that improves the relationship quality or is it in sharing household responsibilities that couples feel close? And more generally, what happens to a relationship when the woman is the provider and the man is the caregiver? What other husbandly duties then become her domain, as well?
The truth is that I don’t know, and it can be a stumbling block for us at times. Some would look at the questions above and cite them as evidence that turning gender norms on their heads is not natural. That, they might say, is why men should be working and women should be at home. For me, these challenges bring with them a unique sense of partnership. Because we operate outside of our prescribed gender norms, we each maintain a firm footing within both gender roles. My partner is intimately involved in household management in a way most working fathers are not. In return, I maintain an active professional and freelance career, do most of the household repairs, open jars and kill spiders. But what about romance?
As a man, my role in relationships is to instigate a romantic connection as a part of making my partner feel special. But telling my wife to get dolled up for a night out seems awfully passé for a modern couple. And what about me? I work out. I look fancy in a suit. Dammit, I want to get dolled up. More than that, studies show that over the past 50 years, marriage has changed from one of economic specialization to one of dual-income partnerships. As a result, it seems ridiculous to sweep someone off of their feet when the person being swept made half (or more) of the money for the broom. Old notions of romance were based on the notion that while men invest in career and identity, women invest in their families. Romance was a husband’s way of breaking his wife from the shackles of domestic life, but women are increasingly doing that on their own. So, what’s a couple to do?
I suppose the answer is different for every couple. I, for one, need my wife to break me out from time to time: I need small gestures that remind me my partner sees beyond what I do for my family and encourages me to invest in myself as an individual. It may not be Bunko nights, pedicures, or spa days, but could be an extra hour at the gym, getting the kids a pizza, encouraging me to take a foreign language class, or surprising me with a new book. In return, when I hear “why don’t you take me out,” I will try to hear a reminder that my wife still sees me as the man she married…and maybe needs to occasionally be reminded that I see her as the lady I fell in love with.
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