Man Cleaning

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Laundry room debris field

I’ve done my share of cleaning house over 30+ years of marriage.  I stayed home with the kids when they were little and waged the losing battle of keeping their chaos at bay.  I once told a college class that managing a house occupied by two toddlers was like composing a term paper with a drunk roommate deleting key passages whenever the writer looked away for a split second.  All accomplishments are doomed to erasure.

Doing chores while surrounded by little barbarians gave me a fatalistic approach to house cleaning.  I got in the habit of taking care of the worst of the worst, nibbling at the bits I somewhat cared about, and letting major areas collect dust and debris.

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Dresser top of lost hope

Recently our circumstances have forced me to take on more of the chores than I ever did before.  The kids are grown and gone, so there should be less to do.  But now I’m starting to see things through my wife’s eyes and realize that the cobwebs growing from the ceiling in the back room really shouldn’t be allowed to hang down to eye level.  The strange odor in the laundry room behind the Christmas tree boxes no longer lingers, but its fossilized source really ought to be removed (dead lizard or corn snake?).  Ancient stains on the side of the fridge could be scrubbed off, as well as stratified layers of greasy fuzz on the kitchen ceiling fan.

I eventually come to the conclusion that I could start at one end of the house and scrub inch by inch.  Repainting and patching could follow.  New curtains could replace the moth eaten ones over the front window, and the coat closet could be excavated for usable tennis rackets, tennis balls, and vacuum cleaner attachments from amongst the debris at the bottom.  The job seems endless.

And now I begin to understand a major difference between the sexes.  Women tend to see housework as a manageable project that produces a cozy nest if the right effort is applied, if their housemate abstains from random acts of stinky sock/wet towel dropping.  Men see the interior of a house and shut down.

Housework induced catatonia in males is not always caused by laziness, but more often by willful blindness in the face of overwhelming odds.  The blindness has no evil intent, but is more a matter of self-preservation.  A man who has taken the time to do a thorough survey of his domestic environment is like an astronaut spacewalking and contemplating the stars.  He feels so small compared to a vast number of tasks spread over a mini-universe of domestic space.

When confronted by the infinite, it’s best for a man to pretend that the majority of it does not exist.  He pops a beer, sits in a recliner and waves to his friends, the spiders hanging all around him.  He might knock down their webs down in a day or two, but at that moment he just wants a little company.

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Entropic night stand

Gender Roles

I met many women in my grandmother’s generation who never remarried after losing their husbands.  When asked whether they’d ever consider a second husband they would dismiss the possibility out of hand by saying, “Why would I want to pick up after another man?  Once was enough.”  They viewed their role in a traditional marriage as one of servitude.  Some considered men as nothing more than a necessary evil.

Unattached women in my mother’s generation had a different complaint.  The men whom  they dated didn’t take them all that seriously, still thought of them as sexual playthings who occasionally had something worthwhile to say.  And while married men did do some chores around the house, they still expected their mates to do the majority of the cooking and cleaning.

I’ve never gotten a clear view about what the women in my generation expect from men because my life has gone against the grain.  My wife earned a PhD in biology, and I an M.F.A. in painting.  I always worked part and full time jobs to contribute to the household income, but we both knew from the start that she had a much better chance of earning enough to support a family.  I stayed home with our two children when they were little and worked part time as an art instructor.  I did the majority of the weekly cooking and cleaning as well as some of the yard work.  I changed and washed diapers endlessly, gave bottles, played games with the kids and read them books.

My wife and I fought from time to time about the division of labor when the kids were young.  She didn’t always realize how difficult it was to get anything done with a baby in hand and a toddler tugging at my pants leg.  And I didn’t fully understand how exhausted she was when she came home from work.  But for the most part we appreciated what each contributed to keeping our family’s ship afloat.  And we took on roles that suited our talents and didn’t worry about traditional preconceptions about what men and women ought to do.

Sometimes we encountered odd reactions from strangers when they discovered our arrangement.  Men often seemed aghast and somewhat afraid that my condition was catching.  A few women expressed their doubt that men were competent to take care of children.  On a couple occasions when I was dealing with a kid’s public tantrum an old lady sidled up to me with a mean glint in her eyes and asked, “How’s the babysitting going?”  I had an answer ready: I told them that I was my children’s father and therefore wasn’t a babysitter.  That response always shut them up and made them go away.

