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Real Men Wear Aprons: Defining Gender Roles in the 21st Century

What does it mean to be a woman in a modern family? Or a man? We have been asking ourselves these questions for the last 40 years or so, but I just don't know if we, as a society, have worked out all the answers yet. And maybe there are no real answers; it could be that it's subjective to every relationship and personality type.

I thought it would have been safe to say that a lot has changed - women are no longer expected to be homemakers, and men don't have to take on the tough guy role - but judging from an article I saw here by a marriage therapist that was followed by a lengthy and lively debate, that is clearly not the case. While it's really only a small portion of society that's still mired in a 1950s June Cleaver mindset, there's still a healthy chunk of the issue that continues to ruffle feathers, confuse, irritate, and enrage.



In my house, there are no clearly defined roles as to what is "female" and "male," especially as far as housework goes. I'm a lousy cook. Luckily my fiancé excels in the kitchen. He also takes care of the dishes, the sweeping and the mopping. I'm messy, untidy, and admittedly, a bit of a slob. So my fiancé tends to do most of the general organizing and tidying up around the house. To make up for my lack of culinary ability and clutter-prone nature, I compensate by taking on the gross stuff - changing the cat litter boxes, cleaning the bathtubs, unblocking drains, heavy-duty vacuuming. I go on a monthly housecleaning rampage, scrubbing all the places he misses, behind the sink drains, the baseboards, smudges on the walls, you name it.

Just to make things clear, my fiancé is every bit a "manly man." He's into cars, football, and golf. He eats red meat, and does all the tool-related stuff around the house. He is confident in his masculinity, comfortable enough that he doesn't feel threatened by wearing the cook's apron.

The division of housework we've fallen into works out pretty well for us. My fiancé doesn't feel in any way emasculated by doing the dishes and the cooking; a well-ordered kitchen is something he takes pride in. I get a strange satisfaction pulling globs of hair from uncooperative drains, and none of our friends or family members seem to think this sort of division is in any way strange. We're a modern family, I guess you could say.

I can put on the outfit, but I still make a lousy casserole.

I can put on the outfit, but I still make a lousy casserole.

The boys making Turkey Reubens with homemade dressing.

The boys making Turkey Reubens with homemade dressing.


When it comes to our two-and-a-half-year old nephew, who is practically our adopted child, my fiancé is the primary caregiver. Because my nephew does not have a father figure in his life, he gravitates to my fiancé, who showers him with love and affection. Yes, affection. My nephew is far more likely to come to my fiancé for a hug, to kiss a boo-boo, or a cuddle at storytime. When we put my nephew to bed, he snuggles in with my fiancé every time, and usually requests a backrub or belly rub.

Because of our home dynamic, my fiancé and I have decided that when we have a child (still a few years off), he will be a stay-at-home dad. I don't feel that I have it in me to be the stay-at-home mom type; I'd probably go stir-crazy. I know that while I'd likely be able to do a passable job at full-time parenting and keeping a house, my fiancé would be far better at it. Being a stay-home dad is something my fiancé is genuinely excited about, while to me it feels like kind of a chore. And we are very happy with our decision.

Life Magazine, August 20,1945

Life Magazine, August 20,1945

Stay-at-home dads

Imagine my surprise when I started telling people about our plan and reactions ranged from condescending to pity to shock. I was told by one friend that maybe I shouldn't have children if that was how I felt. "Some people just aren't cut out to have kids, maybe you're just one of those." I was told that men lack the innate ability to nurture a child in the same way a mother can. People questioned both my mothering instinct and my fiancé's masculinity. Somehow I was less of a woman, and he was less of a man. I was very surprised, especially since I thought that it was now considered to be socially acceptable to have a working mom or a stay-home dad. Families are doing it every day, all across America.

I finally realized that it is okay to do things this way, but not by choice. Men are only supposed to be the ones to stay home with the kids if that's just the way things worked out, either through unemployment, financial demands, or a career that the wife is obligated to continue. Women are allowed to go to work, but there has to be the same justification. Then it's okay, because everyone knows that in a perfect world, things wouldn't have to be this way. People are less likely to look down on you when they can pity you. In other people's eyes, the problem with the scenario my fiancé and I put together is that we're happy about it. We are choosing this way of child-rearing, and strategically planning to make it a reality.

It's not that I am uninterested in my home, or the prospect of raising a child. I'm very home-oriented and family-oriented. I take a lot of pride in our house; it's been a real labor of love over the past year. I absolutely love being second mom to my nephew; he brings so much joy into my life. When my fiancé and I do have a baby, I'd like to take about a year of maternity leave, if we can swing it. I just don't want to feel tied into the homemaker role, especially when I am lucky enough to have found a man who is not only willing to do it, but excited.

Really: who cares?

I feel strongly that as long as the household is being taken care of, from finances and bills to cooking, cleaning and childcare, it doesn't matter which partner is doing the work, as long as both are satisfied with the division of labor.

It is often gender stereotypes that contribute to a lot of unhappiness in relationships. Inadequacy and frustration result when people feel that they are constantly striving to meet a socially constructed gender ideal that is impractical and at odds with both their own personality and the marriage dynamic. I do agree with the fact that men often need to feel a sense of pride in their manhood, and women like to feel feminine. Yet the ways that can be achieved is not gender-specific, but specific to the individual and the couple. Just as people are attracted to different physical attributes and have different sexual preferences, they are also attracted to different personality characteristics in a mate.

Pigeonholing men and women into specific roles and behaviors is missing the point. People like to feel needed as well as appreciated. It is up to each partner to figure out what they can bring to the relationship-- what they will be needed for, what roles they can fill, and most importantly, what contributions they can offer that will most make them feel empowered, whether in a masculine or feminine way. In addition, each person needs to find the ways that are most comfortable for them to express their appreciation to their partner. While this may mean caring for a partner while he or she is sick, cooking a nice meal, or dressing up in skimpy lingerie and vacuuming the carpet, there are many other creative and heartfelt ways to express love and gratitude. Couples will not need to rely on generic one-size-fits-all models of marriage and gender roles if they take the time to truly get to know their partner, find out their likes and dislikes, and determine what will work in their own unique situation.


This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.