If a man thinks he is “helping out”, this means he thinks he has no responsibility and that the responsibility falls on the woman. Let's change that!

I recently stopped reading a perfectly normal article when I came across this sentence: “fertility rates increased when men helped out more at home.” The article was otherwise quite interesting; it tackled the falling birth rates in China and the US, and what initiatives are helping. But I just couldn’t get past the fact that we still talk about “helping out at home” when it comes to men and fathers.

Then I came across this journalistic comic about a couple “at odds” during the pandemic and the “easy fix” they found. Keni Dobbs and her husband Max have a five-year-old son, Kaiden. During the pandemic, Max, a vice-president of sales, works from home, while Kaiden does home-schooling. Max has a good job, while Keni would love to dedicate herself more to her business ideas and passions, but she is stuck taking care of many things at home.

Their “fix” to this problem is divvying up the housework more so that Max “helps out” a bit more. “Max is making an effort to show me he wants to make life easier by taking concrete actions, such as taking the time to make breakfast for the family once in a while,” says Keni. And Max’s side of the story is this: “While Keni still pushes me to do a little more, she appreciates my efforts. She knows that I try to help.”

Oh no! The “help” word again! In the comic, the wife reacts by saying: “Thanks for cleaning that, honey!” What’s most tragic about this comic is that in many ways the actions taken by the Dobbs may seem like a step in the right direction. At least we’re talking about sharing the workload at home, right?. But no, I don’t think it’s a step in the right direction! The point is not helping. The point is to turn the ”help“ mentality onto its head, and to start again, resetting expectations and gendered roles. I talk about gendered roles because it seems that we still expect women to be doing the cleaning, cooking and childcare (and a bunch of other less visible things) simply because they are women – and women are better at taking care of people and things. But that is simply not true, as research with LGBTQ couples has shown: they fall into less traditional roles and they share work at home more equally.

There is a brilliant campaign in Argentina called “Los Ayudadores” (The Helpers). It was created by the Argentine chapter of the Spotlight Initiative, a European Union and United Nations partnership to eliminate violence against women. Los Ayudadores starts off with some tango music and shows overwhelmed women trying to deal with groceries, laundry, children and work. That’s when the unlikely hero walks in: the helper. “If you don’t tell me, I won’t know. I am not a fortune-teller,“ says one guy. ”Darling, easy, I can help you,“ says another. ”The helpers: a group of men with different skills that don’t take any kind of decision or act proactively in housework or care work,“ says the campaign. The ad ends with the hashtag #YoMeOcupo (#ITakeCareOfIt) – suggesting that taking on responsibility and taking into account the mental and physical load that women usually carry in the home is one way towards equality.

Get rid of the helpers, I say. If a man thinks he is “helping out”, this means he thinks he has no responsibility, that the responsibility falls on the woman, as Spanish psychologist Alberto Soler explains very clearly in this interview.

So, ask yourself if you are a helper, or if you enable one. This is not about putting men on trial (though, come on! Do you really need to ask: What can I do?!) – it’s about questioning our beliefs, together. A mural I saw (on social networks) puts this best: “The man who cooks, washes dishes and cleans his house is a functional adult, not a special being.”

Talking of mental load, this article by BBC journalist Melissa Hogenboom, who is a member of this community, offers a great overview of the hidden emotional and cognitive work that women do much more of in heterosexual couples. The article refers to the work by Allison Daminger, a doctoral candidate in sociology and social policy at Harvard University, who identified four stages of mental work related to household work and said that it wasn’t a normalised form of work.

What can we do about it? Fatherly magazine offers a practical checklist: figuring out what you do and starting the conversation with your partner are the first steps. This includes us women: if we spell out all we do, including the hidden mental work (think of having the right shirt ready for the school play, and remembering when the next doctor appointment needs to be booked), then we can also show ourselves and our partners how much we really do. I am trying this exercise myself, and I am finding it challenging, so I’d love to hear your thoughts about the balance in your homes. Feel free to leave comments and questions below this story on the website.

What I’ve been reading

I loved these reflections that Valeria Luiselli wrote for the Guardian about the power of fiction. The Mexican author explains that she has been reading novels out loud with her daughter and her niece during lockdown. “We read to each other the way one seeks company around a fireplace – to be alone, together,” she writes. “Without books – without sharing in the company of other writers’s human experiences – we would not have made it through these months.” Luiselli’s novel Lost Children Archive, which won the Dublin literary award last month, has been on my list for a while, and these words of hers just bumped it up the queue. Thanks to Dan, a member of this community, for sharing the article!

What I’ve been listening to

I listened to a podcast with Nikesh Shukla, a British author born to immigrant parents, co-editor of The Good Immigrant anthology of British authors of colour. Shukla talks about his creative process and how becoming a father of two girls made him understand the feminist struggle. But what caught my attention in this podcast was something that Shukla mentions only briefly. He says that his parents wanted to appear as infallible – and he doesn’t want to do the same with his children. I absolutely recognised what he was talking about. But how can anyone be infallible or appear as such? It made me think of clashes between generations and cultural mandates, such as respecting the elderly. Interesting listen.

