In a few podcasts episodes that I’ve heard over the last year or so, I’ve heard basically progressive guys talk about gender roles and division of labor in heterosexual marriage; and I agree with most of what I hear them say. But then I hear them say things like “of course, it also depends on what the partners enjoy or care about the most”; and, well, of course that’s true, but it’s also not that simple? And, similarly, they’ll say that it also depends on what works best for people’s entire life context (their jobs, in particular); true, but also not that simple?

Because, in both cases, these effects don’t come from a vacuum, there’s an awful lot of social effects shaping the context. And, in particular, if you’re a man, I think it behooves you to push a bit (to push more than a bit, actually) into taking on actions that are traditionally gendered female, even if you don’t enjoy them as much. I’m certainly not saying that I’ve been perfect in that regard, but I’ve tried, and I think I’ve gotten something from those attempts. So I wanted to write about that a bit.


Example one: cooking. When I grew up, my mom did all the cooking, and I don’t think that was uncommon. (Whereas I feel like cooking behavior has shifted significantly over the intervening decades.) And that felt wrong to me; and also, I like eating, why wouldn’t I want to participate in cooking? So my memory is that, in the summer after my first year of college, my girlfriend at the time and I both cooked; I honestly don’t remember the details, I’m pretty sure she was a better cook, but I think I helped? And then the next summer, Jordan and I were roommates at a summer math program, and we both actively worked on cooking. (And, as mentioned above, I see this as part of a societal shift.)

And Liesl and I started dating after that, and my memory is that we would sometimes cook together when we were hanging out; she was certainly a significanly better cook than I was at the start, but I’ve caught up fine since then. So when we started living together, we would always cook together. (And we’d grocery shop together; it’s important to not forget auxiliary tasks! On which note I think that Liesl currently does a little more dishwashing than I do, whereas I do more grocery shopping.) (And we were living with Jordan during grad school, so actually all three of us would cook and grocery shop together most of the time.)


So cooking with Liesl is basically an unquestioned part of my routine. (Slightly more flexible now, because it’s not that uncommon for one of us to start cooking while the other walks Widget, but we’ll finish cooking together.) Which has external effects: it’s also my assumption that, the vast majority of weekdays, I’ll get home around 6:00 or 6:30 for some combination of dogwalking and cooking.

Which is, from my point of view, a good thing, in multiple ways: I like cooking, I like hanging out with Liesl, I like walking Widget. But also I like having a reason to leave work at 5:10 or 5:15 every day, and I like having a more-or-less socially acceptable excuse to ask, when interviewing for a new job, whether it will be expected that I stay at work into the evenings. So cooking turns out to be useful to help me establish work/life boundaries; but the flip side is that not everybody wants to establish those boundaries, and establishing those boundaries can impose real career constraints. I’m fortunate to have had that work out well for me, and to be the sort of person who wants to have those boundaries instead of throwing myself completely into my job; but it is a choice, a choice with potentially negative consequences, and a choice that isn’t necessarily going to be as available for everybody.

It’s also not an individual choice: if you’re married or living with somebody, it’ll affect both of you. And the factors that influence the choice (personal preferences, external influences) aren’t formed in a vacuum.


Child care was a different sort of choice. I’m sure there are families who can split the child care, at least after the first few months: alternate who picks the kid up from day care, for example. But that’s not the way it worked out for us: we (almost always) had child care near one or the other of our works, and we didn’t work near each other. So, at any given point, one or the other of us was doing significantly more child-care-related activities.

This could have ended up really unbalanced; as it was, I think it was more somewhat unbalanced than really unbalanced, if you take a longer-term point of view? There were a couple of years (maybe a year and a half, I can’t remember?) when child care was near my work; this was when I was teaching at Stanford, and I actually ended up working from home some, having Miranda spend time in my office some, and having her be looked after by a grad student’s wife who lived on campus.

Then, when I was still trying to get academia to work out for me but realizing that was somewhat rocky, we switched to a day care near Liesl’s work. That lasted for a few years.

And once Miranda was old enough for school, we switched her to a daycare that picked her up from school and had an after-school program. I’m almost positive Liesl did the pickup a significant majority of the time, though it’s been long enough that I can’t remember all the details.

That all adds up to Liesl doing most of the daycare pickup/dropoffs, but I did some. But also Miranda attended a parent participation school in elementary school, and I was the parent who helped out in the classroom in five out of those six years.


I feel okay about how all of that balanced out: we both had skin in the game, Liesl did more of the regular pickups / dropoffs, but I probably did more of the helping out at times other than the start / end of the work day, and there was enough of the latter to be significant? But I can also easily imagine us having made different choices with careers as a justification, choices that would have played into “child care is women’s work” cultural conventions.

This also gives a hint as to how to use the Silicon Valley tech career conventions to your favor, though: since typical working hours skew a little late both at the start and the end time, it actually made it easier for me to help out at school, because if I helped out towards the start of the school day, then people wouldn’t really notice me being absent from work. Whereas if Liesl had had to duck out from work or come in late to work in order to help out at school, that would have had more of an impact on her coworkers; not an insurmountable problem, we actually made that choice one year because I was changing jobs that year, but this was definitely a situation where tech schedules helped rather than hurt.

(Hmm, what about when Miranda got older and didn’t need daycare but did need transportation at times? I feel like we split the work of taking her to lessons fairly evenly, it’s even vaguely possible I did a little more of that? Liesl definitely did a fair amount of “drop Miranda off at school on her way to work” during those years, though. I feel like that actually wasn’t super out of Liesl’s way, but still, it’s definitely an impact that I didn’t share in.)


So that’s cooking and childcare. I guess next is all the other things around the house, cleaning in particular.

