I Am Man, Hear Me Sigh

Ann Romney's speech to the Republican National Convention last night featured an awkward and transparent pander to female voters, whose troubles the quarter-billionaire dressage enthusiast said she had "heard stories of." It culminated with a memorable, and failed, attempt to ape human affect with the line, "I love you, women!", and was premised on the increasingly anachronistic notion that women run their households while men golf or slurp beer on the couch. This may have been true in Ann Romney's home. It is, regrettably, not true in mine.

When Ann Romney launches her sleep protocol at night, she told the assembled GOP audience, she can hear the moms and dads of the nation sighing (fuck you if you don't have kids). "And if you listen carefully," she said, "you'll hear the women sighing a little bit more than the men. It's how it is, isn't it? It's the moms who have always had to work a little harder to make everything right."

[Mothers], you know what those late-night phone calls with an elderly parent are like, and those long weekend drives just to see how they're doing.

You know the fastest route to the local emergency room and which doctors actually answers the phone call when you call at night, and by the way, I know all about that.

You know what it is like to sit in that graduation ceremony and wonder how it was that so many long days turned into years that went by so quickly. You are the best of America.

Now, I happen to know something about the fastest route to the local emergency room. I was there just last weekend, at 2 o'clock on Sunday morning, with my one-and-a-half-year-old son (croup attack; he's fine). My hard-working, louder-sighing wife was in our bed asleep at the time, holding down the fort with our three-year-old. Come to think of it, the last time our youngest had a worrying croup episode, almost exactly a year ago, it was also me traversing the fastest route to the local emergency room in the middle of the night, sighing quietly.

This isn't because my wife is lazy, or can't drive (though for years she did refuse to learn to drive a stickshift, which of necessity made me the default errand-runner when a car was needed). It's because we don't live in 1962. We co-parent our children, and we contribute in equal measure to the household chores. We alternate mornings getting up with the kids, and nights doing the dishes. I probably do more cooking than she does; she probably gets the kids after work more than I do. Roughly speaking, the work evens out. If things get out of whack and one of us starts carrying a heavier load, the other will hear about it. We sigh at the same volume.

We're not radical feminists. We're not doctrinaire. We're not bucking any social pressures. We just run our family in the way that makes the most sense. We both work. We regard ourselves as equals and partners. I'm not sure what Romney meant with her emergency room line, but the notion that I—or any father I know—could wake up in the middle of the night, nudge my wife, say "Sam can't breathe, better take him to the ER," and roll back over is preposterous. (My wife by the way, is currently baking our third child—one chore she has to handle on her own—and needs her sleep, which is why I didn't say it was her turn.) Almost every other couple we know operates, to some extent, the same way.

This arrangement is horrible for me. Not because of the work, but because people like Ann Romney are constantly reminding me that it used to be different. Had I been born just 20 or even 15 years earlier, I could have had the full domestic benefits of patriarchy, guiltlessly leaving the dishes in the sink and handing off our children to my wife as soon as they become inconvenient, without giving a second thought to the inequity. My father-in-law has never changed a dirty diaper in his life. Mothers in those days did sigh louder, and were expected to handle most of the parenting exclusively. But I was unfortunately raised in an era, and a cultural environment, that taught me to regard the concerns of the women in my life on equal terms with my own, and to feel badly about it when and if I fail that standard.

Like I said, most of the couples I know follow the same general rules, and split the domestic duties without regard to gender. To be sure, I operate in an admittedly narrow and privileged social sphere, and our parenting choices are not universal. This 2008 Gallup survey of married couples shows a very lopsided division of labor when it comes to laundry (women 68% men 10%), housecleaning (women 61% men 6%), and yardwork (men 57% women 12%). A 2005 time-use study published in the Journal of Marriage and Family found that women averaged 15 hours of housework (laundry, cooking, dishes, shopping, etc.) per week while their husbands averaged 10. Overall, the study found, men perform between 33% and 42% percent of the housework on average.

But the norms that produced those statistics are rapidly fading. Nearly a third of fathers with working wives report to the Census Bureau that they "routinely care for their children under age 15," according to the Wall Street Journal. That's up from 26% in 2002. In 1977, "70% of men in dual-earner couples thought it was better for men to earn the money and for women to care for the home and children," according to a 2008 study from the Families and Work Institute. By 2008, that number had dropped to 36%. The same study found that 49% of fathers described themselves as either primary or equal participants in caregiving (though women reported much lower levels of paternal involvement).

Women are more empowered now than ever before to determine the circumstances of their domestic lives, as evidenced by the dramatic increase in single motherhood. Obviously 100% of the domestic work is a heavier burden than 67%, but it's an indication that fewer women are putting up with situations that don't meet their needs, and exercising choice when it comes to constructing their domestic environments.

Romney is right, of course, to say that women have to work "a little bit harder to earn the respect you deserve at work"—not to mention just to earn the same amount of money a similarly situated man would earn. There are a host of systematic inequalities that women face in and out of the workplace, and each of them is a good reason to vote against her husband. But on the domestic front, her "you go girls" sloganeering and "it's harder for a mom" empathy ring increasingly hollow for a lot of families. The days of "Hi honey I'm home, where's my martini?" (or, glass of milk, in the Romneys' case), are long gone. Sigh.

[Image via Getty]