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The Way We Talk About Domestic Inequality is Broken
It's a public issue, not a personal one
Feminist educator Laura Danger & therapist Crystal Britt discussed TOUCHED OUT on their crucial, critical, and funny podcast Time to Lean this week— it’s a great episode covering “mama” Facebook groups and the lack of dad-based affinity groups online, which also explores the cultural tendency for parenting books to treat men like children and to assume that parenting is always Mom’s domain.
A page of the Oh Crap Potty Training book also circulated online this week— one of the books mentioned in the Time to Lean episode. The Oh Crap book includes some ridiculous infantilization of men, but also basically apologizes to men for asking them to take a few minutes to read some parenting advice.
Reactions to this page have noted how busy this poor tropey Dad is—certainly too busy to research and read any information about potty training his child!—as well as how the book outright characterizes Mom as insane on the next page:
Get her drunk! This book was published in 2015, not 1915, and it has almost 13,000 reviews on Amazon with a 4.5 star overall rating. So, it’s had a significant impact.
One of the most troubling issues with a book like this is that it parades around as expert advice. But ideology seeps into even the most “expert” opinions— we know this from a long history of feminist critiques against the very idea of the “expert” as a supposedly neutral (white cis het male) agent who simply gives the facts. The way parents receive and process pop psychology like the kind found in parenting advice books is also heavily influenced by assumptions about gender, as well as by market influences like consumerism.wrote recently about this issue:
There is so much bad parenting advice circulating on the internet. The intensive parenting movement has given rise to tons of influencers and so-called “experts” who convince parents they have to do certain things a certain way in order to raise successful or well-adjusted kids (and, conveniently, sell classes and tinctures that solve the very problems they highlight!). Many of the messages they spout are inaccurate and actively harmful — not just because they condone questionable parenting practices, but also because the pressure they put on parents to be “perfect” leads to parental shame and burnout.
So, first for foremost, the way we talk about domestic work is broken. “Parenting advice,” after all, is parenting ideology, and therefore domestic ideology.
Firmly entrenched misogynist beliefs such as the idea that men are not made to care but women are—and that parenting is the moral destiny of anyone with a uterus—tend to be laced throughout parenting advice found on the internet and in popular books. As is the assumption that women will be driven to misery and madness by their work as caregivers— work that is never officially recognized in the parenting advice lexicon as unpaid work, even while an entire industry has sprung up directing primarily women how to do that work.
Whenever I write about parenting advice I feel I must give this caveat: I’m not suggesting it’s a bad thing to turn to our communities or to those who have studied child development for help. I’m not suggesting it’s bad to ask for or need help, especially in a culture that so abandons and disenfranchises parents as ours does. But as I’ve written before, there are other ways to make sense of our parenting experiences, other disciplines and modes of thought we can turn to, and other kinds of people to whom we might listen. At the very least, as Wenner Moyer points out, we might consider bringing a spirit of “curiosity,” rather than mastery, to parenting.
Why, after all, are women so “crazy” when they become parents? Meanwhile, men appear to be consistently excused from the table. Might these two trends be related?
Of course they are. In mainstream domestic ideology, however, this kind of critique either completely falls away, or we are to assume this is simply the way things are: men are so busy with public life, and women are so busy (losing their minds!) at home, caring for houses and children and, well, men. It all goes back to the cavemen!
Tradwife culture may be infuriating to those of us who don’t buy this logic, but it’s telling with respect to the kind of ideology that runs underneath both conservative and more allegedly “neutral” discourses on parenting in America. There is an open assumption, for instance, in many tradwife polemics on TikTok, that if women would like to take up the presumed mantle of feminism—where feminism is understood solely as related to public-facing ambition—it’s their fault they are so overwhelmed and miserable trying to “do it all.”
There are, however, other conversations happening in America today in more progressive circles, and in more politically diverse or ambivalent spaces online. This week, parenting expert Emily Oster shared a visually provocative spread of statistics on domestic inequality among heterosexual married couples (others have explored how same-sex couples share chores), which elicited a range of responses and speculations about what’s going on in homes across America.
The comments section of this post is really fascinating. There are many all-too-brief rationalizations for the highly gendered distribution of labor in homes— the chart clearly shows that women consistently do more caregiving and housework, unless they are the sole earner. One commenter, for example, argues that the highest total amount of caregiving and housework happens in houses where men are the sole earner, so this must be the best arrangement!
Other comments include more nuanced and honest stories of the granular issues couples face trying to undo this clearly pervasive historical labor imbalance, such as noting that men don’t see mess the way women do or that women tend to perform different kinds of tasks that often appear invisible to their partners.
