Gender Roles and Humane Parenting

This post is by contributing blogger Kelly Coyle DiNorcia, a graduate of our M.Ed. program, and a humane educator specializing in helping parents raise joyful, compassionate children. Find out more about Kelly's work at her website Beautiful Friendships, and her blog, Ahimsa Mama.

I’ve been reading a lot of momoirs lately. That, and historical fiction about strong women leaders – Cleopatra, Nefertiti. I’m really into exploring femininity, motherhood and power these days. My inability to reconcile all the parts of myself – woman, mother, wife, employee, volunteer, activist – and stay sane at the same time has me wondering how other women manage to do it, and if I want to continue to try.

I just finished the book Opting In: Having a Child Without Losing Yourself by Amy Richards. She talks quite a bit about feminist parenting as challenging traditional gender roles. I totally get that it is important for our children to see men doing laundry and women changing the oil so they get the idea that there is no such thing as a “man’s job” or “women’s work.” But is that actually “feminist” parenting?

For me, feminism is about choices. Women fought against having the roles of Wife and Mother proscribed by society so that they could have options. Having options means, well, actually having options. It does not mean that I have to take on all the work in our family that had traditionally been considered a man’s domain just so my kids can see me doing that work. Does it?

In our family, John does a lot of the domestic chores like vacuuming, dishes and laundry. If his life depended on it, he would not be able to pick an allen wrench out of a toolbox. I do most of the repairs, and I am responsible for finding people to do the ones I can’t. He puts Harry down for his nap every day and gives the kids their baths when he is home. I do all the cooking (and grilling) and take the kids to all their doctors' appointments, arrange all their activities and play dates, and keep track of the schedules. We both work at paying jobs, but John's requires more hours and pays significantly more. Our particular division of labor has nothing to do with female versus male; it is simply a matter of our different skill sets and the tasks that suit us best. I wouldn’t say we have things split 50/50, but I think that is more a function of my neuroticism than his refusal to do his share. At any rate, it’s close.

Yesterday, the kids wanted to play in the sprinkler, and the nozzle was rusted onto the hose so I couldn’t get it off. I asked John to help me, and our sitter commented, “I guess that’s one of the nice things about having a husband who works from home.” Her words gave me pause: Was I deferring to John because unscrewing things is man’s work? No, I asked John for help because, partly by nature of his gender, he happens to be physically stronger than I am and was more likely to have success at that particular task. Should I have struggled in futility, doing battle against this hose in the oppressive heat, simply to prove a point? Or is it more important to find the person more well suited to the task?

While reading Richards’ book, I found myself wondering if insisting that parents select jobs because they are commonly identified with the other gender – and by describing this as “feminist” parenting, as if any other way is less that enlightened – is simply proscribing new rigid roles in the name of progress. Just because women can be doctors or CEOs does not mean that every woman is suited for those jobs; some women are happier, and better at, being elementary school teachers or nurses. And some men are great at those jobs, too. While it is good for children to see diversity of all stripes in the world, and it is sometimes worthwhile to seek out examples of people who are stretching the boundaries, I think it is more important to respect who we are, and give our children permission to do the same.

Image courtesy of drewleavy via Creative Commons.

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