Not long ago, I was gearing up for a Talk with my boyfriend, The R.P.. It was going to be a big one, so I decided I had better get to work preparing my side of the argument to ensure all my concerns were going to be voiced in a way that would be constructive. 

My general rule of thumb is that if I’m going to bring up an issue, I also have to bring to the table something to remedy the issue with.

I find that structuring my case this way makes me really think about the problems at hand, helping advance my efforts to get to the root of them. (I must be a riot to be shacked up with, right??) 

But I digress. Back to, “The Talk”.

This specific talk would be about gender roles in our household (a crowd favourite amongst men everywhere). Issues surrounding gender roles are notoriously tricky for a few reasons: first, because we begin to put our understanding of these roles together from the earliest days of our existences – as a result, we all have slightly different ideas of what a man and a woman should contribute to their joint lives together.

Secondly, gender role issues don’t tend to rear their heads as a point of contention in a relationship until a couple brings a child into the picture. Having a child is the fastest way to find out what you and your partner think should fall under the responsibility of a man or a woman.

In our situation, my boyfriend has more traditional gender roles ingrained in him. In his mind, the man should be the alpha – strong, protective, a good provider, (and he should also be the “fun” one on days off!). He should take care of everything that occurs outside of the home, leaving the minutia of what occurs inside the family unit to the woman.

While I understand the reasons why he has developed this understanding of gender roles in the nuclear family, I also have a great deal of hope that this binary view of male and female roles is not static because he chooses to be with me.

I’m someone who actively makes it her business to challenge the preconceived notions of what is acceptable for a woman to say and do. If he can coexist with me, then he can do pretty much anything he sets his mind to! And speaking of the limitations of the human brain, I decided that the cornerstone of the talk would be the concept of “learned incompetence”.

By definition, Learned Incompetence refers to the idea that people learn to be helpless because other people teach them they are/allow them to be.

This theory is what we can use to explain how a man can effectively operate a car, a lawn mower and a barbecue, yet cite his inability to operate a washing machine, prompting a woman to step in, pick up the slack, kick him out of the laundry room and thereby perpetuate the cycle of the self-imposed incompetence.

My argument was basically formed: You have learned incompetence and now you must learn competence. I will no longer be an accessory to this crime against feminism.

I was content with that for about 35 seconds until it occurred to me that if he had become accustomed to living life accepting that there were some nonsensical things he just couldn’t possibly do, what makes me so special that I’ve avoided falling into the same trap? What incompetence have I adopted based on my internalization of binary gender roles? 

Now I was onto something.

And with that, I realized that if I really did want this Talk to end successfully, I’d have to identify some things that I’d have to change about myself and some new skills that I’d have to learn so that I wasn’t throwing rocks from a big glass house. And guess what? It turns out that I’m guilty as shit.

I’ve avoided anything to do with family finances since the beginning of time. I had subconsciously decided a long time ago that that didn’t fall into my wheelhouse of responsibilities and because of that, I have left it all in the man’s hands. Me, THE FEMINIST, had decided that finances weren’t a woman’s place and so I just fucked right off.

Clearly I had underestimated how easy it is to internalize gender roles over time. I also realized that I’d never brought the garbage bins to the curb or changed the oil in the car. I’m about a million times more comfortable being driven than I am driving and I’ve never operated a grill by myself.

My eyes had been opened and I realized that if I wanted to make a change and break down the walls surrounding gender that had been built up within our household, I’d first have to make the change myself and the first step in doing that, would have to be admitting my problem.

I’m doing my best now to step out of my comfort zone whenever I can. I’m making an effort to learn the systems that the R.P. has put into place to keep our household running from the outside in.

What I’ve already figured out is that what he does for us does require time and effort and a certain amount of emotional stress. Expanding my empathy for his experience as a dad has been one of the nicer things I have ever done for my own sanity.

Do I still think that household responsibilities need to be shared between us in a more even way? Yes I do; we are a work in progress. But at least now I understand not only the roots of his gender role expectations, but I also get the stress that comes with the role he has defined for himself.

The goal now is not to show him all the ways in which he has taught himself to be a lost puppy dog around the house (although in a self-congratulatory way, that would be incredibly satisfying); instead, the goal is to find ways to help one another minimize the load we each have to carry upon our already tired shoulders.

I want to fight he patriarchy as much as we ALL do, but at this point in my life, the best way I can do that is by determining the ways in which I myself am perpetuating the cycle. Maya Angelou once said, “Do the best you can until you know better; and when you know better, do better.”

Well now I know better – time to do better.

xx N.

P.S. Have you read our Tips for Raising a Feminist yet?


Featured Image via: Who’s The Boss


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