What I’ve been watching

Who are “manly men” and what do they look like? Surely they don’t wear dresses, right?! Well, I loved this rant by Karolina Żebrowska, a Polish writer, film-maker and YouTuber that focuses on the history of fashion. Sometimes there is nothing better than a historical perspective to question our stereotypes and cultural mandates. A superb recommendation by Catarina, a member of this community.

Who’s been inspiring me

I must say that Maria Popova’s Brain Pickings rarely fail me. The US-based Bulgarian writer and art critic has kept her blog for 15 years and has become a staple of my weekly life. If I am ever in search of something profound and poetic, Brain Pickings provides that for me. An example is this post on The Book of Memory Gaps by Brooklyn-based Mexican illustrator Cecilia Ruiz: 14 vignettes of people struggling with their memory, including Natascha, who always has words on the tip of her tongue and spends her days searching for them.

What members have been saying

Following last week’s piece about the harassment of pregnant people in the workplace in Japan, a few members raised interesting questions. Bonnie asked how much post-war industrialisation eroded traditional values of family and Yoshie explained that women slowly became part of the workforce, but gendered expectations did not change. “Women are expected to take care of family tasks while working outside the home. In fact, women spend 7.34 hours a day in housekeeping and childcare, while men spend 1.23 hours. What a discrepancy! Women are expected to manage dual burdens. Employers lack imagination, so when women fail to do that, they start harassing women,” she wrote. There was also an interesting question by Joram: “What is so bad about a man, not only imagining what it is like to be pregnant, but also what some of the physical aspects of pregnancy feel like? Isn’t it a very empathic activity?” You can check out my response to Joram here, but I’d love to hear what you think too! Just remember to log in first.

With love and care,
Irene

📣 Imogen Champagne, a member of this community, edited and improved this newsletter with lots of love, logging in from Bega, Australia. Thanks, Imogen! (If there are mistakes, they are my fault, not hers!)

📷 Photo credits and alt-text: Daniel Cheung on Unsplash, black and white Star Wars toys.

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4 thoughts on “Fathers are not “helpers”

  1. My spouse and I had this gender-role expectations conversation this way: we had travelled out of town for our civil wedding ceremony (Las Vegas…very fun…I highly recommend it.) Upon our return, I took my clothes out of my suitcase, laundered them, and put them away. My new husband was confused as to why I had not cleaned all the clothes. I adopted a puzzled look on my face and asked what had changed between last Monday, when we had each been responsible for our own laundry, and this week, when I was promoted to “vice president in charge of everyone’s laundry” despite not having applied for this position. I was not sure, I said, of which of my many qualifications had allowed me to win this job, and I didn’t recall how I had aced the interview and edged him out of the opportunity and career growth potential in washing his underwear. He pointed out that it is not necessarily the case that he is most qualified to mow the lawn, capture spiders, lift the sofa and other heavy things, either. I was relieved to see he understood my point, and since then we frame conversations about “who does what” in a semi-joking way: We assemble an imaginary resume detailing how the other person has the best qualifications and resources to take on whatever work needs to be done.
    Eventually we appointed each other to the emergency task force for diaper-changing when that job was advertised… we were each overjoyed to be unemployed from that after a couple of years!

    1. Hahah What a great story and perspective, Bonnie! It reminded me of a book someone recommended to me: Fair Play by Eve Rodsky.

    2. Ah, Bonnie, this is such a great way to think about it, in terms of CVs! As long as we make space for up-and-coming talent too. Let me explain what I mean: I hate driving, I was raised by a non-driving mum and I am somewhat stuck. But I want to drive. Nacho has much more experience and I usually just let him do the driving, but I think it is important that I get an opening too for that task, even if I am learning… Thanks for sharing!

      And Marina: making a note of the book, thanks!

  2. Thanks for writing about this subject, Irene! There’s so much in this topic beyond the household work and gendered expectations… My recent biggest challenge has been to notice my own expectations regarding my role in my family and in society.

    As I earn less than my partner (since ever!) and used to spend more time at home (before pandemic), I believed that everything home related was my responsibility. There was a sense of satisfaction & control over something, which I lacked outside the house.

    As my partner started working from home, he begun to get annoyed by messy or uncleaned spots that before he wouldn’t notice. And it was curious to notice my own reaction when he decided to take charge & clean/organise the house: I’d say “Don’t worry, I’ll do it!” with a feeling of defensiveness and guilt for not having done X, Y, Z before.

    Even though I want shared responsibilities, I still wanted to have control over the house & how things are done. Only when I noticed my own feelings and behaviour towards my many invisible unpaid jobs, I allowed my partner to clean/organise the house as he pleased. On a practical level: I now set a timer of 30 minutes for cleaning/organisation each day. That’s my minimum and maximum to keep things under control. What’s left undone, my partner takes over.

    Well, that’s only 1 part of the many layers of household work… which makes me sometimes wish to live in a communal house, where the responsibilities are shared between more people. 😉

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