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.