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Women are expected to fill a slew of roles. I’ve been the sweet little girl, the nurturing confidant, the dutiful wife and — one day — I hope to be the devoted mother.
Gender role ideologies typically fall under one of three categories: traditional, egalitarian, and transitional.
In a traditional gender role ideology, men earn money to support the family, and women are responsible for childcare and housework. From as young as nine months old, our assigned gender starts shaping our behaviour to fit society’s expectations. Young girls are told to be sweet, pleasant, and follow the rules.
In an egalitarian household, both partners hold equal roles at work and home.
Transitional gender role ideology falls somewhere in the middle, where women work outside the home but are still largely responsible for housework and childcare. Despite breaking away from traditional gender roles, the division of labour in transitional households is still unequal and disparaging for women.
One study on women in transitional roles found that most participants were employed out of financial necessity, not because of changing ideologies. Half of the women surveyed said they were still primarily responsible for household labour and childcare on top of their work outside the home.
Despite growing up in an egalitarian household, I have not emerged unscathed.
Like many women, I was socialized to rely on external opinions. I grew up taking stock of what people thought of me and wondering if I measured up to their expectations.
In my teens, I covered my bedroom walls with magazine clippings with headlines like “5 Moves That’ll Make Your Crush Fall for You.” I watched Lindsay Lohan pretend to suck at math so a boy she liked would notice her.
I contorted myself to fit into each role while battling a perpetual feeling of not-enoughness.
As though someone handed me a baseball card for each role, with expectations listed like batting averages; I modelled my behaviour just so but somehow never measured up.
I was diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder a decade ago, and when I look back at the past 31 years, I think no wonder I have anxiety.
As a little girl, I was regularly dressed in frilly outfits with bows in my hair. My mom says that as a baby my eyes would light up when we’d walk through the mall — “A shopaholic since birth,” she joked. My mom and I did everything together, and I loved hearing the story of how happy my parents were to finally have a daughter after two sons and seven years of waiting.
My mom told me I was a natural performer. I sang and danced, and when the applause came, I felt a rush like my blood was carbonated. I chased that feeling in all areas of my life — compelled to excel at everything I tried.
My quest for perfection continued through elementary school. On the first day of grade one, I stood proudly in front of my class and announced I could spell “a grade three word.”
“D-a-u-g-h-t-e-r,” I said.
In hindsight, that story makes me sound insufferable, but my mom had worked so hard with me that summer, and I knew she was proud.
That same year, my eldest brother dropped out of high school. Four years later, my other brother followed suit. I wasn’t sure why it happened, but I knew my parents were pissed.
My parents felt just as disappointed in themselves as they did with my brothers. I eavesdropped from the third row of our minivan as they asked each other, “Where did we go wrong?”
Like many girls, my drive to succeed was fueled by the pressure to make my parents happy. I felt like I owed it to my mom to live up to the dreams she had for her kids — university, careers, marriage, children — and to compensate for my brothers.
I tried to be the best daughter I could be. I did all the sports, dance classes, and singing lessons my parents signed me up for. On the outside, I was flourishing, but that fizzy feeling I once chased felt more like stinging now.
In her book Enough as She Is, author and female leadership expert Rachel Simmons says girls feel the need to “have every base covered” with high marks, a busy social life, and good looks. Simmons calls this pursuit of perfection “a never-ending slog toward a standard of achievement that will always sit out of reach.”
A study on adolescent stress found that school was the primary contributor, with teen girls reporting significantly more stress than boys.
I wanted to be a marine biologist as soon as I learned it meant I could study and play with dolphins for a living. My mom warned me, “You’ll have to work hard to keep your math and science marks up,” but I was determined to do it.
In seventh grade, I attended a small community school where the gym teacher also taught science and math.
Mr. B was a caricature of a gym teacher: fleece zip-up vest, shorts year-round, and white athletic socks pulled entirely too high up his legs.
One day, Mr. B asked our science class to list the three factors that affect solubility. The hum from the cold fluorescent lights seemed loud in the silent room. I, the resident try-hard, shot my hand up and gave my answer confidently. I was incorrect.
Mr. B swivelled on the heel of his New Balance shoes to face the class.
“And that, my friends, is why women get beaten,” he remarked, his index finger punctuating each word.
My ears and face went hot, then my vision blurred. I sank as far as I could into my seat with a lump in my throat that I spent the rest of the afternoon trying to swallow away. I didn’t even know what I’d experienced was sexism, but I haven’t forgotten the shame that poured over me that day.
I was only 12.
What was the point of working so hard if I could screw up so badly that I deserved to be beaten? How would I get into university if I was so stupid?
