The other day, I was grocery shopping with my mother and my kids. My two youngest girls, Norah and Aspen, were in the cart. Aspen sat up top in a Peppa Pig dress, her bruised shins sticking out toward me. Norah sat cross-legged in the belly of the cart in an off white dress with strawberries on it. My oldest, Tristan, was walking alongside us in a green and black Minecraft jacket. My wife was at home. This was the first time my mom had visited my family since we’d moved to Oregon almost two years earlier, and it was the first time the two of us had gone to the grocery store together in who knows how long.
As we walked through the produce section, I examined the grocery list on my phone. It seemed pretty clear that my mother was uneasy about something, although I wasn’t sure exactly what. I couldn’t tell if she didn’t understand why I was doing the shopping, or if she was worried that I had all three kids out with me, or if it was a mix of both. She’s a Baby Boomer who’d been married to a few different men, all pretty traditional ’50s-style guys who were more interested in bringing home the bacon than childcare or domestic duties.
I had several bags of fruits and vegetables in the cart before she finally asked, “Do you usually do the shopping?”
I thought for a moment. “Yes. Most of the time. I mean, not always, it kind of depends on who’s available.”
Mom twisted her lips to the side for a moment. Then she asked, “Do you usually take all the kids, too?”
“Usually,” I said. “But not always. It just kind of depends on what’s going on. Sometimes it’s a divide and conquer kind of thing.”
“What’s so funny?” I asked.
She looked at me with tired eyes that had seen too many trips to the store with children tugging on the cart, asking and wanting and needing with no possibility of her husband helping at the store, or the laundry, or with house work.
“I just don’t know where you learned this from,” she said.
I shrugged. I wanted to tell her that I’m a feminist. I wanted to tell her that Mel and I don’t subscribe to gender roles, but rather, we work as a partnership, picking up what works best based on skillset and availability. We have swapped roles in the past, with me being a stay-at-home dad while she worked. Mel does the budget because she’s better with numbers. I often do the laundry because I’m available to knock it out on Saturdays. When I was in college, Mel financially supported our family, and when she was in college, I brought home the paycheck.
None of it was about superiority, but rather the two of us working as a team to accomplish the most important goal I can think of right now — raising a family. And all of it has caused us to trust, love, and lean on each other in ways I never could have imagined by observing my parents’ relationship that seemed an unwritten code of shoulds and should-nots based on gender.
But the thing is, I know my mother, and to her, feminism is a dirty word associated with bra burning and angry women who listen to too much NPR rather than sensible people who are interested in equality. So I didn’t use the word; instead, I told her about the benefits of being a feminist father and husband without actually using the word.
“I must have picked it up along way,” I said. “But it’s been pretty cool.” I told her how I know a lot about my kids. I know what they like and dislike. I know what they eat. I get to have rewarding conversations about hygiene by doing their laundry. I get to teach them everything from how to mow the lawn to how to load the dishwasher. Nothing is off the table. I honestly feel like I know them better than my father ever knew me.
“The best thing is time,” I said. “I get to spend more time with them, and I love that.”
“How does Mel feel about this?” my mom asked.
I had to think hard about that one. Then I said, “I assume she likes it. Or at least she must because we discuss everything as equals. If something needs to be done, we don’t look at who ought to do it because they are the husband or wife. We look at who can and is available to do it. In a lot of ways,” I added, “it’s drawn us closer. I assume she enjoys having an equal voice in all this, same as I do. It’s pretty cool. I think we have a really good relationship. But you know what, you don’t need to lean on me for all the answers here. You can ask her how she feels about it.”
Mom shrugged, and I knew she probably wouldn’t ask. But then she said something I didn’t expect as we were in line to pay. “I just don’t understand. Your brother is the same way. But I suppose when I was a mother, I’d have enjoyed the help.”
I smiled. Then we walked out to the van to load the groceries. I loaded the kids in the car as my mom helped load the groceries. When I met her at the back of the van, she said, “It looks like you are a good father.”
“You are starting to sound like a feminist, Mom,” I said.
She gave me an epic eye roll, and said, “Don’t start with that crap.”
I laughed and said, “Never.”