It’s a fair question, and it’s directed to all husbands and fathers who want more out of their marriage and family life. We do deserve more don’t we? Some men may even suggest we are owed more, especially considering the collective weight of ongoing contributions to our families (devoted husband and father, tireless worker, financial provider). But are we being marginalized? The simple answer is yes, but it is by choice. Somewhere along the way we have allowed ourselves (directly or indirectly) to be pushed to the outer fringes of our family life, content to skate along the periphery, often serving as a little more than a bystander. At best, we bring home a steady paycheck and begrudgingly submit to our wives when asked to help out. At worst, we have become quasi-reliable fixtures in the landscape. Sure, on the whole we do our part. We play with the kids, go about our workday as diligent professionals, and generally provide the necessary means to protect and sustain our households. No small things to be sure. And of course we love our wives and our children (and even tell them so on occasion). Not too shabby for a post-modern knuckle dragger, right? Before you give yourself a congratulatory pat on the back consider the following—our western cultural fixation on self and the enduring concept of traditional gender roles have for the most part successfully relegated men to a secondary position within the family structure.
Like it or not, we’ve unwittingly allowed our wives to take the leadership role in the house, this includes taking over many (if not all) of the abundant tasks required to effectively operate a functional family (caring for the children, paying bills, organizing schedules, doing laundry, preparing meals, house cleaning, yard maintenance, doctor’s appointments, grocery shopping, last minute errands…do I need to go on?). You may be sporting a knowing smirk right about now because you are just fine with the current situation. In fact, you might argue it’s by design—a clever dictatorship of sorts whereas the family is there to serve you, not the other way around. Fair enough, but regardless of your take on this, check your enlightened ego for a second and ask yourself one question—are you really happy with playing the role of spectator? As men, we are natural doers and we like to control situations, or at least feel like we are in control. Tackling and completing projects makes us feel better about ourselves and in turn makes us the likable guys we think we are. In short, we are hardwired to be multi-taskers…it’s in our DNA. So, why do we defy our natural instincts and allow our wives to quietly take on all the family tasks while we feign casual interest in helping out? The answer may be that it just happens, as husband and wife slip into all too familiar notions of preconceived gender roles. We work, and they do most everything else (including possibly getting a paying job). Not a bad deal right? But the consequences are many—self-absorption, communication issues, and disconnection from the family unit. All of which can lead to much bigger issues down the road—depression, general anxiety, and marital problems. To be clear, I’m not suggesting pitching-in a bit more around the house equates to a blissful marriage and family life, but it is certainly part of the equation. What I am talking about here is dedication to the family through active day-to-day engagement.
Let’s face it guys, we’ve all been there, going through the motions of life. As a father of two and married for over 16 years, I know this as well as any man. But recent events have served to reshape and sharply focus my perspective. At the beginning of the year, my wife embarked in a new career as an event manager. While she had worked intermittently over the past 11 years, she has for the most part been a stay-at-home mom who embraces her primary role as the maternal caregiver and nucleus of our family. Her new gig, while providing an exciting opportunity (not to mention additional monies), demands that she travel at least once every month for an average of 5 days at a time. I admit that when I first learned of the travel frequency I was dubious at best. How could this possibly work? How could I hold down a full-time job, take care of the kids, and manage all the day-to-day tasks while she’s away? Despite my reservations (of which were many and openly shared with my wife), I eventually settled into the posture of supportive husband, providing reluctant assurances that we would give it a try. Well, the trial has been going on for three months now, and the lessons have been many (including the little things like who gets the extra mayo with a bit of yellow mustard on their sandwich). But the most surprising moment came when my wife returned from a 7-day business trip. Somehow, while having a go at this grand experiment (for the fourth time in nearly as many weeks,) I managed to hit my stride. Lunches were packed, backpacks were filled, and kids were shuffled off to school…business calls were made, appointments were kept, and deals were launched…and at the end of the day the kids were collected, homework was completed, and dinner was served. Even the house was clean (thanks to the help of my kids who were dutifully put to task). Everything that had to be taken care of was handled, and somehow I managed to keep my sanity in tact (no small feat I can assure you). I was left with the smug, yet equally humbling, feeling of having managed to do what my wife had being doing for the past 11 years. But the unexpected byproduct was that I had a renewed sense of responsibility and purpose. I was actually needed to help manage the house. My wife, for her part, however, quickly returned to her role as the primary caretaker when she was home, leaving me temporarily sidelined and feeling strangely helpless. “You sure you don’t need help with that laundry?” I asked. “How about I do the dishes and you tuck the kids in”, I offered. My wife repeatedly insisted that I “relax” as she went about doing all the things she normally did (i.e. most everything). The problem was that I wanted to do more. I did not want to be marginalized anymore. I found the additional tasks to be empowering, and I no longer wanted to sit idly as the small but important myriad daily tasks piled-up around us. I also found that the extra time I was spending with the kids was not only nurturing but a great way to get to know them better. I eventually shared my thoughts with my wife and it was oddly liberating. She confided in me that the extra assistance I was providing when she was at home was very helpful, but that it was difficult sometimes to allow me to share in the duties. It seems counter-intuitive, I know. But the sad truth is that she was more comfortable just doing what she had always done. It was a watershed moment for both of us, resulting in more shared tasks, improved communication, and ultimately a stronger marriage and family.
As men must be more active part in every aspect of our family life, providing leadership through action. Not just pulling in the all-important paycheck, but also through a conscious effort to be continually engaged with our children and our spouse (which includes sharing in menial chores). I realize this is counter-cultural thinking, but I challenge you to think differently about your role in the family. Of course, you don’t need a life-changing event like mine to begin expanding your paternal influence. Go ahead try it. You may find that it helps feed your inner-self, enhance your marriage, and bring you closer to your family. Just remember the age-old maxim ‘two weeks makes a habit.’