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I CAN BE SEXIST AND I KNOW IT–Confessions of a Big Flip Wife

A home-grown interview by SARAH FRONING, Ph.D.  |  Sarah Froning is a human capital consultant in Chicago

Thanks to director Izzy Chan and The Big Flip team for allowing me to initiate a virtual discussion around what it is to flip traditional gender roles in a heterosexual marriage or partnership. I’m starting with my own experience, but this story was in fact co-created with a few other women sharing their experiences with me over email. The final result is a conversation from the home front that we hope will add to the varied range of Big Flip stories unfolding across our country. 

As a consultant in the field of human resources management, it fascinates me to see how the transformation of gender roles in society affects the workplace—so much so that I tend to ignore such transformation when it is happening right under my nose at home. This is a welcome shift to turn my gaze inwards to look at this change from a personal perspective.

Where did you meet your spouse?

We met at a mutual friend’s wedding. There were immediate sparks! We were married within 18 months, but the complicated part was that we each already had a child from our previous marriages, and we wanted to have our own child together, right away. I had just landed a great job, and he had just left his job to relocate to where I was living. My earning power was greater than his, so it made sense for him to stay home with the kids. It was a practical decision.

What attracted you to your spouse initially?

His loving spirit, intelligence and humor, his good looks, and ironically enough for a “lefty feminist type,” his macho qualities! He can fix literally anything. At the same time, he cooked, did laundry, ironed and loved to go shopping. He was full of the right contradictions.

What surprised you the most after one year of big flipping?

Most surprising to me was the difference in how we defined the job of homemaking, which brought out my own implicit assumptions and biases. In the beginning, we fought about how to do almost every chore, with me realizing only too slowly that he was not going to let himself be micromanaged. Ultimately I came to accept that chores would be done differently (or not at all), and that I had to let go of being “right.” The benefit of this became very clear to me as I realized how much intellectual effort and stamina was required to keep up with the kids’ homework. I knew full well that my job left me too drained to do that work but he handled it tirelessly. I realize now that my biases around housekeeping blinded me to this, and kept me overly focused on the negative.

Another surprise was how others perceived our flip. In the early days I used to be flabbergasted that he would not take our then-toddler daughter to the park on a nice spring day. I didn’t know at the time how he felt about the cold shoulder and sideways looks he experienced from the nannies and moms at the local playground. Things were less tense at the local elementary school, where thankfully the families are diverse, open and community-oriented. Still, it stunned me how many assumptions people made, most often that my husband was not working because he was unable to find a job rather than because he had chosen not to. People would ask me, so what does your husband do? When I responded that he was a stay at home dad, they’d ask, oh, is he looking for work?

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What are you most proud of?

I am extremely proud of my husband for the job he is doing on the home front. My kids are critical thinkers. Our family enjoys many moments of happiness, laughter and sharing. On a personal level, I am proud of coming to a fuller and more workable understanding of the anguish I have experienced with regard to a very typical female responsibility: housecleaning. This may seem trivial, but it is in fact monumental, considering how much housework has occupied the existence of women over the centuries. Because of this deeper understanding, I have become acutely aware of the need for society to re-evaluate how we reward caregivers, homemakers and teachers.

Was there ever a moment you wanted to flip back?

I am very engaged with and passionate about my work. I would even say that my work is part of my identity – it’s not just a job. Still, there were times I wanted to flip back just so I could get the house cleaned in the exact way that I wanted it. If that sounds a few shades of crazy to you, you’re right, but it seemed normal to me for years. I fantasized about quitting to clean even though I knew that when people asked me why I’d quit, the only honest answer would be, so I could keep my house clean. Because that’s what all feminists do, right? It didn’t make a bit of sense and filled me with a great deal of anguish.

My relationship with chores is complicated. It’s personal: growing up, I hauled firewood, cleaned bathrooms and tended a garden while my classmates went to football games and hangouts. It’s political: the number of generations of women enslaved by housework is staggering. It’s neurological: I happen to be a total neat freak, convinced I might even have OCD considering how meticulous I am and how ready I was to quit my job so that my house would be clean. Our Big Flip was the first time in my adult life that I was obliged to relinquish control of my home space and it was truly terrifying to me.  By all objective accounts, my husband was successfully keeping the house, but my anxiety was difficult to manage. I was convinced there was a “right” way, and for a long time it felt normal to criticize my husband’s housekeeping because dudes suck at housework, right? Many women around me would affirm this with me, agreeing that it is impossible to find a man who knows how to properly wipe off a counter, keep up with clutter or fold a fitted sheet.

