To toot my own horn, I am a very competent person. I’m not overwhelmingly good at any one thing, but I can do most things fairly well. My kids get to see this competence in action. I do a lot of my legal work from home, so they see me in professional mode. I also do all of the household stuff: I cook, clean, do laundry, maintain the pool, help with homework, run the carpools, volunteer at their schools and extracurricular activities, and am still knowledgeable enough to have an answer to most of their questions.
Mr. Bookworm is also a very competent person, a competence he brings to bear on his professional life. In fact, I’d go even further and say that he is extremely good at what he does, and is very respected by his colleagues for his work. On the home front, however, he embraces incompetence, a tactic I think he purposefully employs to avoid any type of house work. “I don’t know how to clear the table. You do it.” “I don’t know how to put leftovers in the fridge. You do it.” “I don’t know where the dishes go. You empty the dishwasher.” “I can’t fold this. You do it.” And I do it because he works extremely hard, because I work out of the home anyway, and because, if I push him into doing whatever “it” is, he does it so badly I have to do it again anyway. When the children were young, this helplessness infuriated me, because I really could have used the help. Now that the kids are older, and I’m less exhausted, I’m perfectly capable of doing everything without him, so his inability (whether real or feigned) to help around the house doesn’t bother me at all.
It did occur to me, though, that Mr. Bookworm is making a mistake by using incompetence to avoid helping out around the house. As a I noted at the start of this post, not only am I a competent person, but my kids get to see me being competent. The same can’t be said for Mr. Bookworm and the kids. They do not see him at the office, where he is incredibly good at what he does and holds a position of power and respect. Instead, they only see him at home, flapping his hands ineffectually and complaining bitterly when asked to recover something from the fridge or tidy something up. In other words, the Dad they see is someone helpless.
Nor can Mr. Bookworm fall back on larger cultural paradigms to elevate his status in the children’s eyes. It’s true that, in the pre-feminist era, men didn’t help out at home either. Back then, though, the dominant culture conspired to present men as powerful, effective, knowledgeable beings. Whether the kids were watching The Brady Bunch, Leave it to Beaver, Father Knows Best, or Ozzie and Harriet, they were given to understand that, in the world outside the home, father was a very important man, too important to spend his time at home engaged in frivolous domestic tasks. That cultural cushion doesn’t exist anymore. In pop culture Dad is, as often as not, an idiot, frequently put in his place by his hip, clever children or much put-upon wife. We don’t let our kids watch these demeaning (to parents) shows, but their ethos is the air, and the kids hear about them from other children.
As it is, I regularly try my best to make sure that my children understand that Daddy has an important job, and that he works long and hard for them. I remind them that, although I contribute to the family economically, it his mostly his labor and time that enable us to live the quality suburban lifestyle we enjoy. That’s very abstract, though. They hear it, but what they see is a Daddy who does nothing — and in this way distinguishes himself even from the other neighborhood Dads, many of whom enjoy cooking, gardening, or other more visible domestic activities.
So Dads, if you think you’re being clever avoiding household work by relying on domestic incompetence, think again. As a short term strategy to increase your down time, it may be a good thing, but as a long term strategy, you may be harming yourselves irreparably in your children’s eyes.
(By the way, I only just had this insight, and am working on a tactful way to bring it to Mr. Bookworm’s attention. He adores the children and I think that, not only will it distress him once he realizes the path he’s taken, he may also act to change his approach to the very small number of domestic tasks I sometimes request of him.)