Our Gendered Selves Wrestle

SCENE I. “Hi, honey, it’s me. Listen, I hope you can get home from work sooner rather than later. I’ve been frustrated recently that I seem to be doing most of the cleaning and cooking when we have Shabbat guests. I want to figure out how we can do this better. See you soon. Oh, don’t worry about the challah, I got it this morning. Bye.”

A message on my work voice-mail from my boyfriend.

When his cousin and her partner come over for Shabbat dinner, I find myself explaining how we’re trying to make sure that B. learns to sit down in his own kitchen. I feel a little defensive. I don’t want them to think that I take advantage of him, and I don’t want them to think, as I scurry around making sure he sits, that I always serve and clean up. I tell them about writing this piece, and my fear that feminism is still stuck in “Who’s doing the housework?” S. points out, “But it is an eternal issue, in every family; it’s no wonder we’re still asking that question.” I regret later not asking them how they—a lesbian couple together 23 years, one spouse working primarily outside of the home, one primarily at home—divide up responsibilities, handle feelings of imbalance, resentment, guilt.

Our gendered selves wrestle with issues in ways that don’t fall neatly along gender lines. It is important that we work this out, in a fair and healthy way. But it is also secretly satisfying to me that—by accident and temperament, not by any great virtue or revolutionary commitment—in our relationship it is the woman who (maybe?) isn’t pulling her share of the weight, and the man who (probably) is doing more of the domestic work.

SCENE II. We go away together, eight or nine couples each time, gay and straight, more children each year, for the first half of Sukkot. We build our own sukkah. It is enormous, at once grotesque and gorgeous. It easily fits 20 people for a sit-down meal.

During our second lunch in the sukkah, someone raises the question: Why was it mostly men who were building, chopping, attaching, driving a tractor and cutting down trees, and mostly women doing childcare? The discussion continues, trickling throughout the day and beyond: Is this really how it broke down? To the extent that the division of labor “naturally” fell that way, what do we think about that? How many and which of us feel competent doing demanding physical work? How do we affect the children through the choices we make, the work we do?

We agreed that we need to arrange for more childcare on sukkah-building day. That there is a complex relationship between the choices individuals, couples and families make, and the decisions that communities make. And that we’ll keep thinking and talking. But not everyone saw the breakdown primarily along gender lines, instead observing other divisions, emphasizing other dynamics. Choices are a tricky combination of temperament and ability, learning and practice, obligation (perceived or real) and habit, and more. None of these components can be reduced to gender, but none can be understood without it.

Given our annual scurrying to get the sukkah up and kosher before the sun disappears behind the com stalks, is it most important to just get it done? Or, as we try to build community, are we willing to work towards transformation: to learn new skills, to challenge ourselves on several levels, to push beyond what we do most “naturally”?

Rabbi Susan P. Fendrick is the editor of SociaIAction.com, a new publication of Jewish Family & Life!.