Is gender inequality keeping me from the life I want?
In 2017, I decided to spend the year as a feminist.
Trump had just won the U.S. presidency, and I felt unmoored. On the day of the election, I went for a run confident Clinton would win: The New York Times’ election needle showed her far ahead of Trump. As I rounded the gate at the end of our property, I considered whether I would tell my 7-year-old twins, a girl and a boy, that we had a woman president, or whether I would let the milestone pass so they would think it’s unremarkable for a woman to hold that position. We live in Australia now, so I knew the election results would be in by the time I picked them up from school.
Midway through my run, I encountered a six-foot brown snake that whipped around when it felt the vibrations of my footsteps. I froze and all the confidence I had been feeling about Clinton’s imminent win evaporated. I sprinted home. In the hour I was gone, the Times’ election needle had also retreated.
Gender equality has always been one of my core values, but feminism wasn’t something I wore on my sleeve. It quietly hummed in the background. After the election, it came roaring to the front. All those gains I had been raised to believe were made felt like an illusion. I needed to do something. So in 2017, I shifted the focus of my work to gender equality, and I offered my writing and editing clients a discount on relevant projects.
The election also motivated me to examine an uneasy feeling I had about gender inequality in my own life. If gender inequality could keep the most qualified person from becoming president, how was it affecting my life?
That question sent me down a rabbit hole of research that I found both disheartening and unsatisfying. Yes, gender inequality is still holding women back at work and forcing them to do more at home. And yes, cultural expectations and outdated policies are keeping men at work and away from their families. And, no big surprise, this is making both women and men unhappy. But what’s happening in my life, with my marriage, and my work?
I decided to put my life under a microscope and dissect the role of gender inequality. And since I’m married, I wanted to get my husband’s take: How does Adam think about gender issues? Since we are both self-employed—Adam as a winemaker, and I as a freelance writer and editor—we are calling all of the shots. Does this mean we have more control over how gender issues shape our lives?
I hoped this would reveal something new about what we as individuals can do to improve gender equality in our lives. I also hoped this journey wouldn’t set a match to my marriage.
I see gender inequality; he doesn’t see the problem.
With the exception of Alexis Ohanian’s widely shared “dads, let me be your air cover” essay, most of the data and stories I found in my research were collected and written up by women and published in channels that mostly women read (I’m looking at you, NYT Parenting). These stories gave me a sense of arm-flexing solidarity with the other women who are also doing the family laundry. But they provide little direction on how to discuss these issues with my husband.
Our first conversation did not go well. I said “gender equality,” and Adam told me he doesn’t believe in it. Men and women aren’t equal, he said. Consider a pregnant woman: She needs maternity leave because of the physical changes to her body; her husband can still work. I was so surprised by his answer that I stomped off in a huff. I thought it was obvious to everyone—never mind my life partner—that the purpose of paternity leave is not to allow guys to recover from childbirth, but to help dads bond with their newborns and start sharing the childcare from the beginning. It also has some nice side effects for women, supporting gender equality at home and at work. On my walk, I cooled off and realized I had shut Adam down unfairly. When I got back, I asked if what he really meant was that men and women are not the same, not that they shouldn’t have the same opportunities. “Of course!” he replied.
While Adam and I both support gender equality, we don’t see eye to eye on what that looks like and how to achieve it. We were raised differently, we had different experiences in work, and we are ideologically different people.
My parents divorced when I was very young, and, with few job prospects in her field, my mom went to medical school in Portland. My brother and I stayed with my dad in Southern Oregon, which meant Dad was the one who went to all of my cross-country meets and speech-and-debate tournaments. He monitored our homework and chores, and on weekends, he taught us to ski at Mt. Ashland. When Dad remarried, my step-mom, a strict feminist, took over managing the household chores and divided everything equally between my brother and me.
Adam, who grew up in Australia, had a much more traditional upbringing. Both of his parents worked, but his mum’s domain was the house and the kids. Adam told me his dad expected that, and his mum considered it her job. Adam and his siblings had chores, and because Adam was eager to learn, his mum also taught him how to sew and cook. Adam’s dad and granddad taught him their tradesman skills. (Adam’s a very handy guy.)
