When I’m out at a social function with my wife and people ask what I do for a living, I squirm and I stumble as I tell them I’m a writer and professional speaker. Truth be told, having recently put my latest book ‘to bed’, I feel more like a floundering vessel than an up-and-coming writer. After the perfunctory introductory exchange comes the inevitable question, the one I dread most – What is your book about? This is quickly followed by my futile attempt to encapsulate what feels like a lifetime of work into one succinct eloquent sentence, and that more often than not just comes across as standoffish evasiveness. Little do they know that I’m secretly terrified to encase what I have written with words, for fear that by labeling a still yet unborn work, I inadvertently clip its wings before it can truly fly.
Prior to finding my way to a life of words, I’d always envisioned the world of a writer to be vastly more romantic, and to some degree, more tortured than it actually is. As an ex-smoker and a recovering addict, I knew my days wouldn’t be spent sitting at my laptop with an overflowing ashtray and a bottomless glass of the cheapest, raunchiest scotch I could find. Nor was I expecting my days to resemble those of a 1950’s – pardon the dated, politically incorrect expression – ‘housewife’.
It didn’t take long for me to discover that my path to becoming a modern-day wordsmith included not only hours spent writing and researching but also a healthy dose of grocery shopping, laundry folding, meal preparation, not to mention a never-ending list of household chores. There was most definitely an adjustment period in which I resented these mundane intrusions on my writing time; however, now I’ve come to see them as things that bring me much joy. Arranging words on a page can be frustrating and downright soul-destroying, but the moment I grab hold of my Dyson and start chasing down dust bunnies from under the bed, all the self-flagellation and artistic inferiorities begin to slip away. Having spent the first 27 years of my married life watching my wife prepare every meal, I’m now proud to say that I'm not just the ‘writer in residence’ but also the 'chef de cuisine'.
In a recent article in the New York Times, Tess Felder discusses the erosion of men’s grip on what were once considered traditionally masculine roles, particularly in the workforce. She cites a study out of the Brookings Institution by Richard V. Reeves and Isabel V. Sawhill: “The old economy and the old model of masculinity are obsolete… Women have learned to become more like men. Now men need to become more like women.”
It’s a belief that resonates strongly with more and more families, and it is a message that lies at the heart of Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In” movement, in which the Chief Operating Office of Facebook encourages women to step forward into the ‘driver’s seat’ of their careers. It’s a belief that you can indeed have it all – a powerful career and a rewarding family life.
Juxtaposing this ‘Holy Grail’ of having your cake and eating it to, is a somewhat infamous 2012 article in The Atlantic Magazine by Anne-Marie Slaughter. Ms. Slaughter moved from her position as Dean at Princeton University to the top U.S. State Department official, and based on the backlash she was encountering at the highest echelons of Washington’s power elite, Slaughter had serious doubts about whether or not we, as a society, are doing a disservice by convincing women that maintaining a powerful career, while giving as much care and attention to the demands of family is something that is even attainable within the current social climate. Slaughter believes that it is not simply a matter of shifting societal norms governing a woman’s role in the workplace, but rather, it’s a discussion that need also touch upon the gender roles that men have traditionally been held captive by.
When it comes to reversing the gender roles of our parents, it’s a dance Mary-Anne and I have been doing for quite some time. I was still pursuing my university degree when our son was born 26 years ago, so in order to keep a roof over our heads and our son in diapers, Mary-Anne went to work each day while I stayed at home with the baby. I would hand him off to Mary-Anne when she arrived exhausted from work so that I could attend my university lectures in the evening. I can still remember having to negotiate with our local YWCA so I could take our son to the “Mom and Me” programs, and having to change in a utility room because there were no change rooms for men at the YWCA.
Now here I am, all these years later, still battling the stigma of not being the primary wage earner for our household. We’ve come a long way towards gender equality in the workforce, but I’d have to agree with Anne-Marie Slaughter that dispelling entrenched stereotypes around what we value as ‘meaningful’ work in our society, requires not only embracing Sheryl Sandberg’s rally cry for women to “Lean In” but also giving men the option to “lean back” and value their contribution to family life outside the marketplace.