Monday, July 30, 2007

Men Are So Special

For those who know me, the title of this post is a clear signal that I am gearing up for a visit with my family, in which the men are special and the women live to make the men happy and comfortable. I will enter a world in which the women spend endless hours cooking and cleaning, and the men sit on the deck drinking and talking about war and sports. Every once in a while, a man will be asked to do something manly, like carry something heavy.

Last year, I watched incredulously as my mother asked an ancient and decrepit male relative to carry something heavy that I knew would be difficult for him but easy for me. I said “I can carry that”, but this bizarre and emasculating suggestion was met with frowns and then ignored. Will I never learn?

And no, I don’t wish I could sit out on the deck with the men. Most of them are boring. Some of them are scary. I’d rather chat with my mother and aunts and cousins in the kitchen, but I can never stop feeling angry about the extreme gender role segregation in which the women are servile and the men are Men.

In recent years, my mother has been increasingly involving my daughter in the Women’s Chores, and I don’t think my daughter has yet realized that her male cousins aren’t expected to do anything.

It might be easier to endure these family visits if I could get away once in a while and take a break from making sandwiches for my uncles, but our family get-togethers occur on an island, in a house surrounded on 3 sides by tall trees and on the fourth side by a cliff. I think it would be easier to escape from Alcatraz.

My husband does not come on these trips. He is still traumatized by previous trips when he had to sit on the deck and drink with my insane male relatives. I in turn do not accompany him on visits to his family, and this mutual avoidance of visits to our respective ancestral homes pleases us both. His family is even stranger than mine.

My mother has already started to prepare for the big family get-together by asking me to do all sorts of tasks that will make my brother’s visit easier and more comfortable for him. My brother visits the ancestral home once a year. I visit the ancestral home once a year. Yet, somehow, his visits are more special than mine, and I have to make accommodations for him, not at his request (he is oblivious) but at my mother’s request.

In her most recent communication, my mother told me that it was really nice of my brother to arrange his schedule to make this visit at the same time that I will be visiting, and so I should do X, Y, and Z to make sure that his visit does not require any difficulties for him with regard to parking his giant SUV, having the food he most enjoys, and spending time the way he most wants to. If I don’t do these things, he might not visit again for several summers and it would be my fault. Is it too late for her to read a parenting book that explains that this type of behavior is really not appropriate? I have tried talking to her about this, to no avail.

Between my family and my career, I encounter a wide variety of sexist beliefs and behaviors, and I still fundamentally don’t understand any of it.

28 comments:

anon said...

Well... have fun at the family shindig!

(And yes, it is too late for that parenting book for your mom)

Anonymous said...

In my clan, the situation improved when the younger men noticed that it might be more fun to help in the kitchen than to sit with the older guys.

Only my granny complained, who was too old to come into the kitchen and had to remain as an 'honorary member' of the men's group. She reqired that we take turns so that at least one less boring person should be with her.

Rebecca said...

Grr... How infuriating! Good luck on your visit!

Afyonkarahisar said...

You have a great blog, keep it up!

http://afyon03.blogspot.com

Mr. B. said...

Hmm...

It is probably too late and your sanity may not be able to take it, but...

Having been in similar situations, I recommend dragging along your spouse (and vice versa) to these family get-togethers. It is good for the younguns' (and the olduns') to see that not EVERYBODY is like this. Crazy Aunt X and Uncle Y are not. Why, do you know that Auntie X is a real living, breathing, scientist? Whole lecture rooms full of people listen to what she says and take it seriously.

Break it to 'em gently.

Ciao,

Bonzo

sandy shoes said...

That's infuriating.

Our family has a similar dynamic around my brother's visits, as if his effort to show up is somehow especially valiant. It's gotten better since I had kids, but that underlying dynamic is mighty hard to forget.

I wonder if your daughter would ever ask, in that unblinking way children have, why she has to do things and her male cousins don't. "Good question, sweetie. Why IS that, Mom?"

Easier said than done, I know.

Take breaks to go collect special island rocks!

Marciepooh said...

Wow. I am so lucky. My family is crazy but at least they aren't male chauvinists. Good Luck!

Lisa said...

I always assumed that my family, which is as un-sexist as any I have seen, was why I could easily become an engineer and not realize there was so much sexism until late in college. You must have been especially driven towards science to have made it through that extra challenge!

Anglem05 said...

I used to have this same type of dynamic with my family, particularly at my Grandmother's house during holidays. We would eat a large and fabulous meal (my grandmother was an amazing cook and liked to do it) and the men would retire to the sitting room to watch television and I was expected to wash dishes and clean up. I actually rebelled when I was in high school, and I would retire to another room to read a book unless my brothers were called to do dishes too. My brothers never did have to do dishes (and still don't), but it woke my father up to the discrpency and he is now a happily converted dishwasher. He may not understand me and my goals of a career in academia, but he has always been a great supporter and tries to see things from my point of view.

miyazaki said...

i was just browsing through blogs and i thought yours was interesting :) have fun with your family :)

Helen said...