Our work has also given us different perspectives. Adam spent the first half of his career in the Royal Australian Navy before becoming a winemaker. He understood that women had it tough in the military, which he attributes to the fact that it was a male-dominated field and chauvinism was rampant. In the wine industry, where he works now, Adam doesn’t see a major problem with gender inequality, and he looks askance at its women’s empowerment initiatives. In my career, meanwhile, I have focused a lot on social issues, and inequality has been a big theme. I tend to believe programs on women’s equality, if sometimes misguided, are necessary. Adam rolls his eyes at advocacy; I’m likely to be the advocate.
Our experience speaks to one of the challenges addressing gender inequality: Men and women experience the issues differently, and many guys aren’t aware that gender inequality is still so pervasive. One study revealed that while 88 percent of Australians agree that gender inequality is still a problem, men were more likely to believe that sexism isn’t as widespread. Part of the problem is that while the women’s movement significantly changed things for women, “men’s lives have undergone less drastic changes over the past few decades,” sociologist Aliya Hamid Rao wrote in The Atlantic.
The issue of gender inequality at home is even thornier: A study in the journal Gender and Society found that advancements in gender equality have stalled at the tightly locked front doors of the family home. Even as more people support gender equality in the public spheres of work and politics, a quarter of people believe women should take a larger role at home. Columnist Kristine Ziwica refers to this as the “perception gap between men’s principled support for gender equality and their willingness to live it in their personal/private lives.”
To frame my next conversation with Adam, I decided to start with the data, looking at how gender inequality affects people like us: working moms and dads.
Despite gains in recent decades, both the U.S. and Australia—the two countries my family call home—still lag behind other nations in gender equality. The 2018 World Economic Forum Global Gender Gap Report ranked the U.S. 51st and Australia 39th out of 149 countries, and noted it would take 208 years to close the gender gap in the U.S. In America, the gender pay gap hasn’t budged in about 15 years, with women earning an average of 15 percent less than men—and that percentage is even wider for many women of color.
At least part of the gender pay gap is due to women having kids, and the lack of family-friendly policies. American women in their 20s, 30s, and 40s—prime working years—have a lower labor force participation rate than men of a similar age, and a lower rate than women in other wealthy economies. America is still the only industrialized country without a national paid leave policy, and even though nine states (as well as D.C. and Puerto Rico) do have paid leave policies, the coverage is insufficient for many families.
Because of this, it’s often the woman who sacrifices her career when kids enter the picture. According to Pew, about 40 percent of mothers have either taken significant time off or have reduced their work hours, and more than a quarter of women quit work entirely. This is compared to just 24 percent of fathers who have taken significant time off. The 25.1 million mothers who keep working—and who now represent 40 percent of the workforce—face a “motherhood penalty” that costs 6 percent of their pay for each child they have. One study found that mothers are half as likely to advance as women without children, and they are held to a higher performance standard.
Despite the fact that the workforce participation rate of American women has risen by 25 percentage points since the 1970s, their responsibilities at home have not declined. Women still comprise 75 percent of all caregivers. Married moms do twice as much housework and childcare as married dads, and even when both parents work, women are three times more likely to carry the “mental load” of parenting and managing the household. These behaviors hold true even for women who out-earn their husbands.
Even as women spend more time at work—where hours are becoming more “greedy”—and even as moms continue the second shift at home, parenting has become more intense. This is putting more pressure on working moms, taking a toll on their sleep, leisure time, and mental health. Working moms today spend as much time with their kids as stay-at-home moms did in the 1970s. As journalist Amy Westervelt wrote in her book Forget Having It All: How America Messed Up Motherhood—and How to Fix It: "We still ask women to work like they don't have kids and parent like they don't work."
Cultural expectations and policies around gender have created a different challenge for dads, making it difficult for them to step away from work and into the home, even though a growing number of men want to be more engaged with their families.
