I Settled Into a Traditional Gender Role, and I Feel Liberated

Equality doesn’t always look the way we expect it to.
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Equality doesn’t always look the way we expect it to.

About a year into being married, I felt like I had failed. Not at being married—my husband and I were having a blast. But I felt like I had failed at being a wife. 

When we were engaged, I vowed that marriage wouldn’t change me. I was excited to have someone legally bound to kill spiders in the bathroom, but otherwise I would be a strong, independent woman who didn’t fall into typical stereotypes, and whose new title of “wife” bore with it none of the grim 1950s images of household drudgery. Yet, just one year in, I was cooking dinner almost every night. I also folded the laundry, did all the grocery shopping, and it usually fell to me to make the bed each morning.

For some reason, it was the cooking that really bothered me. What would my feminist friends think if they knew I manned the kitchen every night? How could they respect me? My very liberal brother and his wife cook together all the time. One of my dear friends enjoys gourmet meals that her husband whips up each night. I'm clearly doing something wrong, I thought. Finding recipes, buying ingredients, and carefully crafting delicious, interesting dishes for my husband and me—doesn't that perpetuate dangerous stereotypes that a woman belongs in the kitchen?

But here's the thing: I enjoy it.

Often, my husband will come home while I’m in the middle of preparing dinner, and he’ll ask if I need any help. And often, I’ll say no. I’m perfectly happy in my own little kitchen world, following instructions and chopping vegetables. It’s soothing. I can follow someone else’s directions and forget about the day’s work, where expectations can feel too high, projects never feel completed, and instructions are vague. In the kitchen, everything feels doable. It turns out that I need to cook. 

I was so busy trying not to be a stereotypical "wife" that I I failed to see how much joy it brought me. With this new feeling of liberation to do whatever I want in the kitchen, I looked to the other parts of my life that felt disappointing. Folding laundry is admittedly not the most glamorous job, but I find it oddly satisfying to make order out of chaos. I’m also really good at it. Grocery shopping is usually my responsibility, which makes sense as I’m doing most of the cooking. And I usually make the bed, because I’m usually the last one out of it. On the rare occasions I get up first, he does, indeed, make the bed.

When I look back on the social climate advocating strength and change for women’s roles, I sense an unfortunate film of shame over the decisions we make. We see it in the motherhood community, with moms who choose to work fearing judgment from those who choose to stay at home and vice versa. But I think it also seeps into many other aspects of our lives, particularly when we’re in long-term relationships. 

I believe the modern woman experiences a very real pressure in relationships. I for one felt this pressure in terms of not letting your man define you or dictate the choices you make. And I don’t mean to imply that he should—no one wants to become Betty Draper. But I think real strength and equality comes from making a choice that is true to you in the core of your being. If that choice is pursuing a high-powered career, terrific. If it’s that you never want to touch a vacuum cleaner or a crock pot, great. And if that choice is to embrace cooking and doing laundry, there’s nothing wrong with that, either.

It wasn't until I realized that I was allowed to choose to be “traditional” that I was absolved of all these intangible pressures. I let go of comparisons to other couples—their decisions didn’t have to be mine. If my feminist friends looked askance at my apron collection and cookbook addiction, so be it. Their lives were made up of their choices; and my life should be made up of mine.

There’s yet another side to the story, too: partnership. When I was about 11, I found a quiz in one of my mom’s magazines that promised to reveal if your relationship was uneven in the division of housework. I asked my parents to take the quiz, and the results showed that my mom did vastly more housework than my dad, whose tasks were more handyman focused. According to the magazine, this was horribly unfair. But when I shared the dire news with Mom, she was unfazed. “Well, sure I do more housework. I’m home all day!” My mother is far from a wilting, oppressed housewife. She has a successful writing career, which she has often balanced with speaking engagements and teaching gigs. But her schedule allowed her to be home most of the time. So she did the things my dad couldn’t do as a Naval officer with demanding hours, and he did things she couldn’t. What the magazine decreed an unfair division of labor, they experienced as a balanced partnership.

I think about that quiz a lot. When we got married, we essentially chose to be full partners in the business of our lives. As a freelance writer and actress, I often have a lot more time on my hands than my husband, who works longer hours than your average 9 to 5, so for us it makes sense that I manage some of the things we share—like our home. And while I may not love all housework as much as I love cooking, I prefer working for the good of the partnership, as opposed to living a parallel life of individual choices that only benefit me.

Don't get me wrong, my husband is extremely helpful around the house. He’s an excellent cook (when I let him), and he does offer to do laundry or dishes like a champ. When I cook, he cleans up afterward. For us, it’s a great system. But the fact remains that there are just certain things that I do more often. Some of them, I do because I love them. Some of them I do because I see them as reasonable expectations of a full and vested partner. But in everything, I’ve come to feel empowered and liberated, because I’ve been strong enough to make choices that make me happiest. And I still don’t have to kill the spiders.

Photo Credit: Violet Short Photography