April 14, 2016
When Norton Books published Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique in 1963 it opened the door for the great “second wave” of feminism. Friedan, who had been a labor reporter, had a revelation after a college reunion with her classmates at Smith College in 1957. After surveying the women about their lives in 1950s domestic tranquility she found that they were far from happy. A life of staying home and taking care of your husband and children as “Mrs. Joe Blow” was not exactly satisfying to a human being who was taught to follow her own path in life. Friedan labeled this the “problem with no name” as women suffered at the hands of what was supposed to make them blissfully happy, a prison with a picket fence.
She named the problem and it was sexism. These (mostly middle-class and white) women were taught to find happiness in cleaning products, perfect dinners and occasionally entertaining the husband’s boss. Their own dreams would be packed away in a hope chest. My mother, who was married in 1962, once told me, “I should have finished college and maybe become a lawyer.” But women went to college to find husbands and a chance to move out of their parents home. They traded their father’s name for their husband’s name and kept the “father knows best” machine moving forward at the cost of their own personhood.
The book created a revolution on a macro level, waking up a generation of women to the lie of domestic bliss. Some recently awakened feminists worked with their husbands to create partnerships and trade “Mrs.” for “Ms.” Others just walked out the door to find their freedom. But, at its core The Feminine Mystique is a micro-level psychological evaluation of the soul crushing way patriarchy takes a female’s humanity away and replaces it with a myth, propped up by bottles of “mother’s little helper.”
Fifty-three years later women now make up 47% of the total U.S. work force and while they still have to work over three extra months to earn the same income as men, there is an unspoken norm that women can find their path outside the home. The converse is that men can stay home and take care of the domestic front. (According to the latest data, 16% of stay-at-home parents are men.) So it shouldn’t be surprising that we men are experiencing some of the things Friedan wrote about in 1963.
When is my time?
I used to love showing my students clips of episodes of Leave It To Beaver from the late 1950s and early 1960s and leading discussions about how far we’ve come in such a short time. What do we know about Mrs. Cleaver after six years of the show? Hardly anything! Besides cooking and cleaning and taking care of The Beaver, the rest is a mystery. It should be made clear for those who don’t know, The Beaver was her young son, Theodore. Beyond that, one can only guess.
I’m the 2016 June Cleaver. I have a Cozy instead of a Beaver and my day is pretty full with her. I thought I’d have all this time to myself but a toddler just vacuums it right up. We drive Andrea to work at the law firm by 8 am and then we’re off. I have to get her dressed for the day and fed a healthy breakfast, half of which will end up on the floor. Maybe when Sesame Street comes on at 9 am I can jump in the shower and check my email. I try to clean while she plays but I’m often just cleaning up after her playing, trying to keep my cool as she’s spreading Andrea’s coloring pencils all over the floor or trying to pull a Basquiat on the living room wall. After lunch, she takes her much needed nap. I would like to nap as well, but her nap is much needed because I’ve got some laundry to do and, if at all possible, a bit of writing.
Afternoons we run errands and try to make plans for dinner. The good thing is the folks at the grocery store love Cozy (we are there enough). The bad thing is that doesn’t get us any free pie. If it’s sunny we might go to the park or blow bubbles on the porch, but whatever it is, it’s for the house or the kid, and not for me. Then there are ants in the kitchen, a missing sippy-cup half-full of milk and a horrible stench coming from the diaper bucket. By the time we pick up Andrea downtown at 5, I’m wondering where the day went. “How was your day?” she’ll ask. “Good. Cozy didn’t eat any crayons,” I’ll say. And through this there are an infinite number diaper changes (nothing in a diaper can shock me now) and plenty of carrying the baby around trying to turn her grumpy mood around. It’s wonderful and yet it feels like it is erasing me.
The Second Shift
When Andrea gets home, I like to imagine it’s going to be a shift change and I’ll just crack open a beer. But she’s just put in a full day of work at a very busy firm. She needs to just unwind and veg out of a while. Doing the dishes or making dinner seems extra difficult when you’ve been just been slaving 8 to 5. “How about take-out tonight?” There’s some time to play with baby and wife, but I prefer just playing with the wife by that point. Then maybe a TV show and story time and hope we’ve got a little body memory left once the kid hits the sack.
But I’m lucky. My wife knows how this transition has been like for me. I went from a fulfilling career that impacted many lives to spending my days trying to figure out what’s in the kid’s mouth. I went from long discussions on the complexities of Queer Theory to babbling about poop. “Baby make a caca?” So she’s given me a free pass to the bar or the coffee shop whenever I need it. Of course, I want to go to those places with her. Bars really need daycare areas. But I do get a night out for a show each month. Last week I saw Ages and Ages at the Doug Fir and slammed whiskeys on ice to make up for lost time. It’s a brief window into the person I was.
There should be enough time in the day to get everything done in the house but there never is. Cozy is a tasmanian devil and if there’s anything left from the tax return, I’m buying an apron that says, “I hate housework.” I feel guilty asking Andrea to help but she does anyway. Unlike the working husband who has no clue what is stay-at-home wife’s life is like, she has a pretty good idea of the daily strain of being Mr. Mom.
Walk a mile in my slippers
I first read The Feminine Mystique in grad school as a “feminist scholar.” Now I feel like I’m living it. The great irony is that millions of men are living it and probably bitching and moaning and wondering when they can have three hours just to sit and watch a baseball game. Alone. Hopefully they’ll see that this experience has been the norm for so many women for so long. It explains why a generation of moms got lost in handfuls of Valium and stacks of romance novels. More than once I’ve eyed the booze and muttered, “Calgon, take me away!”
But it might be slightly different for men for two reasons. The first is that I had my time in the self-actualizing world of work. I made something amazing and then left it behind for childcare. Friedan’s women mostly went from school to marriage. In a sense, they didn’t know what they were missing, they just knew they were missing something. Those women are now finding out. But men who leave the work world leave a world that defined their core identity. Then: “What do you do?” “I’m a sociology professor.” Now: “What do you do?” “I think about what I did.”
The second reason is the American definition of masculinity has laid heavily on the idea of being the breadwinner of the family. That iconic image of the working man is still a giant pillar of popular culture. To not occupy what feminist theorist Dorothy Smith called the “public sphere” is hard enough, but to not be the primary income generator is counter to all the gender socialization men have had for generations. In Trump America, to be not be financially strong is to be a “loser.”
One of the purposes of this blog is to mark all the times that I get it. Those little micro-moments that women have experienced a billion times that are blocked out by my lens of male privilege. And I’ve had many. But as the balance bounces a bit, it may be time to write a new version of The Feminine Mystique for men who are at home with the kids and wondering if there is more to life than uploading e-coupons and catching the first half of Ellen.
I truly love this time at home with Cozy. And there’s an extra thrill when Andrea is a excited when I’ve come up with a new spin on macaroni and cheese (mushrooms and avocado!). But I am anxious to get back to work and reconnect with my outside-world self. The other option is that I’ll be writing articles for Cosmopolitan about how to turn your woman on with the right macaroni and cheese recipe. (Mushrooms and avocado!) But to my mother, yes, you should have gone to law school, but thank you for all that mac and cheese.