So there I was, sitting at a table with a group of women, discussing, as you may have guessed, Men!! This in itself was not too unusual, being one of women\s favorite pasttimes. The interesting part was the make-up of this group. Let’s see. Besides myself, (the American,) there was Ina from Moldova, Mikako from Japan, Dragana from Serbia, Ulla from Germany, Cecilie from France and Holland, Phong Pan from Thailand, Galena from the Ukraine, Shaima from Iraq, Dorote and Patrycjya from Poland, Christina from Peru, and beloved, no-nonsense Merete, our Danish teacher. Definitely enough for a good start to our very own mini United Nations, or FN, as it is called here in Denmark. March 8th is an important day for women in Denmark, because it is International Women’s Day. This does not involve flowers, chocolate and cards which say I love you, or such equally frivolous nonsense, oh no. It is far more serious and important than that. For women in Denmark, in particular those who have fought for Women’s Rights at one time or another, it is the day which marks how far women have come in this previously male-dominated, northern European society, and also how far they still have to go towards true equality between the sexes. For although they have, in fact, come a long way, baby, there are those who strongly believe they haven’t gone far enough. For example, we were taught yesterday that in countries like Sweden, Norway and Spain, they have made laws that say 40 percent of the government shall be made up of women, and also in top leadership positions, the token woman or two is no longer acceptable. There shall be equality, never mind that only women can have and nurse children. Equal pay, equal responsibility and equal respect, these are their demands.
The discussion yesterday turned personal, however, when one of the women opened up about her own unequal situation with her Danish husband. She has a full plate, between working parttime, going to Danish school, caring for her one-year-old baby, and housework. Where is her Danish husband in all of this? Working at his carpenter job all day, then coming home and relaxing on the sofa, playing with his Xbox while she does the cooking, cleaning and babying. Unfair! the women exclaim. You must teach that boy how to help out around the house, says one. Only 26, you say? Asks another. But he is still a child! You have to train him!! Our Danish teacher advises, with a serious look, Have a long talk together, and tell him how it has to be, otherwise you are headed for disaster down the road.
A room full of women from all around the world, from different cultures with different viewpoints. As the discussion continued, (all in Danish of course, we are in Danish school after all) I simply sat and listened, as the images floated through my mind. Flashback to 18 years before.
I am standing in our little kitchen, stirring something on the stove, Baby on one hip. It is summer and sweltering in our treeless, hot apartment. Baby babbles to me and I tell her what I am doing, making dinner, that’s right, mmmm it will taste so good! Where is Daddy? Well he is still working, yes I know it is 7 o’clock and he said he’d be home an hour ago. I leave the dinner simmering, bring Baby into the bathroom to give her a bath and ready her for dreamland. Two hours later, Baby is washed, nursed and rocked, read a couple of stories, sung lullabies to, and finally put to bed. Husband came home at 8, ate and fell asleep at the table for the hundredth time. I wash the dishes, wishing we could have a little more equality in this marriage.
Two years later. Another house, in a different state. Now I have another baby, fast becoming a toddler, and a three year old. Same routines, me cooking, cleaning, caring for the two small ones. Taking out the garbage, a job I despise and disdain, seeing it as at least one thing that my husband could do, like it was with my own parents. She cooked and washed, he took out the garbage. Ahh, that old American dreamlifestyle dies a long, slow death! But now it is so completely unfair that I have hardly any humor left. I look in the mirror, hardly recognize the woman who gazes back at me. She looks so tired, so worn out, so unhappy. So many nights of Husband-falls-asleep-at-table, nursing instead of lovemaking, sleeping next to the children instead of next to him, little money and dismal prospects, combined with sick in-laws and overall dissatisfaction, make for an unhappy marriage. Talking doesn’t help, it only escalates into shouting and fights and crying. The little girls seem happy enough in spite of it all.
Cut to a year later: I have found a job, as a graphic artist for the university in town. I have just signed a lease on a small apartment close to my new job where my daughters and I will live. It is humble and tiny, but it is mine. No more husband who falls asleep over dinner, to argue and fight with, to accuse me of never wanting to make love. No more. Now it is just me, with my two kids, my job, my new single-mother life. Difficult, certainly. But sweet too, because of the freedom that I traded for arguments and desperation. I see it as a new beginning.
Listening to the young Serbian woman telling of her marital woes in the women’s group yesterday, I was struck by our commonalities more than our differences. Nearly every woman there (the Danish teacher says she makes dinner as often as her husband) makes dinner most every night, cleans their house most of the time, and generally puts up with many ‘inequalities.’ Mostly without complaining, except when it becomes unbearable. Women care for, women love. It is how we are made, how we function as humans. Of course I am speaking generally. Of course there are plenty of caring, loving men in the world. But it is the exceptional one who notices the little things, who does a lot and says little about it, who ‘cares for.’ As far as we women have come in regards to the idea of Equality, we still have a long way to go, world-wide.
My own Danish husband (who is very caring and loving and looked after his babies and didn’t mind taking out the garbage, then or now) is currently reading a book in which the author writes a little about matriarchal and patriarchal societies of the past. He asked me to tell him what I knew about those terms and what I thought they meant. Okay, a big question, but good for some light dinner conversation. So I explained as best as I could, what I understood a matriarchal society to be based on, and conversely, a patriarchal one. I paraphrased from an old book I read once by Starhawk, that famous feminist occultist author, when she wrote that maybe the biggest difference is, in a feminine-based society, the foundation is about having ‘power with’ others; whereas in a male-dominated society, the foundation is more about having ‘power over’ others. In other words, using cooperation instead of force. In today’s western world, women have more power than ever in human memory. Women are now heads of countries and corporations, even though not in the same amount or frequency as their male counterparts. Women have the possibility to create most any career they desire, and have an extraordinary amount of freedom to decide their own fate compared with, say, even sixty years ago. Young women, like my own teenage daughters, take completely for granted these hard-won freedoms by their mothers, grandmothers and greatgrandmothers. They simply think that they have rights to All of It, the whole shmoo. And in a way, they are absolutely correct to think that way. But in another, very real way, they still have an uphill battle as women in the world. Until the vast majority of people of all genders agree on what is most important to humanity, what values we cherish the most, and can shift our collective thinking from taking what we want by force, to sharing what we have and giving to one another at least as much as we take, then not only women will continue to struggle, but humanity in general.
Who takes out the garbage? becomes a very loaded question when we can broaden our thinking to include the entire world. Not only who does the dirty work, but also for what end? We can no longer afford such small thinking. It seems obvious to me that we all have responsibility towards our children, as in the World’s Children: Our collective future. But in the meantime, hey Guys, couldn’t you pick up that dirty plate and wash it yourself? Or change the baby’s diaper when you can smell it? Or how about getting out the vacuum cleaner and running it around the house once a week to help keep your own house clean, without being asked, without having to tell your wife proudly that you actually did it? Accepting responsibility for your life means all of that, as well as all the rest. We all work hard, we all try to make enough money, raise the children right, love each other enough. How difficult is it to change our thinking about our roles as husband, wife, mother, father, or individual human being? Maybe not as difficult as we sometimes assume it is. Maybe those women from our little united nations group are right, we just need better training. And by the way, don’t forget to put the toilet seat down before you leave!!