Saturday, August 29, 2009

Ceding Power

I think that the dynamics that children observe in their own families are not just sources of amusement (although they certainly are that too) - they shape the dynamics of our culture for the next generation.

In the email quoted in Jo Tamar's post, kids fairly clearly expressed a belief that mothers held the domestic power. I suspect this is where the guff that women really hold the power in the world by controlling men comes from. After all, it is mostly true that women are the household policy makers even now. Even in families where men share the domestic duties, it is still rare to find those where the style of parenting, choice of cleaning products and chore schedules are determined by both partners equally.

Historically, any women who wielded any power often did it through their sons. Some random doco on the Ottoman Empire I caught the other night highlighted that the mothers of the princes represented a significant power base, and that a few in particular were extremely powerful by virtue of their influence over their sons.

How exactly anyone concludes that a small number of women wielding a small amount of power through their sons equates to women holding all the power by controlling all men is completely beyond me, of course. Still, even now it's not uncommon for women to feel more entitled to run their grown son's lives than their daughters. You can still buy horrible wall hangings with sayings along the lines of "Sons are your babies forever".

There is a clear power imbalance in the domestic sphere, and it's a catch 22. For many women, this is the only domain in which they are the ultimate decision maker. Giving up this power to their partners is unthinkable. It also looks impractical. Men, for generations, have been raised seeing their mother's power in the home as unassailable. It follows logically that when they enter into a domestic setting with a female partner, they wouldn't question her authority either. Nor would they feel any obligation to take on the responsibility that the authority entails. So women still end up doing most of the domestic work, and even more prominently, just about all of the domestic policy-making. I know lots of men do the dishes, but how many recognise when it's time to clean out the kitchen cupboards, or vacuum behind the lounge? How many decide on what to do with the 4yr old that is having immense difficulty controlling his emotions? How many know who needs to be where and when and which homework is due which day without being told by their partners?

I know there are men who do some or all of these, but they are still very much the exception (and if you are one, well done you). The workload in our family is pretty evenly spread, but the responsibility is all mine. As is the right of criticism. I was horrified and affronted when Crash complained about the amount of mess I leave in the kitchen when I cook. I am perfectly justified in leaving a huge mess - I prefer to clean up after I have cooked unless I'm preparing a dinner party. Which is fine when I'm running the show, but he is starting to step up and take a smidgen of responsibility (for which I have been asking for some time) and that means I'm not running the show entirely. That's a little hard to come to grips with.

But all the partnership negotiations aside, if we don't want to be having this same conversation with our daughters when they're 30, we have to raise our kids to understand that the domestic power is shared, as well as the work. We have to cede the power over our households and our children if we want them to have balance and equality in the future. That's really hard. It's also not without it's risks. Asking men to do stuff they haven't been brought up to do is going to involve a learning curve. Stuff will fail to be done. But they aren't genetically incapable. It's something I need to do more of, although I was pleased to see that Ben wasn't real sure who was the boss in our house. I am quite determined not to treat my sons as though they are less capable of domestic responsibility and authority. They are not "only boys", they are just as able to be responsible as girls, we just have to demand it of them.

I've been thinking about practical ways to implement some of these things. I was thinking about making specific rooms of the house entirely Crash's responsibility. You know, everyone helps to clean it and so on, but it's his responsibility to make sure it is done. To ensure that there is no poo smeared on the walls when visitors come - that sort of thing. And then generalise as the kids get bigger - they get a room each too (as well as their own).

How exactly that translates to kid raising I don't know. Somehow I doubt I can divide up the kids into his problem and my problem. I'm thinking maybe when Charlie starts school, I might make one school his problem and one mine. That could work.

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