The good news is that working men today are spending twice as many hours on childcare and housework as men did in the ‘60s. And a lot of expecting dads are asking their employers for paternity leave, which nearly 70 percent of American men and women now support. Paternity leave delivers tremendous benefits: Not only does it help dads and kids build stronger bonds, it supports gender equality because moms are less likely to have to step back from work as dads share more of the load at home. Paternity leave has also been linked to lower divorce rates.
Unfortunately, only about 20 percent of American employers offer paid paternity leave, and three quarters of men go back to work only a week after their kid arrives. In Australia, which does offer paid parental leave, only 2 percent of dads take it, largely because the program covers only primary carers, and tradition dictates that that person is the mother. Australia also gives parents the right to ask for flexible work, but men who request it are twice as likely as women to get turned down. As a result, the rate of Australian men taking flexible work has not changed in 10 years.
Even when dads do have access to paid paternity leave, many are reluctant to take it. A Deloitte survey found that 35 percent of men wouldn’t take paid leave due to concerns about their position at work. In a Harvard Business School survey, more men (35 percent) than women (23 percent) felt care responsibilities hurt their career, and more men (40 percent) than women (25 percent) strongly agreed that “caregivers are perceived to be less committed to their careers than non-caregivers.”
These two stories present one clear narrative, which I have seen play out in our household: While the contours of women’s work and home lives change significantly when they become parents, men retain largely the same hours, career prospects, and responsibilities at work and at home. In broad strokes, this means women are left behind at work and doing more at home, while men are being kept at work and left out at home. This situation makes both parents unhappy: According to 2016 research on the difference in happiness levels between parents and nonparents across 22 countries, the biggest happiness gap was in America.
So what does this all mean for Adam and me?
Gender inequality gets personal
The sociologist Rao has written that “addressing the gender gap at home can often be more difficult than in the workplace, since the issue is of inequality between spouses, not colleagues.” No kidding. Not only do these issues matter to men and women in different ways (women care more about a fair division of chores; men care more about not being nagged), each person in a couple has their own ideas about what should be done and who should do them. And our perception of what’s happening determines whether we feel it’s fair. When things don’t feel fair, it hurts the relationship—even your sex life. A Pew survey revealed that sharing household chores is the third most important factor in a couple’s relationship quality.
For me, gender equality in my relationship is important on two levels: Sharing the load equitably gives me more mental and physical energy and more time. It also aligns with my views as a feminist: Husbands and wives should share home responsibilities. Based on the data, I have a hunch there are other feminists who don’t feel they have gender equality at home. It’s our dirty little secret—and it’s giving us an identity crisis.
Leah Ruppanner, a work, family, and gender scholar at the University of Melbourne, explained this phenomenon. “There’s a generation of women who were raised on the notion that there was equality—that women can now do anything,” she said. “Then came the failure of Hillary Clinton to get the presidential election, and it was just like, holy shit, she failed so epically for no other reason than, in my opinion, she was a woman. So there is a moment of reckoning.”
That reckoning can be personal. After Clinton lost, one woman I was working with at the time emailed that she was having a hard time dating because she is “SO ANGRY AT MEN ALL THE TIME, and it’s really hard to keep my rage and desire to tear down the patriarchy in check (particularly when I’m dating the patriarchy).” Another work client, a married mother, said she doesn’t think men get the personal aspects of gender inequality. “It's all well and good ‘out there,’ but there are such embedded misogynistic behaviors (i.e., the kids are sick, so wife will stay at home as my job is more important) that teach our kids that women don't matter. And if these things don't change at home, we will never ever achieve women's equality in the workplace or anywhere else.”
Like me, Ruppanner is an American living and working in Australia. Her husband, who runs his own microbrewery in Melbourne, is in a field that’s similar to Adam’s. Our kids are also close in age. Perhaps it was because of our similarities—or maybe it was the glass of her husband’s porter that I was drinking during our interview—but I quickly dropped journalist-source conventions and confessed that the aftermath of the election had carried into my marriage. I have become more rabid about the division of labor in our house, and Adam has borne the brunt of my zealotry.
“Now I can’t nag like a proper wife without my husband accusing me of being a feminist,” I complained. “It’s not everyday nagging. It’s a political maneuver.”
Ruppanner chuckled. “He’s like, ‘I just wish Hillary would have won! If only Hillary had won!’”
