As part of marriage counselling before we got engaged, my husband and I each had to complete a questionnaire. It included a list of household chores where we ticked off who we expected would do what. We filled in everything equally. I felt satisfaction at the thought of marrying an enlightened man who had no illusions about a housewife who’d always have supper waiting.
“He’s cooking dinner tonight,” I’d tell my friends after we were married, flexing his domesticity. But although there was no expectation for who would do what, I noticed dust bunnies and dirty sinks sooner than he did. I had no special folding gene; I took no secret delight in a neat stack of shirts. Why was I the one to see the laundry and decide it had better be folded before I curled up with a book?
We eventually realized the problem wasn’t to do with laziness on his part or particular saintliness on my part. He’d get focused on a project and not see the dishes until they were in the way. Meanwhile, I’d try to write but get distracted because the floor needed vacuuming.
We’ve since developed different habits for completing chores. What has been harder for me to accept is that it doesn’t matter whether our contributions fall into stereotypically gendered categories. That’s a superficial way of measuring the genuine equality of a marriage.
The asymmetry between women and men is uncomfortable and has complex implications. The tension between equality and difference has been much debated in feminist thinking and is an inevitable issue in marriage. It’s natural to equate sameness with fairness and equality, but we must always ask: same as what? Sameness can either diminish individual uniqueness or encourage one sex to mimic the other.
While overemphasizing differences is unhelpful, it’s important to acknowledge them and shape our definition of equality in such a way as fits the needs of both women and men. Scientists have disproved simplistic ideas about “female brains” and “male brains,” yet it is still true that men are more likely to compartmentalize different areas of life whereas, for women, everything is usually interconnected.1 A good illustration of this is a 2014 study measuring how cognition changes over time. The study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, found that while improved living conditions led to higher performance in both sexes, they benefitted women more significantly.2
Let me offer another example, not as a blanket statement for what women or men want, but as an illustration that they may want some things differently. A 2015 Gallup poll found that far more mothers with children under eighteen would prefer to be at home (56 percent) when compared to fathers (25 percent).3 There are many reasons why more women want to stay home while their kids are young—motherly desire to be with their children, yes—but also workplace discrimination, inadequate childcare options, or the mental load of trying to run a household and work at the same time.
Yet these numbers should still give us pause. It’s okay if our desires align with a stereotyped tradition, just as it’s okay if they do not. For some, dividing financial and caregiving responsibilities in half might work well, but it shouldn’t be the ideal standard. That kind of split won’t reflect the reality or desires of some (likely most) couples.
Equality between women and men as sameness is a narrow binary that doesn’t get at the heart of the problems it seeks to overcome. Instead, both partners need equal decision-making power so resolutions about who does what are made together, in the best interest of both people. That’s the secret sauce, regardless of how a marriage appears on the outside.
We cannot fully celebrate who God created us to be if we smooth over our complexities and demean differences. It’s in the process of listening and discovering each other’s needs and desires that we inch toward better, truer love. In the ebb and flow of life, there was a year when I was the primary earner so my husband could focus on making a career change from teaching to the film industry. Now, he earns more while I pursue a few writing projects that cannot be relied upon to put food on the table.
The reciprocal nature of love requires valuing the other’s contributions, even when they are different from our own. This lifelong view of giving and receiving is richer than trying to divide everything evenly. Differences aren’t threats; they are puzzle pieces. We may try to stick them in the wrong places at first, but if we keep at it, they’ll fit together with a satisfying click.
- Stephanie Pappas, “Your Brain Is a Mosaic of Male and Female,” LiveScience, 1 December 2015.
- Daniela Weber et al, “The changing face of cognitive gender differences in Europe,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 111, no. 32 (2014): 11673–8.
- Lydia Saad, “Children a Key Factor in Women’s Desire to Work Outside the Home,” Gallup, 7 October 2015.