If it were me, (which it isn't), every time Grandma started giving my daughter tasks, I'd intervene with either:

"Nah, honey run along and play / go back to what you're doing. Your brothers are kicking back, so you should too."

or

"Great, I'll get the boys and they'll help," and then assign them tasks in the kitchen for as long as your daughter is being given tasks.

Anonymous said...

I just went through a whole week of that. I suggest you trade family-visiting duties with your husband -- as an outsider people are more likely to give you a pass, and novel weirdness tends to be less infuriating than age-old, emotionally charged unfairness.

Good luck!

gs said...

This post triggers reactions that I decline to blurt, so for the moment I'll report a quick google:

...The combination of the elections and my mother's recent visit reminded my daughter that her grandmother was the first woman mayor of the small city where I grew up. She was fascinated by the story of how people doubted her grandmother, but grandma was a great mayor and won over some of her critics...

Female Science Professor said...

That's part of what is so weird about my family. My mother was a pioneer for women in our town, but at home, it's a completely different story. She does all the housework, cooking etc. and her husband makes all the 'important' decisions.

gs said...

FSP, I don't know your family and obviously you do, I don't want to impinge on sensitive points, and I should be extricating myself from a business quagmire instead of chatting, but the heck with it:

My mother was a pioneer for women in our town, but at home, it's a completely different story. She does all the housework, cooking etc. and her husband makes all the 'important' decisions.

Uh huh. Sure he does.

('My mother' <--> 'her husband'. Presumably a random selection of terminology. Hm.)

Anonymous said...

And you aren't Asian? I honestly didn't know that treasuring the male offspring still persisted in this day and age in white folks families.

I am Asian, but come from a family of three girl children, where treasuring the boy was not an option. I actually can't imagine it, and I think I would be far less tolerant than you describe, especially if I saw it applying to my female offspring.

You say your brother is oblivious -- would _he_ be responsive to being made less oblivious? It always sucks when it's the man who has to stick up for the woman, but in some environments that's the only way to effect change.

bj

Ms.PhD said...

Yeesh. Deepest sympathies.

Your husband has the right idea though. I would just skip it, if they're really that bad!

If it makes you feel any better (it won't), my mother also kowtows... to my sister, who lives near my parents and whom they see all the time.

But even though I live far away and they always give me guilt trips about not visiting enough, when I am home, it's all about tiptoeing around her and making sure she's happy. To exactly the kinds of extremes you describe, where I am actually inconvenienced and uncomfortable.

In my case I'm pretty sure it's because she's crazy and prone to violent outbursts around us. By day she manages to be very successful at work and happily married.

Is your brother like that?

I also take it that, as hinted at by the last anonymous commenter, your brother is not exactly a feminist himself?

Dr. Shellie said...

yuck. might it help to pick one, very small thing you can do for yourself and on your own, that no one can possibly rationally object to (though they may complain anyway) and make sure you do it every day? a small, symbolic sign of resistance, if you will, to lift the spirits. like for example "between 8pm and 8:15pm I must do sit-ups, and no one can make me do anything for them during this time." or "at 1:30pm every day I want to call my husband and won't be available for 15 minutes." not that you have to announce you are doing this, unless someone tries to interrupt and ask you to do the dishes/cater to your brother/etc.

EcoGeoFemme said...

The same roles are present in my family, but a little less extreme. The part that amazes me most is that the men, especially my dad, don't seem to feel guilty sitting there watching tv while the women do all the work. And the far-away brother practically gets a parade in his honor when he visits twice a decade while the far-away sister gets continually guilt-tripped for visiting only every 18 months.

And like yours, my mother is something of a feminist. I guess they can only push things so far forward in one generation.

ordinarygirl said...

Your description of your visit with your family reminds me of my visits with my family, although they're not really the same.

My grandmother was like your mother. She always did all the work around the house and my father and his father weren't expected to do any of it.

My mother was a bit too rebellious for that, but my parents are very religious and feel that a woman must submit to a man in marriage. So, even though my father helps with the chores around the house, he always had the last word on anything. Any family decisions now are expected to be made by my older brother if my father can't.

My mother reminded us often that my father came first before us children and God came before anyone. It's been difficult especially now that we're adults and we haven't chosen to follow our parent's faith to reconcile their faith before family.

EcoGeoFemme said...

I just remembered this story about how my grandmother divided up the household chores among her children. In addition to cleaning their own bedrooms each week, my mom and her sister alternated weeks cleaning their brother's room! I don't know what his jobs were, but probably something to do with yard work. So my mom really has come a long way.