My daughter’s expectations about gender roles may have been confused by the way my wife and I mixed and shared our duties.  She was given odd looks in grade school once when she explained that “Daddies stay home and mommies go to work.”  When she became a young adult I asked her what she was looking for in a man.  She said that she’d liked to find a guy who would cook and clean while she went to work.  She has since realized that such men are rare and has revised her expectations.

I still get occasional flak from women in my generation who assume that I’m just another one of those bastards who exploit their wives.  It takes time for them to adjust their opinion of me after they find out what I’ve done to raise children, to offer care giving and to support my wife’s career.  They can’t quite fit me into their preconceptions about men, and sometimes revert to their original hostility.  I’m guilty until proven innocent many, many times.

I understand that women have built up millenniums worth of resentment toward male oppression, that men have earned their scorn and still add to the shameful record of abuse.  But I’m not willing to apologize for my existence as a man.  I can’t undo the damage that some men have done, and I’m not volunteering to be made a scapegoat.  I think that in the rush to respond to male misbehavior some women forget that neither gender, as a whole, is a consistent example of shiny virtue.

I often hear women complain that men are morons who just let their dicks lead them around, that they’re babies who want their wives to be their mothers, that they’re emotionally stunted and uncommunicative.  Men complain that women are changeable, irrational and overly emotional.  And they report that their wives and girlfriends expect them to be mind readers and get angry with them when they don’t meet unstated expectations.  When women are called out on this trait they often reply, “But you would have known that (done that) if you really loved me.”

My take on this is that anatomy and hormones drive both sexes’ behavior to a certain extent.  Acculturation is another obvious factor.  Members of both genders have to make an effort to overcome hard wired behavior patterns when they lead to affliction.

In the end it’s difficult for every person to make his or her way through life regardless of gender.  Everybody has to pay many tolls as they journey from birth to death.  Maybe that shared struggle, that common denominator, could be the starting point for a rapprochement between men and women.  We are all, by definition, human.

 

House Husbands Anonymous

Alan lay in his crib napping, and Annie played with her dolls in her nest of toys, stuffed animals and books beside the sofa.  I sat down for a minute to relax before starting supper.

“Hello.  My name is Dennis.”

“Hello, Dennis.”

“I’m a househusband.  It’s been two weeks since an old lady walked up to me while I tended my children.  Alan was in the stroller and Annie held my hand.  We stood outside on the sidewalk in front of the administration building and…and…”

“Take a deep breath and relax, Dennis.  Tell us what happened.”

“Okay, okay.  This old lady came up to me with this nasty grin on her face.  Alan was crying–he was hot and tired–and Annie was tugging on my hand, whining.  My wife, Judy, had a meeting with the dean of faculty.  She told me that it would only take a few minutes, and Annie kept asking me where Mom was when we had been standing there fifteen minutes.”

“And the old lady said something to you, Dennis?”

“Yes. Yes.  She asked me if I was babysitting my kids that day.”

“No!  She said that?!  What did you say?”

“I told her that I was their father, not their babysitter.”

“Did she give you that blank look?”

“Yeah–the one where they can’t figure out how a father could be a caregiver.  But the worst thing was her attitude of contempt.  She looked at me as if she enjoyed the trouble I was having with my children.  She relished seeing a man in a difficult situation with kids.  It was as if she were taking vengeance for all the women who had ever suffered as mothers.”

“You’re a bright guy, Dennis.  Did you really expect some kind of praise from her?”

“No.  I’ve had other experiences like this before and I could tell by her attitude as she approached us that she had nothing good to say.  But it made me so mad, so mad that–“

“Walk it off, walk it off, Dennis…Okay.  Why were you so mad?”

“When am I going to get some credit?  My wife is the only woman who appreciates what I’m doing.  She gets to have a career while I change diapers, wipe noses, mop floors and read ‘The Cat in the Hat’ for the umpteenth time.  All these women, strangers who know nothing about me, stare at me in the park and at the grocery store as if I’m some kind of freak!”

“You’re not a freak.  What about the men, Dennis?  How do they react?”

