Recently, we went stand-up paddle boarding. “We’re the same height,” I told the instructor, as he lengthened her paddle inches longer than mine, as if she were taller. He looked me in the eye, nodded and kept doing it anyway. Later that day, after we had dinner, the waiter put the check in between the two of us. “Which one of you is in charge?” he asked. “What do you think?” I replied. He handed her the bill.
I have dated men and women. My current relationship is the most equal one I’ve ever been in, and I believe it’s because we’re both women. When it’s time to cook dinner or do the dishes, there’s no gender-based division of labor. Same goes when it’s time to pay for dinner. We both pitch in equally.
It’s not that I loved doing the dishes before, or that I meant to pass the bill when I was with a man. (Although, generally they were earning much more.) But it happened. If a man didn’t pay for dinner on the first date, I thought he was cheap. If I didn’t do dishes in the sink after dinner, I felt guilty. That’s just how it was. It didn’t stop there, either. In retrospect, I find that I’m more passive when I date men, and not in a way that I like.
The game-changing thing about a gay relationship is: All the gendered expectations that straight people take for granted — from the idea that men should make more money, to the idea that women should be primary caretakers — must be rethought and renegotiated. I’m not saying straight couples don’t do this. But some things can’t be compared. Consider childbearing, one of the biggest female burdens (and joys). It changes your body, it changes your brain chemistry, and your womb is host to a tiny human squatter for nine months. Many women love it, but there’s no doubt that it involves a great deal of sacrifice. In a straight relationship, there’s no question about who will take that job. In a lesbian relationship, the decision to have a child — and many other, smaller decisions — spark much longer conversations.
Take housework. It might sound like a small thing, but it isn’t — especially for women. On an average day in 2015, 50 percent of American women did housework — such as cleaning or laundry — compared with 22 percent of men, according to a survey from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Forty-three percent of men did food preparation or cleanup, compared with 70 percent of women. A similar disparity is found in child care. In households with children under age 6, women spent an average of an hour providing physical care, such as bathing or feeding a child, while men spend an average of 25 minutes.
I’ll admit: I do not dedicate as much time to housework as some. If I am busy, domestic organization goes out the window. It is simply a priority that falls below things such as my work, self-care and social engagements. In other words, I am not “housewife” material. In my relationships with men, that always felt like a problem, as if my messiness became not just aesthetically or logistically problematic, but also involved me betraying an aspect of my femininity that played an important role in how we related to each other. There were arguments.
I’ve been surprised with my current partner with how easily the food gets prepared, the kitchen gets cleaned and the bed gets made. The tasks are the same, yet it feels like all of the baggage, the heaviness, the “supposed-tos” around them have disappeared. Suddenly, they’re just things that have to get done, and we’re the two people who need to do them.
On the other hand, I can’t pretend that gender expectations have no effect on me. They do suit me, on occasion. When my dad asked her for help removing an old cabinet from his laundry room, I decided to sit and drink wine while she smashed the thing to pieces with a grin on her face. Then again, it takes her longer to get her hair the way she likes.
I asked my friend Kate, who has also been in relationships with men and women, about what she experienced when she married her partner. When she announced their engagement, her wife-to-be’s grandmother had a long list of questions.
“She asked, ‘Who is going to clean the house? Who is going to cook? How are you going to have kids?’ So my wife had to do a little bit of grandmotherly education. Because, while I may not be a very good husband, I am a great housewife. And when we cook dinner, we break it down by who likes making the kind of food we want to eat that night,” she said. “I’ve found that when you cannot rely on other people’s narratives about how things are supposed to work — when those don’t represent you — you have to come up with your own.”
And that makes sense to me. Sometimes these road maps for relating to each other come from the outside-in: As certain things are expected of us, we act accordingly. Sometimes they come from the inside and then are expressed outwardly, when we act to create balance or meet the needs of a relationship. Sometimes those gendered traditions make people happy and comfortable — and all too often, they don’t. When that happens, it’s time to throw out the map and begin to write our own.