Interestingly, my mom has the really family power, not my dad. But they pretend that he does.

Anonymous said...

i was raised in a very prominent female family. we rarely had men around to do the "heavy lifting" and i was raised to be very independent. that's why my hubby was so attracted to me (at least that's what he tells me).

my hubby's mom likes to make me feel like i don't take care of her youngest boy... she constantly makes comments like "are you taking care of my boy?".... "you know i passed the reigns to you"... she is a mother of 4 boys and has the mentality that their happiness comes first.

for a while i didn't partake in a lot of family visits. i couldn't stand feeling that the entire time we were there she wanted me to help her in the kitchen (if i'm visiting and you invited i am not cooking... especially when you have 4 adult men that you raised in your house at the same time... they should help you- they are your boys), and she would get frustrated when i would rather sit and talk to my hubby and his brothers..... i have nothing in common with the lady- yet she has this ever pressing thought that i may "turn" and become more like her and less "liberal".

well, i got tired of the notion that my daughter was going to see this behavior in my mother-in-law, so i began going to the visits once again. and began speaking up and involving the brothers and my husband in taking time in the kitchen--- my husband now tells his mom to leave me alone.... and tells me that he loves me for speaking up and sticking to my guns.

i've had to stick up to my family too on leaving my husband alone with his thoughts as well, but if neither of us would have said anything or stuck to our beliefs, then we would be stuck being annoyed with each other's families even more and more.... i wouldn't be able to stand that.

question: (i mean i know you want to see your brother, just like the rest of your family)... have you ever thought of rebelling one year and not attending? perhaps seeing your brother on your terms? and when your family asks you can bring those items up to them.... i had to do something like that once.

my mom refused to stop cursing in front of her grandkids, so i simply said "well, i'll my bro and hubby that we aren't to bring the kids over to your house until you can refrain from using such language"... my bro's kids and my kids didn't see my mom for over a month. she couldn't stand that her kids "staged a coo (sp?)". but it worked. alright- this is a ling enough comment. don't you just love the effect that our families have on us? i mean we're grown adults- right?!

good luck at your family visit.

valejandras said...

hello ms. science prof... long time reader- i really enjoy your blog.

wow! keep your head up- and take a break from making the sandwiches to go pee in the bushes....lol.

maybe that'll get their attention.

:)

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again- great blog.

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Winnie said...

In my husband's family, his mother and father bend over backwards to accomodate his sister's whims, for she is spoiled rotten. (For example, no use of the common kitchen before 9 because she has to be able to rest, and that's generous since she usually sleeps till 11)
My point being: in his family being spoiled trumps being male. They, the parents, are the ones who created the monster, and now they have to feed it. Even my usually aloof husband has seen the injustice of what we and our children are required to do to keep the peace, and has promised never to vacation with them again. If he doesn't keep his promise, I like how you have resolved teh vacation with teh respective families issue.
Thanks for your blog, I very much enjoy it.

Quantum Moxie said...

Since it is not obvious from my posting identity, I have to preface this by pointing out that I am a guy - beer guzzling, sports loving, the whole thing.

Regardless, I come from a family of strong women and I love it.

My great-grandmother became an "honorary" member of a men's club a century-ago because, after walking my great-grandfather to the club a few times (because she was distrustful of the ladies along the route who used to wave hello), flat-out refused to leave and none of the men had the guts to tell her to leave (she was intimidating).

My grandmother on the other side of the family took her father to court (in 1932) because he was being a jerk to her mother.

And those are just two of many stories. My daughter is already preparing her place in family lore and she's only 4.

Miss Cellania said...

This is one problem I don't have to deal with, since all the men in my family died off.

Amit Ginni Patpatia said...

Most functional family are very healthy when the women do the house chores, more then often the women are unhappy with the men attempt or lack of speed. As you might know when a women ask for something they want it NOW, not later. Thus it is one of the reason a fight occur, and men are often oblivious to it.

I don't see your family as wrong or sexist, I think it sounds nice.

HOWEVER, in our family my mother always made the dinner, took care of the house. If she was sick dad also being a cook stepped in but made not as fancy food but still he cooked his specialties.

If dad wasn't around (I am the spoiled young one). My brothers took care of the kitchen and house chores. So I think it's nice to have a women take care of the house, its a sense of safety and calmness, kind of work I think many (not all) men are terrible at compare to women psychological advantages.

That said, my brother is married to a women who isn't a good cook and my other brother is also married to a women who isn't a good cook. One of my brother does most of the cooking and house chores while the other one does 50/50 or maybe more then the girl.

What I don't like however in your story is that even as a guest you are asked to take care of your brother etc, which I think makes a visit less fun. I don't mean that one shouldn't be a family and help each other out but it would be nice if your brother was asked to help YOU specifically and you to help HIM. That way you both would make each others visit a VACATION more then a work visit.