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I finally became aware of my implicit bias when a close friend asked me yet again why my husband “still” wasn’t working. Doesn’t he feel like less of a man? She queried, before commenting that, after all, providing for the family is in a man’s DNA. This woman was a self-proclaimed feminist, and I had already been poised to defend my husband against the “still not working” premise but the “DNA” comment pushed me over the edge. I answered by telling her that this was the most sexist thing she had ever said to me and there was an awkward few moments of silence before she agreed. From that moment on I could no longer hide my own bias. If it’s not in his DNA to provide, then why should it be in my DNA to clean?  I realized that I had to let it go. It was incredibly freeing to realize I have a choice.

There is research that shows that unhappiness can be heightened in big flip marriages, with one study (from Western Washington University) indicating that divorce is 40% more likely when a woman makes over 60% of the family’s income. In your experience, what do you think is behind that friction—and more importantly, how have you overcome those hurdles?

I would bet that the source of unhappiness is misunderstandings, miscommunications and misaligned expectations. It’s hard to realize as you are going through change (usually at light speed, wearing heels and tripping over Legos) that you need to take time to listen to your partner and re-evaluate your own expectations. Giving my partner the benefit of the doubt and keeping open channels of communication have been important priorities for me.

If you were to meet a couple who are starting or considering The Big Flip (her taking on the breadwinner mantle while he takes the lead at home)—what words of advice and encouragement would you share?

Never assume anything! Take some time to consider how deliberate a choice this is on both your parts, and examine your expectations ruthlessly. Then, after a month, re-examine them. It’s never what you expect it to be, because how could you have expected what you could not have conceived? You didn’t know what you didn’t know, and your partner is going through the same thing.

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 BACKGROUND

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I am a white, middle-class, well-educated mother of three with a good job. My considerable privilege and fortune have allowed me the luxury of assuming the inevitability of social progress – so I was not shocked by my husband’s willingness to stay home with our 2nd and 3rd children when I landed my dream job ten years ago. I knew I had married a guy whose willingness to go beyond tradition matched my own.

What I did not realize is that it was harder than I thought to just “flip” tradition. Tradition is tenacious and breaking with it is fraught with emotional landmines. Especially when you are not doing it on purpose, you are just trying to pay the rent, so to speak. It’s not like the “Big Flip” is a movement, at least not from my perspective. This “home-grown interview” only came about because I had the good luck to come across like-minded colleagues who were tripping over the same landmines I was, and who were willing to talk about it at the risk of sounding completely frazzled in a professional situation.

After I discovered the film I knew that these conversations had a greater value, because whether we were doing it on purpose or not, we were part of a bigger shift. It’s obvious that we have only just begun to understand the sheer complexity of the Big Flip as a social movement and to assess its effects. Most of us do not realize just how intricate this complexity is until we are in the thick of trying to unravel it in our own lives. It’s a cliché, but when you are on the front lines of social change the personal and political collide, and there are moments of intimate and visceral emotion involved. Such as the truly uncomfortable moment when you realize that something you thought was absolutely true was simply a figment of your own implicit bias.

Through talking with other “flippers,” I’ve been comforted to realize that sharing stories helps to normalize the elements of flipping that can often feel like battles, collisions or crises. When we see our own experiences in a wider context we are reminded that we are pioneers and that such crises do, in fact, come with the uncharted territory. Men as providers, women as homemakers: no matter how much our practical situations dictate for us to reverse these traditional roles, and no matter how convinced we are that these roles are socially constructed and that there is nothing wrong with upending them, we are nonetheless never sure the extent to which lurking stereotypes color our very own core beliefs – or perhaps more importantly, our actions.

My inspiration for organizing this “interview” was to encourage the articulation and sharing of these uncomfortable moments when biases we didn’t know we had bubble to the surface in unexpected ways, throwing obstacles in the path of best-laid plans. It is my hope that in the gap between expectations and reality are stories that elicit empathy and chip away at stereotypes in the process.



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