Why Some Men Feel Like Domestic Servants To Their Wives

Lynn Beisner shares Joey’s trials at home, a resentful husband who says he’s tired of working for “the man” all day then coming home to work for “the wife.”

Joey is one of several conservative men that I have been interviewing about how they interpret their role as father. “The real problem is The List!” he says as he stabs a french-fry at me with a staccato rhythm.

Joey believes that all women have a list inside of their heads of the daily duties and supplies that it takes to raise children, care for a family, and run a household. We know when well-child doctor appointments are due, what goes in a school backpack, and the steps for getting a cranky toddler into bed. Women also know how to cook the really good food, how to clean a bathroom properly, how organize and decorate a house, and how to fold towels so they fit correctly in the linen closet. The problem, according to Joey and other men I have interviewed, is that men are born without The List and are constitutionally incapable of learning it.

In fact, Joey explains to me, women’s brains are actually shaped differently precisely so that they can handle The List. Men’s brains are built for “big-picture things” like engineering, not details like planning family dinners.

As he tells me this, I get an image of a doctor soberly telling a woman that as the result of a head injury she has lost The List. She will be able to do everything else well, but she will never again be able to plan menus, track her children’s homework, remember who needs school supplies, and when the family dog is due for its vaccinations.

Joey is right on one level: Most women do have internalized lists of everything that needs to be done to raise children and run a household. Where Joey goes humorously wrong is in his idea that the information is hardwired into the shape of our brains. Knowledge of how to parent children and manage a household has been poured into us from the time we were girls. We had incentives to not only take the lessons we were offered, but also absorb as much knowledge as we could from magazines and friends. Most of us as women have been raised to believe that the cleanliness and beauty of our house and our children’s appearance, well-being, and success are direct reflections on our character.

Despite his faith in The List, Joey tells me that he suspects that many of the items on his wife’s lists are strictly not necessary. Rather, they are things that get her “bonus points” as a mother. And here is where Joey’s dilemma gets particularly thorny. Since he has claimed ignorance and ineptness as a parent and house manager, he cannot negotiate what is on The List for either housework or for parenting. The standards for all aspects of the family’s domestic life are set by her. Allowing her to set the standards is only fair if her worth and character will be judged by how those things appear and function.

The real dilemma for Joey and men like him is that while he believes that women are divinely blessed with The List, as a husband in our changing world, he also believes it is his job to act as a “servant leader” and to “humble” himself by helping out around the house. I hear men using this language a lot: they help their wives, they help out around the house, they pitch in with the kids. What I do not hear is the language of partnership. What I never hear is that they have their own list for parenting or managing a house.

Joey believes in his own incompetence as much as he believes that his wife and other women have The List. He can’t get it right since he doesn’t really understand what the criteria for success are.  

Joey tells me of an incident which illustrates his point. He has read that men who help out around the house get more sex, and he is eager to seduce his wife this way. She tells him that the best way he can help out is by putting the kids to bed. Twenty minutes after he has completed his task, and just as he is lighting candles and putting on Barry White, she is dragging the children out of bed and yelling at him because he did not do it right. He had just put them in their beds. He had not gone through the night-time routine of teeth-brushing, bedtime stories, or even putting them in appropriate night-wear.

Joey’s belief in The List and his own incompetence means that he cannot self-direct when he helps out around the house. He must accept step-by-step directions from his wife. He talks about how this keeps him humble, and he tries to reframe it as a spiritual exercise. But if the French-fry jabs are any indication, this kind of micromanaging makes him feel emasculated and angry.

Joey jokes about leaving his wife. He says that his life is nothing more than working for “the man” followed by working “for the wife.” He and other conservative fathers speak of their parenting role as if they are unpaid, unskilled, and resentful domestic servants.

The problem of fathers accepting the role of domestic help rather than embracing a role as a full partner in parenting is a social problem, and I don’t know how to resolve it on that level. But I think that in our individual families we can eliminate the roles of The List Holder and The Help. The keys to success are changes in how each parent envisions himself or herself. Those of us who see ourselves as incompetent need to understand that The List is something we can learn. Those of us who have seen ourselves as the primary or key parent have to give up on seeing our children or our homes as reflections of ourselves. Above all, we need to acknowledge that our way is not always the best way.

In my experience, the first practical step in rebooting our roles as parents is that we have to create alignment in some key areas: routines, food, and clothing. We start by making our internalized list as visible to our partners as possible. This involves both educating our partner in what we have read or been taught about parenting and what we bring from our life-experience or our cultural heritage. Then we have to negotiate what is really important, what both parents will work toward. I love the word that Neill Gibson uses for this: alignment. He writes that if “we start sharing the same vision; it makes it much easier to cooperate with the others involved to get our desired outcomes.” Creating aligned parenting lists, not unconscious or unilateral lists, is the way to truly share in parenting’s responsibilities, joys, drudgery, and rewards.

Lynn Beisner is the pseudonym for a mother, a writer, a feminist, and an academic living somewhere East of the Mississippi. You can find her on Facebook and Twitter.

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