Whenever such statistics pop up in a new format, however, Americans (especially married white cis het American moms) tend to collectively follow a similar cycle: outrage, post/share, more outrage, speculation, a deluge of personal stories dumped online as evidence of the accuracy of such numbers, exhaustion, disengagement. When I saw this post, I was initially drawn to play out this cycle, so I’m not really interested in criticizing it here. In fact, it seems to mirror somewhat the stages of grief: some might feel denial (not in my house, we’re 50/50!), then feel anger (men need to do their 50!), then we bargain (well, we have different values so we do different jobs differently, but overall it’s pretty much 50/50?), then we get depressed and accept our fate under patriarchy (it will never be 50/50!).
I have no interest in blaming women for their responses to these frustrating statistics. In fact, I wonder sometimes if this is also a cycle many married cis het women follow in their homes. I know that, at times, it has been for me. We often lack the tools, both individually and collectively, with which to respond to these imbalances in our everyday lives, even when they trouble us deeply.
We’ve recently seen feminist thinkers respond to this lack with practical methods and reframes. Eve Rodsky’s work in her hugely popular book Fair Play, which Danger often draws on in her popular viral videos, also taps into this need. These are not just experts doling out advice (though that too is often part of their work), but public figures working to articulate for a general audience the nuances of domestic inequality and the complex obstacles people of all genders face in overcoming them.
Community has sprung up online around the issue as a result. And in contrast to the motherhood-related affinity groups forged on FB starting in the early 2010s, this new collective organization around domestic inequality feels different. As Danger and Britt point out in their podcast, FB affinity groups often fetishize the “mama” identity and further entrench domestic problems as solely women’s problems. They also often set maternal expectations around sleep, feeding, and sex even higher by organizing themselves around moral takes on parenting and marriage ethics, imagined in such groups to be core parts not just of Mom’s parenting practice, but her identity.
In contrast, today many parents are rallying around the idea that we can no longer afford to see labor imbalances in the home as private problems, but rather must always understand them as public issues born of gender inequality. Most of these parents, however, are women.
I have recently been asked by several men and women the same variation of one question: “What can men do?” To be fair, I appreciate when men especially ask this basic question. But study after study has illustrated that when it comes to domestic partnerships, especially in cis het relationships, the simplest answer is that men can and should take on more housework and caring labor at home.
There are a number of reasons that men tend to cite for not doing this, but in general, the biggest issues facing men’s involvement at home are economic. Men tend to be more reluctant to take a hit to their income or career, something required in this country, which fails to treat all workers as potential caregivers, if one is to be more involved at home.
Recently, I was asked an interesting variation on the “what can men do” question, something along the lines of why women stay married to men who don’t do their 50%. The question again reflects that larger cultural tendency to blame women for their own exploitation and abuse. It sounds awfully familiar— can you hear the echo of this question as it’s frequently posed to domestic violence victims?
In their discussion of the common cultural tendency to treat men like “incompetent baffoons,” Danger and Britt note the many stories easily locatable in any mommy FB group—the kind that depict men lobbing babies at Mom the moment she exits a shower or stands at the precipice of something like a moment of solitude and autonomy. Sure, we could look at these stories as yet another failure by women—the failure to leave. But to me, these stories show not only many fathers’ incredible lack of attunement to what women and children need, but also an incredible refusal to care, or to become curious.
We need a new set of questions to ask when it comes to domestic inequality beyond just, is this still a problem. It is! Men also need to push beyond what’s wrong, or what can I do, or why do women put up with guys like that. We’ve known what’s wrong and what men can do for a very long time.
One better question to ask might be: Why don’t men have more empathy for partners who are struggling?
I have many thoughts about how we might answer this question, beginning with the socialization of boys and the gendering of emotions. The fucking term “50/50” has also not done us any favors. Why do we insist on talking about domestic inequality in terms of percentages, rather than by other metrics like, say, women’s mental health, safety, freedom, free time, autonomy, advancement in positions of power, and access to pleasure?
I love the idea of thinking about homes and families and communities as potentially autonomous spaces where we can work together to resist the power structures that shape our relationships and daily lives. But your household is not equal even if you 100% 50/50 shit!
In an era in which people with uteruses do not have autonomy or full citizenship under the law, an era in which it is quite clear that in workplaces and homes and schools and hospitals and legal settings women are still being consistently exploited and abused, perhaps men might try to do more than their fair share at home for a couple decades, as a little experiment in correcting centuries of inequality inside and outside the home?
Other book news:
We’re giving away 25 copies of TOUCHED OUT. Enter by August 11.