“There goes marine biology,” I imagined my mom would say. “They’ll never let you in if you fail grade seven science.”
I don’t remember if Mr. B or anyone ever brought up his comment to me again, but I do remember when he started dropping pencils beside his desk and asking female students to bend over and pick them up.
I went home that day and peeled the glow-in-the-dark dolphins off my bedroom walls. I shoved my marine life books to the back of the shelf and never talked about marine biology again.
I kept my mouth shut in Mr. B’s class from then on. My science and math grades tanked, and I struggled with both subjects throughout high school.
The shame from that day stayed with me, resurfacing as I panicked when I had to mentally calculate a customer’s change, or when my final grades were released.
In grade 11, I was failing biology and barely passing math. I couldn’t bring myself to study without the shame coming back up like acid indigestion.
When my parents learned I was failing, my mom said, “I guess we’re three-for-three.” I had no explanation when my dad asked how it got so bad. I’d kept Mr. B’s comments a secret for so long it felt stupid to tell them at this point.
I got my grades up and was the first of my siblings to graduate on time. As I walked across the stage to collect my diploma, I looked out at the crowd to find my parents. My mom’s expression was just like mine: excited, proud, but most of all — relieved. I imagined her thinking, I finally got it right.
Many girls are raised to adapt to social norms that make them especially vulnerable to becoming people-pleasers. Psychologists call this ‘socially prescribed perfectionism’ — relying on praise from others and paying more attention to what others think of them than tuning into their own wants and needs.
People with socially prescribed perfectionism believe their self-worth hinges on their ability to meet unrealistic expectations set by others.
When I moved in with my now-husband, my expectations for cohabitation were marred by years of reading Cosmopolitan and the deeply ingrained misogyny of dozens of articles suggesting oral sex was a blanket solution to any romantic quarrel.
The traditional Brady Bunch family model was foreign to me. My parents both worked and cooked. I can’t recall my family ever fitting into this ideology. Even so, I poured myself into the housewife mould within weeks of moving in with my partner.
We both worked full-time then, but my salary was significantly lower than his. I hadn’t acknowledged it yet, but I felt guilty not contributing as much financially. I figured I could make up for it in other areas and took on most household chores instead.
In her book Equal Partners, author Kate Mangino says housework can be divided into two categories: routine and intermittent.
Routine chores like cooking, washing dishes, and grocery shopping need to be done daily or every other day.
Intermittent chores are those done occasionally, like mowing the lawn, shovelling snow, or managing finances. They’re essential for a household but can typically be put off or skipped for a week without major consequences.
Even in modern households, many tasks are intrinsically coded as “a man’s job” or “a woman’s job.” Routine chores are typically considered “for women” and intermittent “for men.” Admittedly, I’ve told my husband that taking out the trash and picking up dog poo is “a blue job.”
Now, after a few years of living together, our roles have evolved ten times over — first during a global pandemic, then when I lost my job, and again when I returned to school. My husband has taken it in stride, but I still hear a screeching voice inside my head shaming me when he cooks dinner.
Traditional expectations of gender roles have convinced me that I should be a domestic goddess who flawlessly prepares dinner for 5 p.m. sharp. I feel like a failure when I ask him for help.
On top of the relentless household labour, traditional gender norms often leave women in charge of emotional and cognitive work — maintaining relationships, making plans, and coordinating schedules.
There’s no scientific data proving women are more capable of handling it. Still, deep-seated gender norms have convinced us of this because we notice that the people in our lives who carry those burdens are women.
I remind my brothers at Christmas that “Mom has allergies, so don’t buy her scented bath products,” and “Dad’s painting again, so make sure you ask about it when you call.” Some people call this “eldest daughter syndrome,” but I think of it as “only daughter syndrome” — carrying the burden of holding the family together and making sure everyone’s needs are met.
Writer Anja Boynton calls this role “the noticer.”
The noticer is the person who takes care of all the little details that make life better for the family. In Equal Partners, Mangino describes the noticer as the person who “makes more ice when the tray is low, stocks favourite snacks for the long weekend, and prints out favourite photos for frames in the living room.”
Being the noticer usually falls into the lap of women, who feel like these tasks are expected of them because if they don’t do it, no one will. Some of the noticer’s duties are non-essential, but it’s the consideration and forethought that make it exhausting.
After last Christmas, I swore I’d never host another dinner party. I dreamed up the menu six weeks early, thinking of my friends’ favourite foods and ways I could incorporate them all.