“Our marriage would be in a better place,” I sighed.
Before we had kids, Adam and I had what felt like a gender-equal relationship. We had ample time, so we could do everything we wanted as individuals and a couple and still divide and conquer the chores. Our relationship had a fairy-tale quality: We were Adam and Eva, and our Garden of Eden was the great outdoors. We even fell in love in a kind of outdoor paradise, on a climbing trip in Red Rocks, just outside Las Vegas, where we eventually eloped. (Our meet-cute story is memorialized in a book I was editing early on in our relationship.) I was a feminist then, too, but our relationship felt equal and fair. It wasn’t until we had kids that our roles became gendered. We never talked about it; it just sort of happened, in a low boil kind of way. This affected me on a personal level until the Hillary moment and then it, or rather I, boiled over.
Gender roles in our house
One of the things that has been percolating for me since our kids were born is the lopsided nature of our roles at home. They don’t feel fairly divided, and that contradicts my egalitarian ideals. I wanted to find a way to talk to Adam about my concerns and recalibrate our responsibilities without making him feel like I was laying blame or calling him a selfish jerk.
When I originally planned our chore talk, I thought we would need an objective tally of who was doing what and, importantly, who was doing more. I was going to have us both fill out Amy Westervelt and Katherine Goldstein’s “Invisible Labor Calculator” to see whose unpaid labor value was higher. I quickly realized this would be a bad idea. There’s no way it would capture everything (What about the mental load? What about home maintenance?). Besides, there was a real risk we’d inflate our chore hours and end up in an argument. Keeping score, like issuing ultimatums, does not make for a happy marriage.
I also wanted to make sure I didn’t derail our conversation by storming out at the first whiff of disagreement. This time, I created a more formal sense of objectivity by stationing myself across the room from Adam. He’s the source; I’m the journalist, I told myself. My role is to ask questions and listen, not attack. I asked Adam what he thought about our division of labor, and what he worries about when it comes to parenting. And I asked what he thought about us as a team.
As Adam talked, a few things became clear: When it comes to household work, we both do a lot, and neither of us feel like things are fair. I’m managing every aspect of our American lives; he manages similar aspects of our Australian lives. I gripe about the fact that I do all the housework; he complains that my sphere of chores ends at the glass doors of our house. I’m the “lead parent,” organizing and managing the kids’ lives and school schedules, setting and enforcing their rules, and, just as my step-mom did, assigning them household chores and dividing them up equally between our daughter and son.
I believe our division of labor, particularly when it comes to parenting, is uneven: We’re acting out traditional gender roles, either because we’re modeling what we saw in own house growing up or because the systems we are operating in, like work, have led us down this path. I call this “gender inequality,” Adam doesn’t see it, and this has added an extra layer of tension between us. The good news is that we’re finding a way to deal with these things, regardless what we call them.
One of the things this conversation revealed is that as our lives have gotten bigger—with two businesses, two kids, two dogs, and two homes in two hemispheres—so have our responsibilities. Adam and I are both independent, resourceful people, so we have been handling a lot of these tasks without telling the other person what we’re up to.
We’re also prioritizing different things. Adam told me one of the reasons he focuses on the outdoors (now that we live on a vineyard, the man can spend hours mowing) is because it’s less likely to get messed up right away. I felt his defeat in my bones. “Having two parents, two kids, two dogs, it dilutes any sense of organization and order that either of us would have on our own,” he said, and I felt a sudden surge of love for him inspired by our shared sense of futility in tidying up.
Adam also explained his parenting style. He told me he is mainly concerned about two things: whether the kids are happy and whether they are growing up to be good and useful human beings. “Outside of that, I’m happy for parenting to be more freeform,” he said. I’ll admit that I obsess about parenting, and I grew up in a much stricter household, so I’m a more by-the-rules kind of parent. Maybe I need to take a page from the Australian “no worries” playbook.
The biggest thing this conversation revealed is that neither Adam nor I feel like we’re doing a great job as a parenting and household team. To get on the same page—and share the load equitably—we decided to come up with a shared list of priorities, divide them up, and try to do as many as possible together as a family. We’re also going to attempt to share the mental load by using that age-old therapist trick: communication.
