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Equality Blog

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Culture Clash

Several of the comments from recent posts have got us thinking. They've been about the way that specific tasks reflect on only one gender in our society, such as how the kids are dressed (Mom's kudos or fault) or how the lawnmowing is kept up (Dad's pat on the back or shame). As one reader so aptly suggested, this can cause us to focus on the chores for which we'll take the heat if they are done poorly - and put off or ignore those that will reflect on our partners.

All of this very true social stigma and very human behavior can work to undo ESP over time, unless a couple happens to assign all tasks along gendered norms. And what's the fun of that?!

So we've been thinking of a possible way out of this dilemma. Let's say a couple decides to sign up for bringing cupcakes to their son's school holiday party. Then, let's say that they assign Dad to take on this duty. Like a good ESP mother, Mom then lets go of the task - no laying out the ingredients, reminding Dad of the party date, or interfering in any way. And then Dad forgets. Whether he will admit it or not, we suspect that culture would have played a role in his 'forgetting' since even the most well-intentioned of males might have prioritized remembering just a bit more if it was clear to the world that he screwed up. It's not that he's incompetent, but that the task never rose to an importance level in his mind that kept him on his toes. So he forgets and the party goes on cupcake-less.

What if, being a fantastic ESP father, he realizes the cultural consequences of his goof? And what if he then actively made an effort to take the social fall for his actions? This could take the form of a simple comment in drop-off line to the room parent the next day about how bad he feels for having forgotten the cupcakes yesterday followed by a clear, "And it was fully my responsibility, too." Or perhaps he does this in an email or phone call.

This would go both ways, of course. If Mom was supposed to haul out the trash to the curb this week and forgets (again, probably influenced by the fact that neglecting this task will not hurt her outside image one bit), she could tell the family she'd been the one to forget as a way to show her children that this job was indeed her responsibility - not Dad's. She could, if applicable, laugh about her lapse in memory to the next door neighbor who notices overflowing trash cans over the next few days.

Each of these small gestures would take back ownership from the grip of culture - not entirely, but as a start. They may make each parent more likely to remember his/her duties in the future too.

What do you think of this idea? Should it be recommended to ESP couples who might want to crack these culture barriers?

9 Comments:

Blogger JohnMcG said...

It's tempting to say that the possibility of a spouse's social fall should be sufficient motivation. It should bother me just as much (if not more) for my wife to suffer social disapproval as it would for me.

But I don't know that the problem is not caring -- it's that the feedback loop is broken. The "shame" of failing on a task like that is in whispered gossip, dirty looks, and kind of a vague disapproval. No matter how "in tune" someone is, I think it would be literally impossible for this to come through to the partner, especially since, for example, especially since one sex's methods of expressing disapproval are designed to work on members of the same sex.

Explicitly claiming repsonsibility would help, and maybe not partaking in this blaming would help as well. But I'm not sure it will get us all the way there.

Will a man ever truly understand what if feels like to have all the other moms whispering about your sub-par cupcakes? I don't know -- I'm not trying to cop out to, "We men are clueless" -- I just think the social pressures that work on women are different from those that work on men, and it's going to be hard to translate.

9:52 AM  
Anonymous Jenn said...

Although I agree with the commenter above, I also think every little bit can help. Generally, couples tend to play the blame game when it comes to who did/did not do something properly. To hear one partner take ownership of a fault without deflecting any responsibility on the other would be refreshing and a great example to any approach to parenting.
Simply taking the plunge and mixing up the jobs could be quite insightful for an ESP couple. When we were a lot more traditional in our parenting, I was the main cook and baker on a daily and special events basis. Once that got switched up a bit, my husband ended up being the one who enjoyed cooking and baking more and doing a way better job of it. It was an entertaining holiday when we brought outstanding dishes that I had no part in making or even planning.
To me the bigger recommendation to ESP couples is to think outside of the cultural barriers when dividing the tasks and really letting the other "own" it as their own. If there's been sufficient communication over who is doing what then there's nothing to do but acknowledge when we've forgotten or done it wrong without the need to shelf it on the other.

5:52 PM  
Blogger Amy said...

Thanks John and Jenn. This issue needs lots of mulling, that's for sure! I love dissecting it and seeing if we can at least move in the right direction when it comes to breaking these social barriers.

Jenn, I love that your husband planned and made the holiday food. Way to go, both of you!

