The New Nuclear Family

By Lynzy Pyle-Pittman

My first vivid memory is that of me with a tool in my hand. I sat in an old barn with my great-grandpa in his wood shop, making a birdhouse. Years later as a teenager, I would sit in my grandpa’s shop and hand him tools or listen to him tell me how to replace the brake pads on my car, among other things. My basic vehicular knowledge would come in handy years later when my ex-boyfriend blew a tire on the highway on our way to dinner, and I put the spare tire on in a summer dress and high heeled shoes while he sat in the car and kept cool. My friends were appalled at the story. Admittedly, he was a loser for other reasons, but what was the big deal?

One hundred years ago, our nineteenth amendment was passed in August of 1920. “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.” It was not too long ago that the women in my family were draped in aprons, “pregnant and barefoot” in a kitchen. We have come a long way from oppressive gender roles in the American household, or so I thought. I can’t help but wonder, why are families on evening sitcoms still predominantly nuclear families? Why does the mom always work as a teacher or stay-at-home mom while the dad is lazy and loves to watch football and smart off? Haven’t we progressed past seeing this as the “norm” in our diverse nation? The truth is, we haven’t — we are taught as little girls what is “ladylike” — and we are praised for being “little mothers” and playing with our baby dolls. Boys are told they will grow up to play football or work a blue collar job. 

As a cis, white woman living in Southwest Missouri, I have never felt out of place in my role as a wife and a mother, but my ability to tinker with things or fix things around the house has often given friends and acquaintances a feeling of discomfort.

“Why doesn’t your husband just do that for you?” has been the subject of many conversations about my married life. Furthermore, my ability to voice my opinion or my being malcontent certainly hasn’t done me any favors.

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Lynzy and her husband, Chris

In my own household, gender roles have no meaning. My husband can make a mean banana nut bread, can change a diaper in record speed and load the dishwasher properly and effectively in less than five minutes (pots and pans included). I can do the taxes, I can budget our finances, and I can change the oil in our car. I can’t help but think, some of my husband’s most valuable traits would not be visible if we believed in gender roles. I have also learned that the things I find sexy or “manly” about my husband really have nothing to do with stereotypical “manly” stuff. Seeing him engage with our daughter or calm her down from a “terrible two” tantrum is incredibly sexy. In addition to the traditional sense of gender roles, my husband has the ability to share his emotions with me. We have an ability to speak openly with each other, and when tragedy strikes we both have a shoulder to cry on (literally). Breaking the tough man act and being open and vulnerable with one another is a stereotype he breaks everyday. 

On a late night phone call with one of my girlfriends, Jes, she voiced that men in the African American community are extremely masculine and don’t share the same luxury of vulnerability my partner and I have. Any signs of being emotional or enjoying feminine things can get you threatened, beat up, or even killed. The roles for African American women have historically extended past domestic housework, so why does this stigma still exist? Is it possible that in black communities men and women are so focused on making a living or staying alive that gender roles are the least of their concerns? I spoke with Jes’s partner, Christopher Gaines. Chris has spent his whole life in Kansas City, MO.

“Minorities are getting incarcerated all of the time, for little to nothing,” he said.

This made me think. Is it possible that black men or minorities are being taken away from their families so often that it leaves the other partner in a position to do everything?

“Black men are so strongly chained to societal oppression that it affects their ability to take responsibility in the family,” states bell hooks in her book, “We Real Cool: Black Men and Masculinity.” (Hooks p. 44-50) 

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Jes and Chris

Chris mentioned to me that in his neighborhood growing up, although almost everyone was a minority, they were just trying to make it work. It didn’t matter what you had to do in the household, it just got done – someone did it, gender roles didn’t exist. Chris was raised by a single mom and has several siblings. He talks about his mom admirably for being the woman he needed and making him the man he is today. We spoke about a friend of his who “hustles” for everything.

“He is always hustling, for his kids and just to get by,” he said.

It seems that minorities in certain parts of America have to do what they can by any means necessary to support their families. No matter what the work is, you just do it. I learned a lot from Chris and his stories of living in a big city as a minority. I learned that you do what is best for your family, no matter what role you play in your family. It was truly inspiring to learn so much from him. 

I have experience as a woman in a domestic partnership with a man, but I was curious, what it means to be nonbinary in a relationship? What do gender roles mean in that sense? 

AJ Fox serves as the Religious Educator at the Unitarian Universalist Church in Springfield, MO. AJ almost always has a baby on their hip and something meaningful and inspiring to say — both to the children in our youth program and to the variety of adults in the sanctuary on any given Sunday morning. AJ is genderqueer and uses the term nonbinary more regularly and uses they/them pronouns. Their partner, Adam, is agender and uses they/them pronouns. AJ and Adam were married in 2016 and have since grown into a family with two children. I asked AJ what the division of household labor looks like within their home.

“Adam cooks and cleans and does everything I do around the house. Adam changes diapers at least half the time,” they said. “Overall, if anything, I tend to take the more masculine coded tasks like yard work, furnace filter replacement, and small home repairs. Adam tends to do most of the diaper laundry.”

I was happy to learn that in their nonbinary marriage – Adam and AJ do not see tasks around their household as belonging to a man or belonging to a woman.  

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AJ and Adam

In their marriage there is an open level of vulnerability and understanding between the two partners. AJ expressed that Adam occasionally struggles with C-PTSD, so the couple has developed a partnership in which AJ can pick up the pieces in order to support Adam’s mental health when needed. They expressed a fair level of give-and-take in both emotional labor and paid labor.  

Adam is able to voice their feelings and is validated. I found this to be incredibly exciting. There is an overwhelming tendency for one partner (particularly men) to not show emotion in their family. Social norms we have built into us from growing up in the United States — including those that include domestic housework, emotion and sexuality — were broken by Adam and AJ’s ability to create a more inclusive household. What I learned from AJ and their story was that when you have a love for your partner and your family, you will do anything to keep it functional. You can have happiness and function while living outside of the binary.

I encourage us all to find new roles within our own households, with the benefit of making things more efficient. Having a meaningful conversation with your partner about things you would like to learn from them or could do more efficiently in your household does not have to be negative. We, as women, are told as little girls to be quiet, sit still. Let the man have the last word, make him feel important. I am here to say – fuck that shit. 

Sites: 

hooks, bell. “Black Male Violence.” We Real Cool: Black Men and Masculinity. New York: Routledge., 2004. 44-50 

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