Chairman of the Breadboard

by Conrad Sernia

It's Saturday night and my partner and I are having a few friends over for dinner. We have divided the preparation; she prepares the dips and looks after the main course; I help with the drinks and make small talk during her forays to the kitchen to check on the roast. By the time dinner begins the drinks have had their effect and all are pleasantly relaxed and ready for an evening of chatter. Each guest in turn purrs over the exquisite meal and does not fail to praise the fresh fruit salad, knowing that the "man of the house" has prepared it. In the wee morning hours they leave: "Thank you, Jane, for a great meal; nice to see you, Tom!".

Recognize the scene? We all have experienced something along these lines,even if our preference may be a BBQ or a party with lots of people rather than a cosy dinner. The early days of my marriage dining with friends was much like that which I have described, except that I probably had more than a passing interest in the preparation of food.

So I gradually contributed more to the culinary side of our life; the kids became accustomed to seeing dad in the kitchen, and at the kitchen sink. I learned to cook meals from start to finish - and enjoyed the experience!

Then, about the time our fourth child was born, I took over most of the cooking and have been doing it ever since. That was almost ten years ago.

Even though my partner and I both have careers, we still eat at home most nights and rarely eat out as a family. Consequently, apart from times of absence on conferences, I have prepared the meals - night after night. I know that I can't stay back at work without planning for it in advance - and making a few phone calls to make sure that all is well in the kitchen.

And overall I have loved it. I love the preparation, the planning and the execution of the meal. I love cooking for friends. Most of all, I love the opportunity it provides for interaction with the kids. Very strong bonds are formed around a kitchen bench and there is no denying that lasting memories are often born at the kitchen table.

However, over time I have noticed the attitudes of those around me change. My friends and acquaintances, my relatives, my children and even my spouse have all displayed some intriguing behaviour which has led me to ponder over the nature of stereotypic roles; in this case the entrenched stereotyping of nurtur-ing behaviour as a female trait. I shall illustrate what I mean by the most recent example.

My youngest sister, spouse and two children visited us briefly. When they left she thanked my spouse for her hospitality and presented her with a gift - a breadboard! I must admit to having felt slightly hurt. Was it not I who had picked them up from the airport, showed them the city sites and naturally, cooked for them? Was it not I who would be using that breadboard more than anyone else?

So why had she done it? I tried dismissing it as an honest oversight; nothing else.Yet it is not an isolated case. With the exception of a neighbouring elderly couple, who seem to believe what they see, our dinner guests' parting words are usually directed to thanking my partner for a lovely meal and for "having us around". Likewise, my son's girlfriend invariably announces her departure by thanking my partner for "having me". Even my children have in their teenage years occasionally shown uneasiness and irritation at having a dad in the kitchen, and not a mum - like their "normal" friends. The thought has at times crossed my mind that I am being overly-sensitive and drawing conclusions where there are none to be drawn. But I don't think so.

In the early days female friends went out of their way to encourage me to do my bit in the kitchen. So much so that my partner lamented (quite rightly) that I was attracting more praise for my repertoire of six recipes than she ever got for her years of culinary effort. No, I don't think I am experiencing delusions: over the years there has been a tangible change of attitude.

I believe that what has occurred constitutes a shift from open recognition of an activity considered desirable, i.e., a male doing the cooking, to one of denying that the activity takes place at all. I am now also coming to an understanding of this apparently irrational behaviour. It boils down to this: when faced with a person who has clearly broken a strongly held social convention, we ignore the reality and reaffirm the stereotype.

For example, when a woman becomes the director of an engineering firm or a financial institution many (both male and female) find it irksome and may react by belittling that person's ability or the authority and status invested in the position. It appears that we have no such problem with the traditional "helper" role for women in the workplace, but the investment of real power is another matter altogether!

The same principles can be applied to my case, except that curiously it is women rather than men who are experiencing the pain of change - and naturally they are behaving in a typically sexist fashion! Let's face it, women want to expand their choices and not restrict them. They want access to careers while maintaining their traditional image as nurturers and carers. It is implicit in such a paradigm that males play a greater "helper" role in the home. Hence the countless articles and surveys which conclude that men do less "housework" (as defined from a female perspective) than their partners.

To put it bluntly, men need to do more of the chores and shit-work around the place to help their partners cope with careers outside the home. Doing more of the shit-work is euphemistically called "taking responsibility"; although I doubt whether the assignment of menial tasks to women in the workplace would be seen as "taking responsibility" when decision-making power still rested with a male manager.

So where have I gone wrong? Clearly my transgression has been to progress beyond the "helper" role; I have irresponsibly taken over responsibility for the kitchen - and the perceived power and status that goes with it. The fact that I have earned my position and that I do it well is not the relevant issue. What unsettles people (let's admit it, mostly the women) is that I have gone from kitchen-hand to chairman of the breadboard.

My God! What next? Am I to be seen as carer and nurturer by the children as well! Shock and horror! It wasn't supposed to turn out this way. It's not what feminists have in mind. It isn't exactly what my partner had in mind either. She wanted help without losing control and without diminishing her status as nurturer - at least in the eyes of our children. In fact she hasn't lost her status (nor would I wish it) since children in general keep a special affection for their mother.

What is significant, is the healthier and fairer image of a father's role which is imprinted on the children by their witnessing of a tangible activity which is central to family life, and not incidental, as in fixing taps, setting the table etc. An additional important factor for me is the creation of warm happy memories which my children can cherish in later life - what a great way of destroying sexist stereotyping! The opportunity to create such memories is now denied to most men because their talents are exercised outside the home and often in a context which is remote from the experiences, or understanding, of children. Hence, try as I may, it is not easy to explain what a research scientist and academic does (my profession) and how it contributes to their welfare in particular and to society in general I am sure that my experiences are shared by many men who have been insensitive enough to truly "take responsibility" in roles which have traditionally been female dominated, such as the care of young children.

In such circumstances those who find change difficult to accept will respond with denial; they simply ignore what is patently obvious to the most casual observer and instead reaffirm the stereotypic view of the activity. I look forward to the day when men's formidable capacity as nurturers and carers is not treated with denial, and instead given opportunities to flourish.

In the meanwhile: "Thanks for the lovely meal Jane; nice to see you Tom". "Glad you could come, Germaine, Betty, Naomi". "Please come again!".

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