What our jobs had to do with it
It’s hard to determine whether the way Adam and I were raised has influenced our approach to household roles and our attitudes about what’s going on today. I believe my upbringing by a very engaged dad and feminist step-mom influenced me and my expectations. And while Adam’s parents embodied traditional gender roles, he doesn’t believe he’s following in their footsteps.
However, it is possible to see how our roles were determined at least in part by the jobs we had when our kids were born—and mine was much more flexible: While I had four months of full pay for maternity leave, Adam was able to take just one month. When I returned from maternity leave, I negotiated to work from home two days a week so that I could keep on top of the endless errands and chores that come with parenting twins. Adam’s work schedule didn’t change. He was still expected to do international travel, and his job still required him to be available for after-work drinks and weekend dinners.
As much as I appreciated the flexibility of my job, the lack of flexibility in Adam’s job helped establish the traditional gender roles we still follow at home. The kids will walk right past Adam sitting on the couch and interrupt me in the bathroom when they need a snack/referee/Band-Aid. Even our dogs come to me first when they need something.
For a few months in 2016, our roles reversed. Adam became the primary caregiver and main house guy, and I became the breadwinner. It wasn’t planned. Two weeks after I quit my full-time job to work for myself, Adam left his job. We had been planning to stay in the U.S. for another year, but when this happened we decided to leave in six months. We also decided to move to Oregon to be closer to my family. During that six months, Adam managed the upheaval of our lives, organizing the sale of our house in Oakland and finding us a rental in Bend, spending hours on the phone to get our family healthcare and enroll the kids in a new school. He vacuumed, shopped, did the laundry, and managed the intricate details of our moves interstate and overseas.
Meanwhile, I worked like nothing else mattered. I felt like an elite athlete—or, more accurately, an old-fashioned husband with an old-fashioned wife. With a wife, my new business boomed. I was working full time, juggling more than a dozen clients, and flying internationally. My first year in business for myself, I doubled my previous annual salary.
This experience made me wonder if it’s possible for two individuals to overcome gender inequalities imposed on us by external systems like work.
We both work for ourselves. Does that mean we have gender equality?
In the next couple decades, the OECD predicts that one in seven people will be self-employed. This adds a new dimension to discussions about gender equality: Do those of us who are self-employed—those of us who are both employer and employee, and whose workplace is also our home—have greater control over gender inequality?
When we moved to Australia in 2016, Adam and I joined the ranks of the self-employed. Compared to mine, Adam’s business is big and complicated. He has 18 acres of vines, planted with six different varieties, and his winery processes 80 tons of grapes into 4,000 cases of wine every year. He also operates a cellar door that’s open four days a week, and he needs to bottle, package, promote, and sell his wine. I have a MacBook, a desk in the corner of our shared office, and a frustratingly spotty internet connection. His job is more physically demanding and more time, capital, and resource intensive. It’s not portable or flexible. Mine is. I can work (or not) during our annual trip to Oregon, and if I procrastinate, I can get up early or stay up late to get my assignment done. To a certain extent, I can also plan my work schedule around our lives. Adam can’t pack up his vineyard and fly it overseas, and his grapes and fermenters often dictate his schedule.
Working for ourselves, Adam and I are both much happier, and we’re both incredibly proud of each other. Adam planted his own vineyard and built his own winery, which has won top awards in Australia. He traded in smooth corporate hands for a working man’s hands that are calloused and cracked and often stained purple. I have built up a business that has allowed me to be the primary breadwinner, and I traded my long commute and other people’s assignments to write assignments of my choosing from my home office.
That said, Adam’s job is more demanding, and in this context, it often comes before mine. While I know this has more to do with the nature of our respective businesses than gender inequality, the end result is that I’m usually the one who must compromise my schedule to deal with what academics would call our “work-life interference.” Moreover, I’m concerned that the hours Adam works affects our ability to live the life we want.
Crafting the life we want
One of the essential ingredients in crafting the life you want is time, and time for parents is gendered.
