Lean Out // Natalie Raymond

Image from www.jllfitness.co.uk 

All things considered, I grew up in a very egalitarian household. Both parents worked full-time and largely split the household duties. Neither of them liked to cook, however, the producing of dinner each night fell to my mother. I give her credit for putting food on the table, but it was clear she took no joy in it. Meat, veggies, and grain: no frills, no spice, and I didn’t even know chicken could come with sauce until I started eating out with friends in high school.

I asked her once why she cooked and he didn’t, since they both appeared to hate it so much. She said, “Your father’s very good at getting out of things he doesn’t want to do. He just says, ‘I don’t know how!’ and plays helpless until someone else does it.”

Having used it myself (in fact, I, too, will do almost anything to avoid cooking), I would never imply that this is a tactic only men resort to. But, wonderful man and feminist though he is, there is something telling in the fact that it was my dad, and not my mom, who feigned ignorance to avoid the same unpleasant task. (And it’s certainly an ability that advertisements for household products have picked up on.)

It is no secret that women are historically relegated to unglamorous duties, in and out of the home. Even today – even in egalitarian environments like my family of origin – women do the majority of the drudgery, pick up the majority of the slack. I see it in group projects at school, when traveling with a mixed-gender group, and after the meal has finished at a friend’s get-together. Women instinctively get up from their chairs to do what must be done, not because they like it any more than men, but because the weight of 5,000 years of obligation hangs heavy over all our heads.

Sometimes I wait a while, to see if someone else will do it. When I see another woman start in on the task, I sigh and get up to help her, though I was so hoping it would be a guy.

In my areas of interest, I talk often about assertiveness and boundaries. I am assertive in my actions, but I often set boundaries by my inactivity. I try not to take on extra work, not to go out of my way to arrange a meeting with someone who won’t be flexible in turn, and not to answer emails at dinner. It’s more than boundaries, self-care, or a work-life balance: sometimes, especially with my male colleagues, I am intentionally leaning out. I am leaving some slack, and there’s a particular kind of person I’m hoping will pick it up.

After all, the standard line of thinking seems to be that women can’t lean out if men won’t lean in. Today, I talk with my female colleagues about engaging men in our work (sexual violence prevention). A decade ago, I sat on the floor of my closet with my female friends and we plotted how best to make boys text us back. The confusion, the desperation, and the frustration – “If he would just…” – are disturbingly similar.

I don’t want to be in that same place. I don’t want my choices to depend on waiting for someone else’s response (haven’t women waited long enough?).

Of course, “lean out” is, on its own, simplistic. It’s not applicable to everything in my life. I’ve chosen to devote my time to enough long-term problems to know a long-term solution when I see one, and there are some things too important to not give my all to. But there are also plenty of things that I work way too hard on, that I do way too much of, and when I ask myself “Why?” I find that it’s just that same sense of obligation, that duty, that sense that someone should and someone will be me.

And if it isn’t me? I recall a 2013 article suggesting that women should cease to do more than “their fair share” of the housework, and that if the household descends into filth, then so be it. Filth as equality. I bristled at it then, and I do now, too. I don’t want to lower my standards, I want to raise my expectations. I want the men in my life to volunteer to do the extra work sometimes; to rearrange their schedule for our meeting; to notice the dirty dishes and stand up to do them. I know there’s more that needs to happen for men to lean in, but that space won’t be there until I lean out.

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