“They act like I have a disease they’d rather not catch.  Their wives nudge them and whisper, ‘He helps out with the kids–why can’t you?’  That’s when they start to hate me.”

“The men?”

“Yeah, the men.  I try to talk to them about sports and fishing, but they just turn away.”

“Do you want their approval?”

“No.  I just want to talk to an adult.  Judy’s too tired when she gets home from work, and the kids cling to her as soon as she walks in the door.  I guess I just feel lonely.”

“Are there other parents at home during the day in your neighborhood?  Could you arrange a play date and sit and have a cup of coffee with them?”

“There’s a mother down the block from us.  She’s friendly when I see her in her yard but would never have me and the kids over.”

“Why not?”

“The neighbors:  she’s afraid that people will talk.”

“Even if you visit with your kids in tow?”

“Even if…If I didn’t have you guys to talk to I would be totally screwed.”

“We’re here for you, buddy.  We’ve all been there.”

Annie tugged my sleeve and said, “Daddy?  Are you asleep?”

I shook my head to wake up as she climbed up into my lap.  She held up her Barbie and handed me a pair of tiny black tights.  Barbie wanted to change her outfit.  I struggled to open a tiny snap on the doll’s cargo shorts (Safari Barbie!), and couldn’t seem to get the tights up over her plastic hips.  Had Barbie been indulging in late night snacks?  Just as I thought that the seams would rip the cloth slid the final quarter inch–mission accomplished.

Annie wiggled down and scooted off to the kids’ bedroom.  She came running back and said, “Alan’s awake.”  She held her nose and said, ” I think he needs a diaper change!”

He did.  The load had a sticky, grainy texture, and I knew that no amount of baby wipes would completely clean it off.  I did the best I could with five wipes, and then hauled him off to the bathroom.  Fast running water and lots of soap did the trick.

I diapered him back in his crib.  He toddled after me to the carpeted playroom and began to stack and knock down towers of plastic blocks.  I got down on the rug beside him and handed back blocks that he had batted out of his reach.  Annie came into the room carrying a book about a lazy puppy.  I read it to her and Alan crawled into my lap and tried to turn the pages.

I had to get up and start supper and left them in the playroom.  I came back every five minutes or so to check on them and listened while chopping vegetables for the sounds of distress.

They were playing quietly together when I came back after getting supper prepped.  Alan was trying to pry a little teddy bear out of Annie’s hands, but Annie pulled away and set the bear on the futon by the window.

She asked, “Do you want the bear, Alan?”

He laughed and shuffled toward it, but Annie darted in at the last second and grabbed it up again.  “No, Alan,” she said.

Alan frowned at his sister.  That was a bad sign.  But Annie suddenly relented and said, “Here, Alan.  You can have it.”  She handed it over and Alan giggled with delight.  He stuck the head of the bear in his mouth, and drool ran down his chin and landed on his shirt stretched tight over his round belly.

The phone rang and Judy told me that she was coming home an hour late.  I sighed dramatically in hopes of making her feel guilty. 

The kids looked restless when I came back into the playroom once again.  I curled my fingers into claws and wiggled my digits at them.  I said, “My name is Chloe.  You wanna wrassle?”  Annie ran over and pulled on my belt.  I let her take me down to my knees.  Alan ran into me with a full head of steam and hit me in the back.  I fell on my side and Annie jumped on my ribs.  I pushed her off and rolled on my back just in time for Alan to fall on my stomach.  I said, “Ooof!”

We wrestled long enough for them to wear out.  I turned on Reading Rainbow and retreated to the kitchen to finish supper.  Judy came home and the kids swarmed her, and I sneaked away to the bedroom to be alone for a few minutes.

I must have drifted off as I lay on top of the bedspread.  I dreamed that I was back at the Househusbands Anonymous meeting.  We recited our creed:

  1. I cannot make my children stop crying when a toy breaks.
  2. I cannot make other people respect my choice to stay home with my children.
  3. I cannot always control my children’s poop.
  4. I cannot earn enough money to feel financial power.
  5. But I can love my children.
  6. I can love my wife.
  7. I can give my children all the patience and kindness at my command.
  8. When I lose my temper and am harsh and unjust I can apologize and make amends.
  9. The greatest gift I can give to my children is my time and attention.