This is another situation that I can imagine easily leading to imbalance, and one that I’m sympathetic to: I can easily imagine situations where the two partners have different expectations of levels of cleanliness, where the person with the stricter expectations ends up doing a lot more of the cleaning, and where that person is female a significant majority of the time.

And, in situations like that, I feel like there’s something missing in the easy answer of “the guy should do half the cleaning anyways”: it’s definitely worth interrogating the question of how much cleaning the couple should do, instead of just accepting the answer of “the couple should meet the stricter of the two cleanliness standards”. But, having said that, the answer of “if person A cares about cleanliness a lot more than person B then each should clean as much as they feel like” is an awful one: person A ends up doing all the cleaning, person B benefits from this, and that’s not fair and it’s not going to lead to people being happy.

So, in a situation like that, you have to talk it out, and probably the fair solution is to either meet in the middle, with both consciously giving something up, or else to hire outside help for cleaning. Fortunately for us, though, we weren’t in that situation: Liesl probably cares a little more about cleaning than I do, but the gap isn’t huge. (It mostly shows up when guests are about to arrive, but even there the gap has significantly diminished over the years.)

So what happens in practice is that, because of allergies, Liesl wants to steam clean the carpets periodically (not frequently, somewhere between once and twice a year), I realize that this is reasonable and that I’d be an asshole for not helping, and so we agree on when we should do that and then split the work.

That’s not all the cleaning, of course. Liesl does clean the kitchen floors more than I do (though I think I clean the stove as much as she does?), I probably clean the toilets more often than she does (but not very often, and, honestly, cleaning toilets is super easy), I deal with the back yard most of the time (and actually Miranda helped out with that too!).

Not sure who takes out the trash and recycling more. Liesl does dishes more than I do but not a lot more (and I think probably my doing most of the grocery shopping balances that). We both do our own laundry and I can’t imagine the idea of couples not handling laundry that way. We’re pretty good about balancing dog walks, and in particular we explicitly split the longest ones (I do Saturday mornings and Liesl does Sunday mornings, so we each get to sleep in on one weekend morning.) Liesl basically did all of the “take Miranda shopping for clothes” trips. I’m usually the person who deals with bills.

This is, of course, an area where husbands are traditionally unaware of the amount of labor their wives are putting in, so I’m willing to believe that our labor in this area is more unbalanced than I realize. But I hope we do a decent job with this; and I feel like both Liesl and I basically do family stuff from when we get home 6-ish until when dinner ends at 8-ish and then we both have time to do stuff for ourselves from 8-ish until we start going to bed a little after 10, so that’s at least some evidence that hidden family tasks aren’t consuming her evenings. (I can attest that, while I’ve been writing this post, she’s been spending this evening playing Dragon Age: Origins!)


And then there’s one choice that doesn’t take up time, and that I honestly didn’t think about that much for years, but which turned out to be an area in which we made an unexpectedly weird choice: that of last names.

When we got married, the choices are: 1) take my last name; 2) take Liesl’s last name; 3) hyphenate (with two sub-variants possible); 4) come up with another name; 5) stick with our names. 1 buys into the patriarchy, 2 doesn’t have much to say for it from my point of view other than to consciously go against the patriarchy, 3 doesn’t scale and doesn’t really resolve the problem. 4 feels like a nice idea if having a shared name matters, but it didn’t really matter to us, certainly not enough for us to put in the effort of coming up with a common name, so choice 5 it is: keep your own names. And that is a quite common choice in the social context that we’re in.

When picking Miranda’s last name, we had the same choices, except that choice 5 doesn’t exist in that context. And we didn’t have a pre-existing name to use for 4; and, again, 3 doesn’t scale. So, this time, it came down to 1 or 2; and you can go with the pro-patriarchy choice or the anti-patriarchy choice, and it seems like there’s a pretty obvious answer there?

Not saying that everybody should make the same choice as we did (for either of these naming questions), but I feel like we went down a pretty straightforward decision tree and made perfectly reasonable choices. So I honestly didn’t think about this much for years, I just assumed we were doing something that was pretty normal given our social circles.


It turns out, though, that while, in our social circles, it’s completely normal for Liesl and me to both keep our last names, it was actually quite weird in those circles to give our kid Liesl’s last name instead of mine. I was blithely unaware enough that I didn’t realize that this was a weird thing to have done until Miranda was well into middle school (maybe even until she was in high school?); but hey, now I know. And it’s even weird enough that people make various inaccurate assumptions about what led to that name, and (as I subsequently learned) even say not-particularly-appropriate things to elementary school kids based on those inaccurate assumptions. Live and learn, I guess!


Having written all of the above, I’m still not sure why I wrote this all up; and I’m pretty sure that the most obvious reading makes me look self-serving; oops.

But still: decisions around gender-linked behavior are hugely important parts of our lives. So I feel like it’s good to talk about them. And navigating those decisions isn’t always easy; I’m happy with where we’ve ended up, but those choices have also had consequences that other people wouldn’t necessarily be as happy with as we are. And I’ve been extremely fortunate to be in situations where the consequences for me have, honestly, not been particularly serious even on a basic career level.

But I guess the flip side is: it’s not necessarily that hard, either? Like, there’s nothing in what I’ve written above that is something that has felt like it’s led to real downsides for me; and there’s a lot of it that has led to real upsides.

And I look forward to a future world where those consequences diminish further, where talking about this sort of thing just seems bizarre, and where people are digging into more subtle questions of gender programming than “who does the cooking?” or “who does the child care?”. Certainly my context is different from my parents’ in that regard, and I feel like the questions and choices for current young adults are different still.

Post Revisions:

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