I clearly remember the day I got into my first (and only) fight. I was 16, and it happened after class in an open field. I have no recollection what started it, I simply remember that it attracted a big crowd, and that in the end I was thankful I didn’t lose teeth. But I also recall being satisfied that the fight- along with chasing girls and sneaking into bars, was one more defining moment in my quest towards manhood.
It all seems so quaint now.
Fast forward 20 years. Since then there is home ownership, a 9-5 job and a countless flow of bills that require “urgent” attention. But these were all expected trappings of grown up life and drilled into me by endless teachers, professors and parents.
On being a man, however, there was scarcely little preparation. Here, I’m not referring to the ability to fix an engine, build a fence or possess a preternatural knack to barbecue a steak to medium rare (I still struggle with all of these).
I don’t mean this in the sense that that I am bad at vacuuming and wish I had received more instruction throughout my upbringing. What I mean is that it took me several years of internal strife to feel comfortable with the idea of Kevin vacuuming. It took even longer to reconcile doing the dishes, and I still struggle to handle my weekly garbage duties.
The older I get, the more I realize this is not a trivial matter. There are duties that must be done in every home, and someone needs to accept responsibility for life’s most mundane tasks. Leonard Cohen expressed it best in his song Democracy:
It’s the Homicidal Bitchin’;
That Goes Down in Every Kitchen;
To Determine Who Will Serve and Who Will Eat.
Of course, past generations of men rarely faced this dilemma when male duties were restricted to tasks requiring heavy lifting and power drills. But as much as I would love to blame my parents and society, this too is not totally fair.
I am the first to accept that we have moved beyond the era where women should carry all the burden of domestic life. And more than that, the truth is that I like the concept of the guy pitching in around the house. When I see my (more enlightened) male friends changing diapers and cooking dinner, my honest reaction is: Here is my friend. I know for a fact he’s straight. We still play sports together, go out for beers and regularly make lewd comments about women. Yet, he, somehow is comfortable- even content to voluntarily clear the dishes after the meal and feel no loss of pride.
This impresses me greatly.
But as much as I admire this quality, when it gets down to the nitty-gritty- to actually scrubbing pots and maneuvering the dust-buster into tight crannies, a sense of real dissonance strikes. And the fact is that I’m not alone in this feeling. Numerous studies show that women- even in our modern, “enlightened” age still, disproportionately do the housework. One study from Cornell University showed that women still do most of the household even when woman works and the man is unemployed.
You don’t need to be a hardcore feminist to accept that it leaves women with a pretty raw deal. They earned the right to work, but still do not make the same salary men, Not only must they endure PMS and labour, they are also expected to be the predominant child minders. On top of that, they are still the ones we expect will get the mustard stains out of our pants when we run into a hot-dog “challenge”.
It was this realization that led me to take another look at the vacuum. No, not just look… I decided I would dominate the vacuum like my childhood hero Tony Hawk took on the half-pipe. I made it a personal mission, every Sunday to get every fleck of dust out from under the bed, and ensure that no speck of grime remained on the baseboards. I know it’s just vacuuming, and there’s a lot more than that to keeping a home, but it’s a start, one about which my wife is quite pleased.
And, strange as it sounds, accepting the vacuum also had an important side benefit. It made me realize that, in spite of what I believed growing up, the characteristics we most associate with manliness are the ones that are easy because doing what is expected is almost always the most simple course of action. Instead, the real test and the most difficult challenge is to act outside of these stereotypes and make our own definitions of who we are.
For me, it started with the vacuum cleaner.