Sunday, April 11, 2010

The work of care, toddler style

Harry and I went to Toys R Us yesterday while Jack napped and Ben spread grass seed and landscaping rocks with wild abandon (he also assembled an outdoor toybox and planted some planters and worked his magic with a hanging basket-- Ben loves outside work). Our mission? Buy Jack some birthday presents. A surprisingly difficult task because all Jack claims to want is "Zhuh Zhuh" (Buzz Lightyear), but we already have every Toy Story product know to (tiny, diapered) man.

Or so I thought. The release of the new Toy Story 3 movie Harry's birthday weekend means that you can find Buzz and Woody on just about anything from sprinklers to lawn bowling to footstools to bike helmets. Phew!

Harry wanted to come with me because he was dying to pick out this for Jack:

It's Baby Alive! The doll who shits herself! Score! On our walk yesterday morning, Harry (crammed next to jack in the stroller) asked Jack confidentially (everything sounds confidential when your mouth is 3 inches from someone's ear, but that's how they ride side-by-side) "Do you want Baby Alive for your birthday?" Jack replied, "No. Just Zhuh Zhuh." harry said, "Too bad. You're getting one." Okay then.

Ben did some online shopping at work the other day, but instead of buying the stuff, he printed out his list, and Harry and I took it to the store like happy little elves. We were having a fantastic time until we came to this:

A Just Like Home cleaning trolley. Harry's classroom has a similar toy, and Jack LOVES to play with it, pulling the broom from its hole and pretending to spray toxic household chemicals on surfaces. We knew he'd like it, so that wasn't my issue.

My problem was the box.

The box featured a little girl on her hands and knees scrubbing a kitchen floor with the cute, primary-colored scrubbing brush from the trolley. "All you need to help Mommy clean" said a bright caption over her head.

Help MOMMY clean? All YOU (a little girl, a tiny supplicant) need to help MOMMY clean? Where the fuck is daddy?? Where's the little boy in Cinderella pose?

At this point, my eyeballs popped out of my head and that cartoon "a-WOO-ga" noise played.

In line to buy the damn thing, I pointed that caption out to Harry, and we talked about how silly it was. "Daddies clean," Harry laughed. The cashier, a super stoned college kid, said, "I saw that the other day and thought how sexist it was."

"I know!" I squeaked. "But I'm buying it for my son." We both laughed a little.

The Just Like Home cleaning trolley is not like OUR home, where the little ones are boys, where mommy is just as likely to be straightening or folding or washing or caring as daddy is, where balance is something we all do together, where both of us work and both of juggle and both of us do drop-offs and pick-ups and tuck ins and clean ups. When Harry and Jack play with dolls and stuffed toys, they call themselves Daddy when they do the work of care. When Jack plays like he is going out to work, he dons heels and a purse and sunglasses and a grabs his phone before telling us "Bye."

(I know it sounds like I am advocating embracing a new set of stereotypes here, but I'm not. I think kids should respect the work that BOTH parents do and that this work should be genderless. Daddies can clean. Mommies can work. Daddies can work. Mommies can clean. Parents can do BOTH KINDS-- all kinds-- of work. Even when one parent works full time and one stays home full time, BOTH parents do care work.Why have toy retailers missed this simple fact?)

Is the Just Like Home trolley like any real home? Are there places were the work of care is only female? Where NO man or boy cares for another member of the household ever? Why is this the message we want to send to our children? That only girls and mommies scrub on their hands and knees while boys play fireman or super hero or build whole worlds with tiny blocks and practice being masters of the universe?

From the time they are Jack's age, we teach our girls to care and clean and cook. To wipe plastic asses and serve plastic food and make sure our dolls stay the neatest and look the prettiest. I am doing my level best to teach my BOYS these skills, too. Because who, after all, is going to be caring for me in my old age? I want them to learn that being a daddy is the most important job there is, and I want them to see all the work of care that their own daddy does so that these chores will be natural when they have their own kids and their own floors to mop. I want them to think about flexing their schedules at the office to coach t-ball or making sure that they always attend parent night at school. I want them to grow up understanding that caring for your children and your family is the most important thing you do and everything else comes second. Care work is not work that girls and mommies do. It is work that we ALL do to make homes for each other.

For so long, we have focused on women entering the public sphere to act like men. As a result, we have stopped talking about the domestic work of care. But is largely still women's work-- all you have to do is walk through a toy store to understand how true this is in black and white. Or pink and blue. For our world to change, for the particpation of women in the workforce to leave that space transformed, for us to re-imagine the ideal worker as a gendered, embodied human begin with family ties and commitments outside the office, we need to turn our attention back to the private realm and focus on men's equal participation in it.

This work starts early.


