But according to this particular coloring book, princesses are also domestic workers. The caption next to a picture of Snow White says: “Snow White doesn’t mind hard work. She grabs a broom and sweeps the dusty cottage until it sparkles!” And of course Cinderella “wants to go to the royal ball [but] her stepmother says she has to finish the housework first!” Mulan must learn the fine art of tea service, and poor Aurora meets her doom by way of spinning wheel.
Maybe these portrayals of domestic bliss achieved through mop and feather duster are why my daughter takes what seems like unreasonable pleasure in “helping” with the laundry or wiping down counters. Maybe this is why, when asked to set the table, my son balks and needs to be reminded of this minuscule responsibility three times before he drags himself over to the silverware drawer. After all, he’s busy with his own coloring book full of ninja warriors and epic battles. (The kids chose these coloring books for themselves, by the way.)
My husband and I share household responsibilities. My husband does more of the laundry and cooking, and he looks forward to organizing the fridge. So why are my kids still falling into the timeworn ruts of gendered social conditioning? Why isn’t our egalitarian sharing of domestic work a more powerful model?
Since having children, I send photos of the kids to grandparents, fill in the baby books, buy the clothes, send the holiday cards and make the playdates. I research childhood anger, summarize my finding to my husband, purchase books about childhood anger and make the time to read and process them with my kids. All of these chores fit neatly under the umbrella of “women’s work,” done in service of maintaining the physical and emotional well-being of the family unit.
Meanwhile, my husband does much of the parenting work traditionally deemed “masculine”: He fixes broken toys, inserts missing batteries, fills coolers, lugs beach stuff, coaches our son’s soccer team and installs backyard tents for birthday parties. I’m ashamed to say I often use the fact that the kids expect dad to fix a broken toy to my advantage. More than once, I’ve been confronted with an upset child and a busted piece of plastic only to say, “Let’s wait until Daddy’s home.”
But only recently have I started to wonder what sort of message this division of labor is sending my children, who are already bombarded by gendered messages. As soon as my kids hit the age of three-ish, everything became either a “girl’s thing” or a “boy’s thing” despite the fact that both my husband and I have told them that these categories are arbitrary and socially constructed (in children’s terms, of course).
A friend of mine told me she and her husband share most responsibilities, but she does most of the “creative” parenting stuff because she likes it. This is a fair point. I enjoy combing the Internet for cherry red rain boots, and making a delicious and aesthetically pleasing circus cupcake decked out with sprinkles and animal crackers. Similarly, my husband enjoys high-fiving his little soccer stars and gets a kick out of nailing plywood together to create some semblance of a fort in the backyard.
But what would happen if I were to simply stop replenishing underwear drawers and combing through preschool emails for birthday party Evites? Would my husband scramble to throw a party together, or would the kids be doomed to birthday parties attended by a few relatives? Would their first words be lost to the annals of time if I hadn’t recorded them in linen covered books bedecked with bunnies and swallows? Would this matter? Would my 6-year-old live a life driven by temper flare-ups without the help of my painstakingly Googled books?
The repercussions of “dad work” falling by the wayside seem less dire in comparison. The kids would be fine living a fort-free life, for example, and they could be coached by someone else’s parent.
More often than not, “dad work” is fun. But for every task of “mom work” I find enjoyable, there are five chores I find anything but. I would rather be reading pretty much anything other than a book about tantrums written by a child psychologist. And Googling “fighting about hair brushing” is not a fun treasure hunt. But I do this work because I feel it needs to be done, because I believe this work will allow my kids to be happier, healthier and more functional human beings. I sign up for the preschool potluck so our daughter will see herself and her family as active members of a community. I wonder if this feeling of need, this urgency, is a reflection of my admittedly Type A personality or social conditioning. Or both.
I grew up in a gender-traditional family. My mother stayed home and did the majority of both parenting and household labor, while my father worked a 9-to-5 job and cheered us on during weekend softball games. So it’s fair to assume that this arrangement, as well as the time in which I grew up, impacted my proclivity toward assuming much of the women’s work inherent in parenting.
The chicken-and-egg-ness of this situation is what perplexes me the most. Does it start with my husband assuming I will take photos for Christmas cards because it is women’s parenting work? Or does it start with me assuming it’s my job to take the photos for Christmas cards because the importance of adequately completing my women’s work has been so effectively drilled into me? Or is it somewhere in between? My husband and I are both products of our environments, which have upheld gendered family work roles for as long as patriarchy, for as long as forever.
We all need to be conscious of offsetting the autopilot conditioning of thousands of years in which mothers did everything related to child care and fathers did nothing. And to offset the noise of a world that loudly insists Snow White is having a blast sweeping floors and whistling while she works, maybe it goes beyond modeling egalitarian domestic roles within the home, and having explicit discussions not only between parents, but also with the kids themselves.
While it’s fairly easy for kids to reap the benefits of both parents sharing cooking duties, for example, it’s harder (and sometimes impossible) for children and spouses to appreciate or recognize the often invisible labor of “women’s” parenting work. I’m alone with my computer Pinteresting how to use pre-owned clothes as Halloween costumes, for example. I’m alone in bed worrying about how to help my kids process anger. I’m alone reading about phonics and emailing teacher friends about how to support early reading at home. This work might have far-reaching consequences (or, in the case of the Halloween costumes, it might not), but it’s work either way.
I want my son to grow up with an awareness that there’s more to parenting than holding a tottering kid atop his first big-kid bike; and if my daughter chooses to become a mother, I don’t want her to be burdened by assumptions that she’s in charge of making the kids write thank-you notes or eat adequate servings of vegetables, or in charge of sharing newfound knowledge about phonics flashcards, or for that matter, in charge of anything that simply feels like too much.
Sara Petersen’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in Redivider, Ploughshares, Catapult, Hippocampus, The Lily, Vol. 1 Brooklyn and elsewhere. She lives on the Seacoast in New Hampshire, where she’s working on a collection of personal essays about the difficulties of living up to both feminine and feminist ideals only to end up somewhere in the messy middle. Find her @slouisepetersen on Twitter, and at sara-petersen.com.