Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Gender war

I think, on second thoughts, I will call the battle of the sexes a WAR.

Feminists have never thought of it as such, no armed combat or winner-take-all motivations for us. But I think perhaps that's one of the ways we might have gone wrong. Men relate to war.

So war it is...

In the last two days I have been told two true stories of relational, male-female breakdown. I am addressing both as aspects, strategies, and points of fierce conflict in the gender war, as far as I see it

One shows how men can and do wreck their relationships with women, the other how women do the same, allowing for some sweeping, but fairly educated generalisations from these specific cases, of course.

Case A: On Men

My drop-dead gorgeous and relentlessly glamorous hairdresser who owns her own thriving business, works a fifty hour week washing, colouring and cutting other people's hair, sweeping up and making the smallest of talk to keep her customers happy, all the while stood on her feet, is married to a money-obsessed man who was once a mechanic but now spends his time managing their various accumulated properties, including the hair salon.

The couple together own the up-market salon, a spacious modern house, and a number of other properties bought from the proceeds, mostly, of her business. He does well at this managing job, evidently, but it's not that hard, especially when you do NOTHING else. And he does nothing else. Somehow my hairdresser manages to work fifty hours and run the home with next to no help from him. She is finally, after twenty-plus years, sick of it, and sick of him. They have one young son of five.

Her business thrives, she is an amazing hairdresser. Had she not had to look after him all these years she probably would have retired by now and never had to work again. But as it is, he manages their property investments from a home office while she goes out early, before eight every morning, to stand and serve, day after day, including Saturday.

He manages the property that is at least half hers, but she would rather he gave her his time and attention (love and respect) than the profits of his obsessive pursuit of money which they don't have time to enjoy or could ever expect to spend, presuming he has anything left to give, which she is now beginning to doubt. She thinks he's all about himself and the money. She thinks it's too late for them. I think she's right.

He expects her to do all the domestic chores, even though she's the one who works out of the house all day: Her jobs include day care drop-off and pick-ups, daily clothes washing, kitchen dishes, cooking, shopping,  social planning, all of it. Like a spoilt or very young child he even leaves his plate on the table and expects her to tidy it away as if he's in a restaurant. She has put up with this because she is that strong, having lost her mother when young and helped raise her younger sister. She has finally had enough and has confronted him with her grievances to be shown that he is basically unwilling to change. He just expects her to be there for him in a way that he is fundamentally not there for her. Where do some men get off expecting so much from women?

Case B: On women

An old friend pops in, the adopted son of a well-known local engineer who was a friend of my husband's as a boy. He himself is a man of somewhat more modest abilities than his father. Today he's fifty and all talk of his nearly five-year-old daughter. The joy of his life. They've just been to the snow. He has photos. Lots of photos. For work, he once had his own corporate chauffeuring and cab driving business before returning recently to his building maintenance and painting business. He works hard and is most of the time flecked with white paint. He is tall and lean and fairly good-looking, if rather weather-beaten and smoky of complexion.

He is separated from the mother of his only child. She is in her early thirties, so quite a bit younger than him. She has the daughter most of the time, he gets her every weekend. He pays 25% of his income on child-support and the mother doesn't work. "Hasn't worked a day in her life", he says, ruefully. She claims $600 from the government in living allowance and his child-support goes straight to the government. She says it's not enough to live on, after paying rent, so he says, Get a job. Anything. Work part-time in a shop. "We've all done it." But she complains that the cost of day care would take more than half of what she could earn. There are no family members on hand to look after the child.

The child is nearly five so things might change once she starts school. Might. But at the moment, to our friend, it looks like the mother gets paid by him and the government to spend the day driving around from one coffee get-together to another, same as those other friends who don't work, while he is stuck working all day. He works full-time and long weeks trying to make more than fifty to sixty thousand a year. She and the daughter get more than $10,000 before he even sees it. Income tax takes another 20%.

He lives on the leftover, which is not a lot. He adores his daughter and puts on a brave face: "As long as she's happy. Best thing I ever did" he says, and means it, though he's clearly unhappy with his lot. And it does seem unfair that the mother is not obliged to work at all and he effectively is, even if she's looking after the child - which is work - as well as carrying and breastfeeding the child to begin with.

Case B solution: Our friend could take the child one day a week in exchange for 5% of his income returned to him, while the mother works eight hours a week to qualify for the allowance, which shouldn't be reduced for the extra money she gets working, otherwise all incentive to work is lost. The child would surely benefit from spending more time with the Dad and probably the mother would benefit from a variation on her weekly routine. Employers could hire a whole lot of solo mums (and dads) doing their one day a week work, on different days.

Case A solution is rather more difficult. My hairdresser's husband has been told that he's not doing enough, that she's tired of cooking and caring for him and getting nothing back. He's upped his domestic game a fraction, but he essentially still doesn't get the concept of shared responsibility and care for looking after the home and family in the practical, day-to-day sense. She wants to leave him when they get back from the holiday they're going on with friends (girls and guys separate) that has been in the planning for years, and I think she will - and should - she's done too much and sacrificed too much for him already.  She deserves much better, of course that doesn't mean she'll find it, but an end to the sacrifice is considerable reward in itself. The son will suffer from the separation of his parents, no doubt, but in the long term, as far as making healthy decisions about his own life and relationships goes, he will be better off not seeing his mother serve his father as she has been doing.

As far as the 'gender war' goes, these cases highlight the difficulty of role and responsibility sharing between the genders within relationships - if not life. In each case there is only one child, which should make things easier for parents to move between roles rather than stick to traditional divisions of labour. All adults should know how to clean and care for others, and be prepared to work for money, too, if and when this is needed and possible, given the caring and cleaning responsibilities. It's a constant balancing of workloads that the majority of women and men in relationships struggle to achieve, but on which our collective happiness depends. If any war was ever worth fighting, the gender war is it.

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