Lyn Craig, a sociology and social policy professor at the University of Melbourne, has studied the time-cost for working parents: If you add up the total time involved for both parents to raise the kids, and if you also take into account how many hours each parent works, how much time does that cost parents? Craig has noticed that as more women have entered the workforce and as both parenting and work have become more intense, the time-cost is growing. “The effect that has had, particularly on women, is that they are feeling the constant time pressure,” Craig told me.
For Adam and me, the gendered nature of time didn’t happen until we had kids and time became finite. Now that we live in Australia and work for ourselves, time may be gendered, but at least we have enough of it. When we moved here, I made the conscious choice to work less than full time. I know how much of my life my mom missed when she left for medical school set up her practice outside Seattle, an eight-hour drive away. I wanted more time with my kids—more life with them.
Today, I happily finish work by 3 p.m. so I can pick up the kids from school. I love that I can take them to the library every week and play hooky from work and school to take them to the climate strike. I’m proud of what I do and I’m ambitious, but that doesn’t mean I want to work all the hours. I don’t even really mind doing chores. Living in the country, we don’t have the option of outsourcing our lives—hiring people to walk our dogs or deliver dinner ingredients to our doorstep. We also want to do these things—to live our everyday life, not outsource it so we can work more.
We don’t feel the time-cost of having children quite the way Craig describes it because I intentionally scaled back my work. Where we do feel the pinch is on family leisure time. When Adam and I were looking for land in Australia, we picked the Grampians not only because it’s good for growing grapes but because it’s good for our lives. We live on a vineyard surrounded by bush that’s filled with kangaroos and wallabies and echidnas. The soundtrack of our lives is the morning chortling of the magpies, the afternoon screeching of the cockatoos, and the evening laughter of the kookaburras. We’re half hour from a national park with some of Australia’s best rock climbing. Every day, I take our two dogs running on the dirt roads around our property. The kids have acres to explore outside, and they recently started to walk by themselves to the magic tree, an old red gum with a hollowed-out center that’s down the track from our home. If I could have one wish, it would be that Adam’s business demanded less of his time and our family got more of it.
So where does this leave us? What exactly is the shape of gender in our lives?
Taking stock: the shape of gender in our lives
At the start of this article, I asked a provocative question: Is gender inequality keeping me from the life I want? The answer is not “yes,” but a nuanced “no.” It’s more accurate to say that gender issues have shaped my life, and looking at how and why has given me more insights than I bargained for.
I initially thought this exercise would be about “proving” to Adam that there’s inequality in our relationship, and then we could go about the important business of fixing it. I also wanted him to see the bigger picture of gender inequality in the world and care about it like I do. But he’s not a feminist and becoming one wasn’t a vow he made when we got married. He also doesn’t see gender inequality in our relationship, and I’m starting to think that maybe he doesn’t need to for us to work out our issues. What’s more important is that we both feel like things are fair—that we both feel we have the time, support, and resources to create the life we want. As Adam said, “It’s not about what we do; it’s about how we feel about what we do.”
These conversations are helping us get to fair. They’re helping us understand and appreciate what we each bring to the relationship. The talks have also helped us deal with issues that we have let fester for too long. And this process has helped me see how I contributed to our gender dynamics. When I was on maternity leave, I thought it was my job to manage it all at home. Adam’s job was returning to work, and since I was at home all day, my job was the kids and the house. In effect, I assigned myself the role of primary caregiver, not recognizing that parenting newborn twins is actually a two-person job. I should have talked to Adam about how overwhelmed I felt. When I returned to work, I felt pride in my ability to multitask. Twin moms are the best employees, I thought, patting myself on my back. But as Leah Ruppanner’s research has revealed, the mom’s “superior ability” to multitask is just a harmful myth that perpetuates traditional gender roles, with women just doing more. Looking back, my most precious moments were when I was monotasking—spending time with the kids, Adam, or on my own.
I am hopeful that these conversations are also helping Adam see that the decisions he makes in his work affect our lives at home. Maybe he’ll turn down opportunities that might be good for his business if, in balance, they won’t be great for our home life.
