A few weeks ago, I facilitated a book discussion with the college alumni group I’m a part of, on a book called Equal Partners: Improving Gender Equality at Home. We talked about all sorts of things that the book covers, like the idea of cognitive labor, parenting and mothering as an equal partner, what has and hasn’t changed across generations, and how people split up household chores with equity in mind.
One woman in the group kept pressing a particular question. It wasn’t exactly what I personally had in mind for us to focus on. But it was clearly critical for her, and it wasn’t not related to the topics at hand. So we talked about it.
She asked, What’s in it for the men?
In other words, when it comes to equity-oriented concerns between opposite-sex partners—like splitting household labor, childcare, and other caretaking work more evenly between spouses—it seems clear what’s in it for women. Women recognize that often by default we do more than our fair share, and so we would benefit from a more equal partnership.
But what is men’s motivation to pursue that equal partnership with us, when it feels like they benefit from the status quo—more free time, more energy to pursue promotions and raises at work (or, to devote their talents to meaningful and interesting work), less time spent doing chores they don’t enjoy?
People offered some suggestions:
- Men care about their partners’ wellbeing and want them to be happy. They don’t want their partners to be resentful or bitter from doing too much.
- Men recognize that things are not equal and that this is wrong. They want to make things right.
- Men realize that they’re missing out on the joy and personal growth that comes through caretaking. When they spend less time with their kids, for example, they miss out on the stronger connection they could have with their families. Yes, caretaking is difficult and sometimes exhausting. But it can also be humanizing, affirming, meaningful, and joyful. When you skip out on the exhausting parts, you often miss out on the amazing parts too.
I don’t know that the question-asker was satisfied with these sorts of answers, these suggested motivations. She seemed to think they depended too much on men being “nice,” thoughtful, not-totally-selfish people. (Which, for the record, I believe lots and lots of men are, or at least want to be. But maybe she’s had some different experiences.) Regardless, her question stuck with me.
I’m struck by the question in part because I feel like pondering “what’s in it for men?” when it comes to gender equity (whether within the household or in broader society, although of course it’s all interconnected) is not entirely different from asking “what’s in it for white folks?” when it comes to racial equity.
I realize this comparison is fraught and highly imperfect. It isn’t the same. But I also think it isn’t completely unrelated.
Where I landed on the latter question was something like this: Moving closer to racial equity might feel like white folks are losing something, and in some ways this may sometimes be true; but really, most of the time it benefits everyone, because our wellbeing (and our survival on this terrifying-rapidly-warming planet) is tied together.
Likewise, going back to the question of what might motivate men to do more in the home, it’s not just that (hopefully) a man loves his wife and wants her to be happy, so he steps in to take care of some of the things she’s doing but doesn’t enjoy. It’s also that, generally speaking, when she’s happier, life is better for him too. Their wellbeing as a couple is tied together.
I realize this sounds dangerously close to “happy wife, happy life,” lol. But really. The point is, it’s not just a sacrifice that makes life harder for him; it’s also legitimately better for him if things are more equal. It strengthens the partnership he has with her, which presumably is important to him. It (hopefully) brings him a sense of satisfaction to know he’s contributing to her wellbeing, to the wellbeing of the marriage or family. He becomes a more whole person just as she does.
And as different-sex spouses learn to operate as equal partners with one another, we have a better chance of different-gendered people learning to operate as equals at work, in church, in politics, in our world as a whole.
Just as I believe our world needs people of color to be able to bring the fullness of their gifts into significant leadership positions, I also believe our world needs women (especially women of color, but also white women in the many spaces where all women have been marginalized) to do the same.
It’s all complicated. Maybe I’m dancing around some land mines here. Maybe I hit a few. I welcome any and all of your thoughts, via comments or email or anything else.
Peace and equity to you, your households, and your communities this week,