Thursday, January 06, 2005

Festive Sexism

Over the course of our three week trip back to Ontario to visit friends and family for the winter holidays (a trip over since late Tuesday night) there were a couple of major ways that sexism made itself felt.

The first was actually in our parenting practices over this period, and it wasn't particularly optional. For whatever reason, our 16 month-old was extremely clingy to my partner. In our day-to-day life it isn't that unusual for him, when he is in distress, to prefer her over everyone else. This goes right back to his earliest days, when nursing was about the only thing he ever wanted, and when the next best thing to nursing to make him happy was her finger in his mouth -- sometimes it could be anyone's finger, but at other times it had to be hers. Still, I'm home with him every weekday and he is perfectly fine with that, and when both of us are around and we are at home and following our regular routines, he generally shows much less preference in terms of where he receives his nurturing than he did over the last three weeks.

I can only hypothesize that he was so demanding on the trip because usually when Mommy disappears it is at a predictable time during the day and for a predictable length of time, whereas on the trip his routine was completely disrupted and one or both of us were liable to disappear (from his point of view) at any moment for unknown lengths of time. And though he eats whatever we eat for the majority of his calories these days, the fact that the milk bar only vanished when Mommy did is still significant for him. Generally speaking, we (i.e. she) just gave in to his demands, and I'm not sure we could have done much differently. Minimizing baby distress is a pretty powerful compulsion when you are out and about and surrounded by people, and when the alternatives are appearing to embrace sexist approaches to parenting versus appearing to be indifferent to your kid's howling, the choice is fairly obvious. However, it is an interesting illustration of the way that gendered expectations around nurturing and care start very early in life.

The other was more traditional holiday sexism: the preparation of and cleanup from holiday meals. This works in different ways in different family settings. In the events involving only my partner's immediate family and only my immediate family, some sharing of responsibility for these things is expected. Men are not exempted en masse, though the actual sharing may or may not be equal (and probably usually is not). In these contexts, me contributing a couple of cooked items and some cleanup sweat at both sites was considered unremarkable. Of course, I doubt there would have been much comment if I hadn't done these things, either, though I know one or two folk would have quietly noted and (quite rightly) resented.

This is in contrast to one of the extend family events which we attended. In this particular social environment the prep and cleanup tends to be the responsibility of women of our parents' and grandparents' generations, with women of my generation and all men largely exempted. It is a standing joke that the men end up on the couch for a snooze after meals, though usually this is more a metaphor for "not working" rather than literal truth. However, at one of the events over our trip there was a very distinct point at which all of the adult men took off from the dining table to make sure various recliners and couches did not just up and float away, and to digest while dozing or reading. More out of boredom than any particular urge to be noble I broke with tradition and actually helped wash the dishes.

Here's what shocked me: From the rest of those who were engaged in doing the dishes (i.e. the traditional doers of this task) I encountered one quite active attempt to get me back to my proper place on a couch somewhere, and then two or three comments, at least a couple of which seemed for some reason to connect my ability to remove water from porcelain to my newfound identity as stay-at-home dad, and all of which were based in the notion that the combination of possessing a penis and wielding a dish towel on a holiday should be praised rather than assumed.

An interesting side note to this last incident was the subtle but distinct shift in the feel of the social environment when it transitioned from overall family space to women's space (plus me). I doubt I could effectively characterize the change, but there definitely was one. After, I was briefly worried at having intruded on such space uninvited, though my partner (who has occasionally participated in a similar way in the past, but did not on this occasion) assured me that my presence was not preventing any bonding beyond shared, not-paritcularly-optional labour on a supposed holiday.

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