  1. Sabrina Worsham9:02 AM

    a. your blogs crack me up, consistently

    b. In response to a previous post, I guess I am a "radical" feminist because...

    c. I cannot stand the idea that care (home, child, kin, etc) is "womyn's work". Yet, so many raise/treat/expect young boys to be "cheerfully inefficient" about housework; an inefficiency that is exacerbated by "carefully cultivated ignorance" towards the needs of the household (thank you, Crystal Eastman, for "language" to describe the problem).

    d. When doing a basic exercise about gender construction in the beginning of the semester, we discuss toys-you know, the pink and blue isles. I love dropping "yeah, we get girls vacuums to play with, because vacuuming is so much fucking fun" (generally, first "f" word of the semester, oh and I am not knocking those that like to clean. I am questioning the social construction of said desire!)

    Thanks again, Sarah, for the amusing and apt blog!

  2. First, I LOVE that Harry said, "too bad. you're getting one" to Jack, about that baby doll. I think I would laugh all day in that kid's presence.

    I totally agree with you--like I said in my blog yesterday, I'm working on a post about this, too, but I think I might just save myself the trouble and link to this post! LOL

  3. Yes! Yes yes yes!

    I am sick of it. I was just complaining about this the other day. It was some stupid commercial (I think) where it was so stereotypical in the roles of the man and woman that I wanted to vomit. Like those damn Olympic commercials where they only thanked moms.

    It makes me sad/furious that when we go to McDonald's they feel like they have to say, "She wants the boy toy?" when Elisabeth asks for the Star Wars toys. I loudly (and bitchily) say, "No, she wants the STAR WARS toy. She's a girl and it's her toy." It's things like that that make me later have to explain to Elisabeth why some people think Star Wars is only for girls when she loves it so much.

  4. I meant only for boys. My bad.

  5. During one of our bedtime conversations the other day, Aidan told me that in the mornings, we all get up and go to work. Daddy goes to his office, Mommy goes to her office, Zoe goes to her classroom where her work is to play, Aidan goes to his classroom where his work is to play and have fun, and Franklin goes to work, which is to sleep and bark.

    I was really happy to hear him say this because I like this image of our family. It is a balanced view even though my and my husband's jobs are not completely equal, and neither is our participation around the house. It took me a while to realize that having both parents participate is not as important as who does what amount (at least in our family).

  6. One of my favorite websites is

    This website examines the sociological constructs we perpetuate throughout the world. Very cool stuff!


  7. Sarah, you don't know how timely your post is. I was JUST writing up a blog post in my head (you know you do that too, don't laugh...) while scrubbing my bathtub, as the only time I clean the tub is when I know I want to take a bath later ;) But the main point of my post was, I never want my kids to think it's just one parent or the other - that there is "woman's work" and "men's work" I don't buy that at all. My husband scrubbed the toilets while I was at yoga yesterday. And I'm not a good housekeeper... but you know what? My husband still finds me damn sexy even though the house isn't all that spotless :)
    And I think it's hysterical that the checkout girl said something about that box. I'd have to totally agree!

  8. tripod7:19 PM

    You are right. Don't get Jack the Buzz costume, because we got that. Other than that, we got no TS stuff.

  9. Love this: "I want them to learn that being a daddy is the most important job there is."

    My boys have a vacuum, mops, brooms, trucks, cars, Legos, a tea set, and science toys.

    Their nanny is a man, one of Wes's Sunday School teachers is a teenaged boy.

    But aside from the whole physics professor thing, Ryan and I have pretty "traditional" interests. I like to cook and I'm better at taking care of the house. Ryan likes to mow and edge and weedwhack and go to work.

    So far, though, Charlie seems to recognize that we all do what we like to do best to maintain the house and take care of each other.

  10. It's funny because Emmie has grown up surrounded by Jack's trucks and cars and she loves them and Jack gets so excited when Emmie gets a new baby to play with.

    When it comes to roles, though, it kinda sucks right now because I end up doing all the "non-revenue" shit since Josh reminds me all the time that he is the only one making the money around here. Sigh.

    He does help out a ton, and he'll clean or feed or bathe or whatever, but I would love for the kids to see what I do (and actually for Josh to recognize it as well) as WORK.

  11. Love this one! When Hannah was born my mom got Blake a baby doll (complete with a bottle, teddy bear and a backpack to carry it in - wtf) and last night as we were sitting around he was feeding his baby with the bottle (and has also been known to feed the baby with his "bipples"). I want both of my kids to know that mommy and daddy do ALL kinds of work and that boys and girls can do whatever they want!

  12. Even though I do about 90% of the cleaning, et al, I think that packaging is just wrong. Why can't they just put "Everything you need to help clean your home" or something like that? There are so many families where the dad stays home or where both parents work and as a result share the cleaning...

    And you got to love Harry's attitude about the doll!