In 1987, just a few weeks before he died of cancer, my father recorded his final thoughts onto an audiotape. Among his slow, breathy reflections, he made sure to leave messages for his three kids. His charge to me?
“A lot of the weight of the man of the house will be on your shoulders.”
I was 4. A week or so after he died, I refused to leave the house for preschool, claiming that I needed to stay home to take care of my mother. “I’ll be OK, buggy,” she said. “Why don’t I make sure your Superman pajamas are clean for when you get home later?”
“Can I wear the cape to bed?” I asked.
“Heavens, no!” she cried. “You’ll choke in your sleep!”
Who is the man of the house? At first it seems like a silly question in a culture that often sees equality in simple terms: women can vote, be CEOs and stay-at-home moms; we must have wrapped up that issue. But even if it is an antiquated phrase, we still see it emblazoned on IRS forms and bellowed with fist-pounds in church services.
At 28, I have been happily married for over seven years, and I don’t think my wife Natalie or I have ever used the phrase “man of the house” seriously. The idea directly contradicts an egalitarian relationship and implies that we are expected to take on predefined roles like “bill payer” and “toilet scrubber,” even if those tasks do not fall in one’s individual skill set or career goals.
But we both grew up in an evangelical Christian context, so we’re no strangers to the following controversial verse, often read at weddings, from the New Testament book of Ephesians 5:22–23a: “Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church.” In contrast, husbands are to “love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.” Thus the order was set. Husbands love; wives submit.
And even though I wrote countless papers in college lauding the work of feminists like Betty Friedan and Susan Sontag, the idea that I had to “take the lead” stuck with me as I walked down the aisle and beyond. That’s precisely where my problem began—I clearly rejected the words “man of the house,” but I subconsciously still believed that I was the one with the cape on my shoulders. The dissonance of thinking I was at once succeeding and failing as a spouse made even the simplest decisions impossible. Take for example the last time we tried to order pizza:
“You want pizza tonight?” I offered.
“Yes! Pepperoni? From Dominos?”
Since this was her favorite food from childhood, had I stopped here she wouldn’t have been the only one feeling lucky by the end of the night.
Instead I countered, “Too many chemical additives. Let’s try something more local. But I don’t want to call. You call.”
“Why do I have to call?”
“OK, fine. Let’s just eat there.”
“Yeah, let’s go!”
“Hmm. But then we have to leave a tip,” I said. “You sure you don’t want to just call?”
And so on, until I argued us into such indecision that it got too late and I ended up making pizza with stale bread in the toaster oven. We ate in silence, and I choked down the crusty reminder that I’m incapable of making decisions. Sure, it was just pizza night gone awry, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was stopping us from ever taking steps forward.
Natalie is literally afraid of heating oil in a pan, whereas I annoy guests with lecture tours of my vintage cast iron collection. Conversely, I haven’t looked at our bank statement in years, because she knows I’ll lose sleep no matter what number is listed under “available balance.” But her taking the lead there doesn’t let me off the hook—in fact, it threatens to make her look like my personal accountant.
I may seem to transcend outdated gender roles by spending an entire Sunday afternoon working out of a Julia Child recipe for leek-and-potato soup, but I can’t remember the last time I cleaned the bathroom, swept a floor, or did a load of laundry without first looking for a way out of it. That is, despite the way I think about gender roles, there are still some hangers-on that tell me I am still the main creator in the relationship, and she is the one that cleans up around and after me.
Now, she’s pregnant with our first child, and at the time of this writing, I have no idea what sex our lemon-sized fetus is, and I can’t even decide whether I want to know beforehand or not. That may seem like an understandable and common question for a budding parent to dwell on, but for me, there’s a lot more at stake. I’m tired of pushing things off, knowing that if I talk myself into a circle of indecision, Natalie will eventually carry the load for both of us. What good is it that I think myself helpful because I make dinner? Chances are she’s just going to throw it up for the next few months anyway.
I never let go of my father’s words. I was the man of the house—how could that role just end? But he didn’t mean for me to confuse that phrase with what our cultural history has done to it—to see gender as a vessel of prescribed, hierarchical roles. Instead, it was a call to serve, knowing that if I turned the focus off myself and help alleviate the grief around me, then I would learn to deal with his death. He was teaching me how to be an ever-present father while anticipating his own absence.
I still don’t want to be the man of the house. But I do want to be the man of my house—my body, my mind. We have to be the men of our own individual lives if we ever hope to happily enter into an equal partnership, let alone try and pass on what we know to the next one. My mom was right—not only does wearing a cape support the myth that you can fly, it’s a willful lie that’ll choke the man right out of you.
© Bryan Parys 2010