This was one of my most read posts from about a year a go. Thought it was worth a re-run because the issue is as relevant as ever.
Of bathrooms and child care
This is an unusual post. Not so much about theology or mission or justice or poverty but about cleaning bathrooms and looking after children.
It is no surprise to anyone who knows me that I am really committed to gender equality and trying to live it out. I have written about it on several occasions. But some strange things have been happening to me recently that have introduced me to a new frontline in the gender struggle.
A few months ago we had one of our periodic attempts at getting our home life organised. As part of this I committed to clean our bathrooms and toilets every Saturday morning. And depending on who you talk to I have managed this somewhere between quite often and occasionally. No big deal. I use the bathrooms. I clean them. The strange thing wasn’t me doing some housework (although again it depends on who you talk to) it was the reaction of our female friends and acquaintances when Minu casually mentioned it. There were gasps of shock and praise and jealousy. ‘You are so lucky’, they said to Minu, ‘Isn’t he good’. Now I am prepared to take praise whenever it comes, but ‘good’? I think I am somewhere on a line between ‘doing my fair share’ and ‘doing the bare minimum’. The shock was how many of our male friends do nothing in the home and think that is OK. A bigger shock is how many of our female friends seem to collude with this. I have one friend who has been married for twelve years and does not know how to use the washing machine. Now I am fine about couples making a pragmatic choice about dividing up the stuff that makes life work in order to get things done. My fear is that men are significantly under performing at home based on an assumption about roles rather than intentional choice.
The second strange thing actually happened to me a few years ago but things happened last week that caused me to remember it. When our daughter was around 18 months I arranged parental leave to look after her for about a year while Minu worked. This was a decision based on economic practicalities rather than principle but was wonderful for me. I started the period with grand plans to do some studying and writing. Within a week I realised that a successful day was defined as finding clothes that kind of matched, producing food roughly on time and making it to the park and back without anything bad happening. It took me weeks to gain the self realisation that I am surprisingly task focussed and several months to realise that the task with my daughter was to hang out together. I wouldn’t trade that time for the world. Sadly not everyone saw it as wonderful. One of my senior colleagues took me aside one day and asked me very seriously whether I was committed to my work. He could not imagine why I had made the choice that I had and was very straightforward about the fact that he wasn’t sure I was really committed to the team and to the task. His concern was driven by my parental leave, but also by my reluctance to work lots of evenings and travel away from home overnight. All marks of commitment in his world. And all marks of a dereliction of responsibility in mine. I felt shocked, and humiliated and insecure and spent the next few minutes assuring him that I was really committed. Of course what I should have done was politely reject the assumption underlying his question and walk out of the meeting.
The third strange thing also concerns child care. Over the last few years I have often been at conferences and events speaking and also looking after my daughter while Minu has been working elsewhere. This is great fun and I enjoy it immensely. But the strange thing is the number of people who comment to Minu when she arrives at how amazing I have been, and how good (again). And while I am still happy to take praise whenever it comes, it is just not merited. To begin with I am rarely actually doing this on my own. I am usually blessed with lots of kind and generous people who are happy to help out. Secondly, it is not so much ‘good’ and ‘amazing’, as doing what Dad’s are meant to do. Thirdly, women who juggle work and child care rarely get either the recognition or the applause.
And this is why I have been thinking about a new frontline. We certainly need to do much better at gender equality in the workplace. The casual put downs, exclusions and need to perform better that many women still face is a sin and calls for repentance. But maybe as men we also need to take seriously the other side of the creation mandate. Men and women were together called to family and work. Maybe part of the key for women taking up their full authority in the workplace is for men to take up their full responsibility at home.