I have not lived as a woman. I have lived as a man. I've just done what I damn well wanted to, and I've made enough money to support myself, and ain't afraid of being alone.
― Katharine Hepburn
Expectations in a relationship aren't exactly what they used to be. The stereotypes too, have new types. However, as gender roles are changing fast in most areas of life, relationships are lagging behind. And this has become too painful. Let's see what are some of the reasons responsible for this change, and how it has impacted us.
The rise of women as breadwinners began when 'traditionally-male' industries―construction, automotive, factory work―went down the tubes at the beginning of the recession in 2007, while 'traditionally-female' industries like teaching, health care, and the food industry remained steady. This led to many men becoming unemployed, and the over-strained job market made getting a new job easier said than done. These men learned to lean on their still-employed wives’ incomes for support during this transition phase, and the jobs they eventually got, paid them far less than what they were used to earning.
Before too long, women were the primary earners even in households where both adults were employed. While it is true that women were breadwinners even before this recession, the rise in the women workforce has increased since this very period. However, women are still paid 30% less than men for the same jobs, so this phenomenon points to a larger financial hardship for these families―but when compared to our parents’ world, where women’s incomes were seen as 'pocket money', it’s still an advancement for women to be seen as breadwinners. This has impacted our social equations largely in today's time and age. The conventional role held by a man was now led by a woman, and at this juncture, we began a subconscious reevaluation of gender roles in relationships.
As men in their prime got employed, they began focusing on areas of life, such as domestic duties. This change of attitude and outlook quietly let men get absorbed in doing household chores. While women still went to work, some of the unemployed men never managed to find employment, or the employment they did find just wasn’t worth the effort of getting up and going in every day. If the wife’s income was enough to live on, some men decided to become the primary childcare provider, instead of continuing to look for work outside the home―in essence, househusbands or stay-at-home dads. For families with young children, this turned into a great decision―as not only did the dad get to spend plenty of quality time with the kids, but also the family saved tons of money on day care and babysitting―and mom got to come home to a clean house, clean kids, and dinner on the stove. Thus, we saw men as being a great help around the house, taking care of the kids, cooking, cleaning, picking up the kids, and holding the fort till the woman of the house walked in.
A recent example of this is our very own Prince William, who is said to be helping his princess wife in the royal duty of looking after their newborn prince. As opposed to Princess Diana and Prince Charles, the new generation dropped their traditional garbs, refused a nanny, and gave running a house a fresh perspective. Of course, they weren't pressed due to an economic downturn, but gradually, there has been a sea change in the way we think about gender roles in relationships, due to what the history has been.
Same Gender, Different Roles
Same-sex couples are sort of responsible for this shift in the gender role paradigm. When both members of the couple are of the same sex, what roles do you occupy? There really was no traditional standard, unless the couple identified strongly as 'femme' and 'butch'―but even then, traditional gender roles don’t always work out. So, same-sex couples had to negotiate every single role within the relationship for themselves. And this became a pivotal point to the actual bucking of gender roles in relationships.
Slow changes such as division of chores by the virtue of skill/enjoyment/ability, rather than by 'what mom did' and 'what dad did' became the premise of raising a home and a family. Work and childcare roles are dictated by income/time/job stability, rather than 'mom duties' and 'dad duties'. As middle America is becoming more used to seeing the same-sex couple dynamics at work, especially on TV, it’s only natural that the 'new normal' will spill over into their own lives, and make them more comfortable with any changes they make.
As a country, we’ve been pretty comfortable with divorce for a while now―but a major sign of patriarchy and sexism still remains. That is, when a couple gets divorced, the woman is almost always automatically favored in the custody proceedings. This is a holdover from traditional gender roles, when women were thought to be inherently 'better with children'. This could be debatable. Not all women are good with children, and many men are fantastic fathers. But as it currently stands in many places, custody generally falls to the woman by default, unless she can be proven incapable of raising children.
This is changing, albeit slowly. Fathers are fighting harder for primary custody, and they’re winning―unfortunately, at this point, it’s mostly a function of who can raise the kid in the highest degree of luxury, rather than any particular parenting skills. But it’s still progress in some sense.
In a perfect world, roles wouldn’t be based on gender at all, but on skills, ability and desire―so do that. Yes, today, gender roles have evolved and not changed. Mothers today are capable of doing the things fathers did in the past, and fathers are looking after domestic responsibilities like mothers did. This kind of an evolution is only likely to help us raise children sensitive towards both kind of roles and their due responsibility. Effectively, this is our chance to actually be the change we intend to see in this world. A change which is best described by personal fulfillment, and empathy towards one another.