Maybe it’s a testament to a hardy relationship that there was no resulting argument. Without thinking, I blurted out, “You are so sexist!” I could immediately tell by my husband’s face, his upper eyelids and eyebrows lifted a bit, his mouth freeze-framed in a small “o” — my exclamation surprised and insulted him. Maybe it was a completely unfair assessment; after all, he was standing at the sink, his hands covered in soap, washing the dinner dishes.
Can you be sexist and clean up after a meal?
Can you be sexist and love your spouse?
Can you be sexist and a female MD?
I can shamefacedly answer the last question for myself; emphatically, it is a yes.
When I say “sexist,” I mean an instinctual acceptance of gender roles, with women being in charge of themselves and the house and any children and all that goes along with that, and men being in charge of themselves. How easy it seems like it would be, to be just in charge of myself! (Caveat: Even though it seems like a lifetime ago, I can remember my life before I got married, before I had kids, before I started owning all my first-world stuff. And with responsibility for just the one me, I made plenty of mistakes, poor decisions, and could display an alarming lack of self-control.)
Back to the dinner dishes and husband-wife spotlight. Maybe it helped to prevent an argument, the fact that I immediately said, “Sorry. I didn’t mean to be so rude. I’m sexist, too, I promote sexism in this household as much or maybe more than anyone.” The comment my husband had made, off-hand that started the whole conversation was that he wondered if my son’s girlfriend (our son is only 10!) would be able to cook him meals that appealed to his taste buds, as my son has not been so happy lately with my cooking. Wow, I thought. My husband thinks there will be girlfriends out there who will cater to my son’s taste buds. Shouldn’t my son eventually be responsible for making his own food? While I thought that, I unthinkingly condensed a lifetime of conditioning into an unintentional, accusatory statement directed at my husband.
After all, the real issue is my own response to gender roles, a habitual reaction ingrained in me from seeing the interactions of my parents, their friends, and fictional characters. It wasn’t until I was past 30 that I discovered Bad Mother by Ayelet Waldman and read a first-hand account that there truly are husbands that are brought up from when they are younger to be partners that share the endless work of living — exhorted by their moms to treat their wives, to live their lives, a particular way.
I can believe it, only because I was taught by my own mother to treat my husband a traditional way, and the way my life is lived can only be profoundly affected. Even today, as the COVID pandemic rages on and there is article upon article about mothers and women and the primary caretaker of children being disproportionately stressed, anguished and even broken — even today, my mom will ask me what I made for dinner, how is my husband, am I treating him well. I suppose she thinks that my dinner, my self, and my treatment is dependent on that, and maybe it is.
But when I am alone, blessedly alone (and COVID has taken much of that time away), I absolutely know that who I am is separate, from my husband, my kids, any gender role or even another societal role that is placed on me.
As Glennon Doyle writes in Untamed, I am.
And at some point, because we actually are all the same, because we are, none of us, “special,” each of us will come to a day where the reverse is true — I am not. And during the time that I am, it’s a work-in-progress when I confess that I am sexist and realize that I am ashamed. My shame can be a light that directs me toward what I need to change. My shame can help me upend the instincts and habits of a lifetime that crush me and box me in. My shame can be an impetus for the effortful practice of new patterns that hopefully will become better habits.
It is never easy, but I can create a different I am for myself.
Christine J. Ko is a dermatopathologist.
Image credit: Shutterstock.com