13 December 2005

you don't need a nanny to achieve equality

Last night I was watching one of those Nanny shows, where a proper British nanny comes into an American family's home and teaches the parents to deal with their children and with each other and generally improves their home life. (I know, but it was on after Arrested Development and I got sucked in. When you have six TV channels, one of them being PAX, sometimes you will watch anything.) I found last night's episode compelling in a train-wreck sort of way. It was a family with six children, the oldest age 8, a stay-at-home mom, and a working dad who was also really involved in church activities.

I was kind of appalled to see a family operating the way theirs does (or did, before the magic nanny). Not totally surprised, because I've seen similar examples among my very religious neighbors, although none of them have six children, which certainly makes a difference. In this family, the father was home, apparently, a couple of hours a day at most, and was totally uninvolved and clueless when it came to the children. The children were wild, out of control, disrespectful, shrieking little banshees. The mother was obviously overwhelmed, overworked and exhausted.

What really got to me was the father. He just had no idea. He actually said at one point that his time was too valuable to spend it with his children! This idea that there is no value to child-rearing, to raising the next generation to become responsible, capable, well-adjusted adults is all too prevalent in our culture. It totally perpetuates the condecension -- from both men and women -- toward stay-at-home parents and the work we do. For a husband to say this is totally disrespectful of his wife, and it's unfair to his children in that it denies them a real relationship with their father.

But anyway, one day, the nanny made the mother go out by herself, leaving dad in charge. He called his wife after an hour to ask when she was coming home. He had no idea what to make the children for lunch. He had no idea what to do with them, or how to interact. He managed to LOSE one of the children. She went out by herself and he didn't even notice she was missing until the nanny pointed it out.

Now, truthfully, I've never in my own life seen such an incompetent father. I know the particulars of this case are extreme. But I hardly think the situation is atypical. The ideas behind it, the gender roles involved, are still pretty mainstream. Children are the mother's responsibility. The father has the right and the freedom to pursue his own interests. This ties in with some things I've been reading online about whether feminism is still necessary in America. Even though women have equal opportunities in education and work, even though women are active in traditionally male fields of employment, even though women in this country are more powerful now than at any point in our nation's history -- as long as their are still culturally prescribed gender roles to dictate the differents rights and responsibilities of women and men, then I would say yes, there is still a need for feminism. We may have achieved equality in the workplace, but not in my workplace. Not in the home.

I feel very fortunate, however, that my household is pretty equal in terms of freedoms and duties. I think Greg understands by now that my responsibility is to James and Evan, to making sure that they are happy and well cared for. If some housework happens to get done in a day, great. But to complete all the housework, or even a major portion of it during a day comes at the expense of spending time with and caring for my children. That's not a trade off I'm willing to make. And so Greg helps with the housework. And he takes care of the children so that I can have the occasional night off from my full-time job. Maybe it helped that we grew up in families with non-traditional structures. I was raised by a single mother, whereas Greg had both parents at home, but his mother was the breadwinner. I think that due to these examples, and those of our siblings as well, our boys will grow up with an understanding that in relationships, in families, in households, there are no prescribed gender roles, despite the fact that we have a more traditional family structure at the moment.

The nanny, of course, ultimately solved the TV family's division-of-labor problems. She challenged the father and helped him see that a change was needed to ensure the happiness of everyone in the family. And that's what's really important in a family unit -- happiness, everyone's happiness. The rest is just details.

Imagine -- we managed to figure it out without a magic TV nanny to guide us. If only that were possible for everyone.


Anonymous said...

I got sucked into that nanny show after Arrested Development last night as well and I definitely agree! The father was clueless! I like your blog.

Anonymous said...

Hey Heidi!
I hope you don't mind me being here. Dawn and I were recently discussing Blogspot, and she mentioned you'd been writing here. It's great to hear how you're doing, and I enjoyed reading this thoughtful entry.

Since my current temp assignment leaves me with a lot of free time at work, I've been spending time in the ridiculous number of work-related chats hosted on washingtonpost.com... and I am stunned at how maternity leave is handled at many companies, and how employers view working women who also have children/plan to have children. I've seen a lot of women write in with some version of, "I went on an interview and got asked if I plan on getting pregnant within the next few years; is this as inappropriate as I think it is?" (It's actually illegal to ask that, but that doesn't stop some people!) And a lot of women who take leave have warranted fears that their jobs won't still be there for them when the leave is over. Parental (as opposed to maternity) leave is, I think, something that employers need to consider in this day and age. I've heard tell of some more progressive companies instituting a paternity leave policy for men, but the vanguards of change are always too few...

Anyway, I'm really glad to hear that you have a good balance going on at home; I remember you and Greg struggling with that in the past. And with the number of children being raised without a father on the rise, it's even more important that the fathers who are around are attentive and take the time to form relationships with their children, divide responsibilities with the mother so that BOTH can be better parents, etc. I truly admire you guys for realizing this and striking that balance, especially given the fact that you started your family young.

All the best to you, Heidi. Have a great Christmas.