9:36 PM  
Blogger Dave said...

I am not so certain what is meant by society. It's difficult to find time to spend with friends and people are always moving. Off to New York or away from the city finally, off to California or Kansas or Florida. Here from Dallas.

And the media is so fragmented. TV, internet, blogs...

I have always thought of society as the sum of what individuals do. This is our culture. We do not need to be passive about it. What we pay attention to defines our culture. How we act is our society.

That has a few implicatons, one of which is that we have a responsibility for both our culture and our society. What we do is important. Not significant, perhaps, but it adds up. It's important.

9:15 PM  
Blogger Amy said...

Dave,
In writing this post, I considered society to be just the general population of people in one's community, and culture to be the typical way of life for these people. You are absolutely right that society shifts with waves of people moving to and from our neighborhoods and that our media are so varied and fragmented these days.

I'm with you that we all have a responsibility for what we do - it affects our culture and defines us separately from our culture. My idea of suggesting ESP couples step up and recognize when their actions reflect poorly on their partners rather than them is an attempt to address this responsibility.

What do you think of the idea that I propose?

9:20 PM  
Blogger Dave said...

Amy, I think your idea is good but I would be careful. No, actually, I don't like it. I was being nice.

The whole idea of ESP means on some level going against what society expects of both partners, ie. Marc's next post.

If there is some specific instance, then I think that should be addressed. And by all means, have the partner address it. But generally, I think anything that places some control over what happens or how things should be outside of the relationship into some amorphous other is not helpful.

And I think it's an out - if something is bothering me, then I should own it, not project it out onto some other.

It may be that some thing is more important to me or my wife for different reasons, and one of those reasons may be that it reflects poorly on her or me - what the teacher thinks of us, heaven forbid. That's okay. But it's still how she feels or how I feel. That's where we need to work.

Hope that makes sense. I'm not the best writer, and I think it's a subtle distinction.

9:10 AM  
Blogger Amy said...

Dave,
You DO make sense, and you make a very important point. One that helps me a great deal in tweaking the idea. I agree wholeheartedly with you.

So, perhaps I could revise our idea to get closer to its intention. How about this:

If an ESP husband screws up a responsibility, he is fully responsible for his screw-up and yet his wife is fully responsible for how she feels about that screw-up. Blaming our culture for possibly pointing fingers at the wrong spouse is not an excuse for the wife to request or expect her husband to apologize publicly and take back that incorrect cultural assumption. Part of her job as an ESP wife is to get over what others think about her actions or inactions.

BUT, that ESP husband also has a responsibility to own why he might have screwed up. If even a piece of his mistake was an unconscious dismissing of the task because he wouldn't be blamed by our culture for skipping it, then he should decide by himself (without his wife asking or expecting) to take back ownership of any such blame. He might do so by publically acknowledging that he was the one to screw up - not his wife. His reason for taking this step could be because he wants to be forthright and live with integrity - not specifically to 'make right' by his wife.

And vice versa if the wife screws up.

Does this come closer to your truth too? If not, tell me more about what you're thinking. And thanks for helping me take this idea closer and closer to something potentially useful.

8:54 PM  
Blogger Dave said...

Closer, Amy. One of the things I really appreciate about what you two have put together is the specificity of ESP.
And that's what I am struggling with on this issue. I am trying to think back over a specific issue my wife and I have faced, something at stake for her (or me). Both people have to deal with awkward moments and little failures.
I like what Jenn and John wrote. I got from the John the problem of unexpressed, assumed responsibility, and from Jenn the solution of agreeing beforehand on who will do what, and dealing directly with the consequences.

So, no laying traps. And having the courage to say this is important to me because I don't want to look bad, or I believe that people assume I'm handling it, and I'm not. That's just vulnerability, and that's okay.
So maybe this is all about vulnerability for me, and in that case my truth is we can afford each other some kindness. Hopefully.

10:37 AM  
Blogger Amy said...

Dave,
Thanks again! Laying traps - definitely a bad idea. Kindness, assumed responsibility, agreeing upfront - all good too. Being able to be vulnerable and express worry ahead of time and ask your partner to take care because something is important to you - yes, definitely. But when all that happens and one of you STILL forgets to do something that reflects societally on the other (which will happen because none of us is perfect).... Anyway, the idea needs refining. Thanks for all your thoughts!

10:38 PM  

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