The biggest thing this process has helped me see is that gender equality in relationships isn’t static. It shifts over time, and it’s something both people in the couple have some measure of control over. When I started this article, I wanted to use my story to explore whether there are things we as individuals and couples can do to address gender inequality in our lives—believing that if we address it in our own lives, we are also starting to address it in our broader society. For Adam and me, these things have been talking about the issues, understanding how our own experiences have shaped our views and gender roles, recognizing the ways we can be more supportive and understanding of each other, and recalibrating.
I’m not suggesting that all we have to do is lean into more gender-equal lives. Policy interventions, workplace measures, and community support are also necessary, especially when it comes to addressing the intersection of other forms of inequality that make gender inequality that much more severe for some people.
Is gender inequality affecting the life you want?
Recently, I asked a number of my parent friends whether they feel they have gender equality at home. Some replied right away saying they had thoughts to share, and then I never heard from them again because: time. Others replied with an enthusiastic yes and explained that it didn’t just happen; they have frequent conversations about it. Some offered a qualified yes: There’s equality, but our roles are gendered, with him chopping wood and her hanging the laundry on the line (yes, these are things we really do out in the country). Or there’s equality, but he works at home and she works in an office, so he’s the go-to parent for kid sick days and household management.
One husband and wife each sent me a long, thoughtful reply, copying each other into their emails. “I think our situation works because we do treat it like we’re in this together,” the husband, Gil, wrote. “We’ve been at it more than 15 years, and we still talk about what needs doing and balance things out as we go.” To which the wife, Eve, added: “It’s easy to get riled by these conversations, but it is important to talk about for a healthy relationship and as society and cultural norms change. Our generation is different from our parents, and our kids will be different from us.”
Eve’s equanimity reminded me of the narrator, Libby, in Taffy Brodesser-Akner’s novel, Fleishman is in Trouble. Toward the end of the book, Libby is contemplating women of her generation (and mine), Gen X: “We had been promised by a liberated society that had almost ratified the Equal Rights Amendment that we could do anything we wanted. We were told that we could be successful, that there was something particular and unique about us and that we could achieve anything—the last vestiges of girls being taught they were special mingled with the first ripples of second-wave feminism.” Libby then reflects on her husband, who is (like mine) named Adam. In the midst of counting his flaws, she stops herself: “Adam was the best-case scenario in an incredibly flawed system.” Perhaps we are all products of a flawed system, but that doesn’t mean we can’t try to change it.
For those of my friends who said they don’t feel they have gender equality in their relationship, this subject is fraught and the couples tend to avoid talking about it. I understand why. Not all couples see eye to eye on gender equality. Not all feminists are married to allies out there smashing the patriarchy alongside them. It’s also possible, like with Adam and me, that one person feels there’s inequality and the other doesn’t. This can make these conversations feel risky because labeling something “gender inequality” seems to imply intention: Someone, usually the guy, is imposing inequality, either because he doesn’t value women or because inequality is working for him.
But I view gender inequality in a more matter-of-fact way: It’s an outcome created by any variety of contributing factors, some of which are systems imposed on us, like work and culture, and some of which we have control over. My brand of feminism is to say that if you notice gender inequality, and if it’s not working for someone in the relationship, both people have a responsibility to do something about it. This can be difficult because it means you have to own some of it yourself. But having started this discussion with Adam, I can say it’s bringing us closer. Here we are, working on our issues as a team.
Recently, our conversations have begun to move beyond a narrow focus on the gendered nature of our lives. We are getting back into a rhythm we used to have, talking about what we want in life and how we’re going to get it. It reminds me of the time, early in our relationship, when it felt like we had gender equality. I remember when Adam first told me he wanted to plant his own vineyard and make his own wine, and I told him my dream of going freelance. We were living in California, that golden state of golden dreams. I was working as a book editor, earning very little, and sharing a house in Berkeley with a lovable but messy roommate. Adam was working as a winemaker in Sonoma and living alone in a tidy apartment in Santa Rosa. We were playing darts at the Albatross Pub, just down the road from my house. I was drinking a porter and Adam was drinking an ale, and as we talked about our future, neither of us was thinking about gender equality.