Are we ready for these uncomfortable conversations?
Imagine you invite me over for drinks. You clean your kitchen, pour two glasses of wine, and set out a tray of munchies. I walk in your front door. I skip your kitchen, ignore the munchies and find my way into the dustiest corner of your attic, where I sit down to chat.
This may sound odd, but it’s an appropriate metaphor to describe what happens when I tell people, “I am writing a book about traditional gender stereotypes and household chores.” That line is launching conversations past socially accepted chit-chat, and straight into the deep, awkward recesses of our own personal values.
Let me explain.
Every writer working on their 300-page masterpiece quickly memorizes a single sentence to sum up that larger piece of work. Boiling down the complexity into one line is essential for quick, everyday introductions and explanations.
I want to explain that women in North America do 50% more housework than men, even in double-income households. I want to talk about how arbitrary assumptions about gender still influence the way we designate household chores. I want to explain that it is nearly impossible for women over-burdened in the home to reach their professional and earning potential. I want to explain why we should stop using the Hands-On Dad as the ideal role model. But I usually don’t have the time for all that. So, the line about gender stereotypes and household chores is my compromise. It is what I share when I meet new people or update old friends.
The response I get is fascinating and completely unexpected.
I’m not sure what I was expecting. Follow-up questions? Silence? A polite smile and change of topic? Interestingly, these don’t happen.
Instead people immediately dive into a detailed and unsolicited description of their own personal lives, and/or the lives of their friends and family. Some people boast about their own wonderful household balance. Some people recognize that their household balance is maybe a little lopsided and admit they could make improvements. Some people defend their unequal household balance; I’ve heard lots of explanations and excuses: I’m a control freak anyway; he’s hopeless in the kitchen; isn’t this just what all women put up with? I’ve heard Boomers explain that things were different when they were young. I’ve heard Millennials express concern that their vision of an equal household may never be realized.
Conversations often come naturally when I am chatting with friends, neighbors and family. I am extra delighted when perfect strangers feel comfortable giving me personal information: the guys building my neighbor’s deck, my daughter’s camp counselor, a woman in the buffet line at a work reception.
These conversations have not just happened once or twice or even ten times. Without fail, this conversation keeps happening over and over. At first, I thought it was coincidence. But I have come to expect these conversations, and now I even look forward to them.
And although the responses cover a wide range of details, all of these conversations FEEL the same. They’re all awkwardly intimate. The conversational tone is rarely light. People often get defensive and agitated. Postures tighten. I can sense the air change.
It is clear that this subject hit a social nerve.
This topic is uncomfortable. But why? Why are we so uneasy? Are we threatened? Why are we threatened?
I recently brought this conundrum up with some writer-friends. I wondered if the author of a health food book or exercise manual might get the same awkward responses. We discussed, and decided that no — food and exercise is about what we DO. Our actions can change day to day; we can choose to eat better tomorrow, or choose to exercise on the weekend. But gender roles and how they affect our family is more about who we ARE, and what we value; these are not easily changed or altered.
As one friend put it, “Gender roles get at some really deep shit inside each one of us. That’s naturally going to make people uneasy.”
Are people ready to talk about their dirty attics and messy closets?
In normal, everyday banter and conversation, we stay in designated spaces. It is the same with physical spaces. When we have people over, we clean up our house and attempt some form of hospitality. We mingle with guests and friends in the kitchen or living room. We stick to socially-accepted places for company and light conversation.
But it appears that by saying “I am writing a book about stereotypical gender roles and household chores,” I bypass the kitchen and the munchies and walk straight into the dustiest corner of the attic, or that nightmare of a guest bedroom closet. In other words, we dismiss the polite and socially accepted conversation and dive directly into those core issues with which we all struggle. We go to those internal, unresolved spaces where we store our old junk and hide our family baggage. Those spaces that are full of doubt and fear and uncertainty.
And curiously enough, once we are in that awkward space, people talk! When given the opportunity, people open up and offer all kinds of interesting perspectives and anecdotes.
Although the individual stories interest me, what fascinates me is their collective statement. The message I am hearing is, “I didn’t really want you to come here, but now that you are…”
The fact that people are actually willing to discuss gender roles within their own family structure excites me, because having hard conversations is one of the best ways for us to become more aware of our own personal gender decisions. And it is that awareness that better positions us to initiate change.
So, I will continue to use my statement as often as possible. And if I have the opportunity to chat with you, I apologize in advance for walking into your dirty attic. I admit, it is indeed a little awkward. But now that we’re here, we might as well talk about it.