By Katrina Richards • March 15, 2010•Writers in Residence
Role reversals confuse people.
My husband is a "stay-at-home dad" to our three sons; I head to work each day to advance my legal career and support our family. We decided to raise our children without daycare long before we had any, and we stuck by that decision, for better and for worse. Although it may have been financially easier to have both of us working, we have managed to scrape by on one income since the beginning.Many people on the outside have a difficult time understanding why we made this decision -- even our own families have questioned it. The important thing is that we made the decision on purpose, we value what we are doing, and we are not afraid to talk about it with other people or reassess our situation to make sure it is still working for us.
I could write paragraph after paragraph of the discourteous things people have said to us because we are not fulfilling their expectations. However, my husband and I are completely satisfied with the decisions we have made and will not change them to fit someone else's idea of what the world should look like.
Instead, we take different approaches toward educating people, since the general population probably does not realize how gender-biased they actually are. They probably don't realize they are incorrect when they assume it is the man that is working, the woman who is staying at home with these three squirmy boys, and it is the man who makes all the decisions without the woman's input.
We have attended various lawyer networking events together. Sometimes we take steps to make it obvious that I am the lawyer in the family. For example, my husband will purposely where casual slacks (or nice jeans) and a polo shirt, while I will dress in a formal, black lawyer suit. This has a better-than-normal success rate for pointing out to people that I am there to network, and my husband is there for moral support and a night out from the kids.
Even so, most men will approach my husband, shake his hand and proceed to "shoot the bull" with him for several minutes until they finally ask him where he works. My husband and I like to play games with them for our own amusement. He happily replies, "I'm a stay-at-home dad. I retired when she got into law school!" This is the point where the man takes a step back, gets an awkward look on his face, and realizes that I exist. He then pretends that the last few minutes did not happen and engages me in awkward conversation. My husband and I then laugh about it later.
Sometimes, when my husband gets tired of giving the line over and over, he will shake hands and say, "This is my wife, she is the one you want to talk to." They are surprised, but it turns out to be true. Either way, our approach (or maybe our existence) messes with their idea of gender roles and, hopefully, will make them think about it before classifying the next couple.
This same assumption rings true with experienced car salesmen. They will "talk shop" with my husband for an hour, trying to convince him that this is the best car for the best deal, while making occasional, bland eye-contact with me. When Car Salesman thinks he has done a good job and begins searching for background information to see if we can possibly afford a new vehicle, he pops the question to my husband: "So, what do you do?" And then comes the same answer as elicited at the networking events.
Car Salesman then realizes he has just wasted an hour of his time talking to someone without a job (again, the facial expressions at this moment are priceless). He then will turn his attention to me, tell a lawyer joke, talk about all the lawyers he knows, or talk about how corrupt and awful lawyers are (yes, this has actually happened). In the meantime, I'm amused by his sad attempt to suddenly include me in the conversation and the sales decision. I do like the type of car he was offering, but I think I'll buy it somewhere else.
All games aside, the subtext of these behaviors reveals the following: "You are a man, so you are worth my attention; you are a female, and you are not." Add in wife's law degree, take away husband's career: you get something like, "You are a worthless man without a job; you are worth something as a female lawyer."
An interesting aside to this conversation is how the opposite is true when we are facing doctors or other people interested in the care of the children. They will typically ask me questions like, "how many wet diapers does he have in a day?" And I have to direct the questions to my husband because I only know what happened after I got home from work. I find it even more interesting that my doctor is an elderly woman, and she still fails to acknowledge the presence of my husband in the examining room, despite my having to look at him for each answer. Women are not immune to believing gender role stereotypes, even when they themselves do not fall into those stereotypes.
The most important element of our "reversed" marriage is that we both understand the pressure the other is under. We both know what it feels like to be marginalized and misunderstood. We both know that I would not be the lawyer I am today without his help and support. We both know that raising our three sons takes cooperation and work from both of us. We are purposely raising our children in a way that recognizes the worth of both males and females, no matter what they do, or how different they may be.Having this type of mutual support and understanding is vital when you both are taking on a whole world of people with outdated gender role assumptions. And don't forget the importance of kindness and a sense of humor: People will be people, after all.