I grocery shopped during the peak holiday rush, with “Pure Meditation” playing through my AirPods to keep me from flipping out each time I got clipped by a shopping cart.
I spent the night before prepping brussels sprouts and tempering egg yolks for crème brûlée.
I washed my hair because I assumed I wouldn’t have time to get ready before dinner.
I woke up early to marinate beef tenderloin and peel potatoes.
I cleaned the house, printed the menus, and decorated the table.
I sauteed onions and simmered soup for hours.
Like the soup, I simmered for hours — angry that my husband was focused on shovelling when I needed help cleaning.
When he returned from shovelling, I was at a higher-than-usual simmer. He hadn’t been around when I needed him, so I decided to do everything alone.
I let myself boil over, overcooked the brussels sprouts, and didn’t have time to get ready before dinner.
Since then, I’ve realized that I played myself. I could have asked for help at any point that day. If I’d asked, my husband would have peeled a hundred potatoes and whisked the demi-glace until his arm fell off, but I never did.
Like me, many women in transitional roles struggle to relinquish control over household tasks. This may be due to internalized traditional ideologies, where we feel like our identities as women are tied to stereotypically female responsibilities.
I’ve daydreamed about becoming a mother since I was 19 — after my first niece was born. I held her impossibly small body, only a few days old, and it was like a new area of my brain suddenly woke up.
Each time a friend of mine announced a pregnancy, I felt a little pang in my heart, yearning for the day I’d have a child of my own.
My nieces gave me the coveted title of “favourite auntie,” and my mom-friends know they can always count on me to babysit or help set up a birthday party.
Sometimes it feels like I’m one of them — so involved in their kids’ lives that it’s almost like I’m a mom, too. My friend Dana says her daughter must have absorbed my personality through the womb. We worked together so closely during her pregnancy that she swears her daughter takes after me.
Dana and her husband, Jon (not their real names), have two kids under five. Before they had kids, Dana and Jon both worked full-time and contributed to household chores. Jon was more of a “clean freak,” so he took on deep cleaning, while Dana preferred to do most of the cooking.
Now with two toddlers, Dana says she feels like she’s drowning every day.
Her kids both turn to her as the “default parent,” the one they go to when they need to be fed, comforted, or otherwise cared for. Jon is active and engaged with their kids, but when they need something, they’ll squirm right out of his arms and run to Dana.
The last time I visited Dana, I got a glimpse into her daily routine and — I must admit — it was jarring.
Dana’s work schedule is flexible compared to Jon’s, so she handles daycare drop-off and pickup. She’ll also stay home with the kids when they’re sick.
I met Dana at her house a few minutes after she arrived with the kids. I put on my “favourite auntie” cap and tried to keep the kids distracted long enough that Dana might have a minute to relax on her own.
Jon got home around the kids’ dinner time, so Dana fed them before they tackled bath time together. After their baths, Dana and I spent 45 minutes singing lullabies and reading stories to get the kids to sleep.
Once the kids were asleep, Dana returned to the kitchen to clean up the aftermath from dinnertime, pack the kids’ lunches for the next day, and figure out what she and Jon would eat for dinner — while Jon spent 90 minutes at the gym.
I offered to order takeout for us, but Dana insisted she’d cook something since Jon was on a strict diet, and she’d feel guilty eating pizza while her husband picked at chicken and veggies.
“Why doesn’t he make his own damn dinner, then?” I asked.
“It’s not worth arguing over,” said Dana. “Trust me. I’ve tried telling him I’m exhausted, and I need help, but nothing ever changes.”
Jon doesn’t understand how much work Dana puts into looking after their kids. On top of the cooking and cleaning up after the kids, taking them to and from daycare, and getting them to sleep, there’s an enormous weight of emotional labour she thinks Jon doesn’t notice.
Sometimes I arrogantly think my husband and I won’t have this problem, but I’m probably wrong.
If we have kids, I hope my husband will be nothing like Jon. I hope we remember we’re happier when we work together.
I hope if I have a daughter, I can protect her from the roles she’ll feel pressured to fit into. I hope to give her the wisdom to know she’s so much more than a sweet little girl, a nurturing confidant, a dutiful wife, or a devoted mother.
The first step in challenging gender role stereotypes is confronting those I hold personally. I’ve spent decades feeling inadequate if I wasn’t playing a role I’d pigeonholed myself into.
I haven’t cleaned the house since the dinner party. It was like we needed the blow-up to rebuild our roles in our marriage. Since then, my husband has taken over regular cleaning and weeknight dinners. I restrain myself from commenting when he uses the “wrong” cutting board, and I’ve stopped asking him which cleaning product he used to mop the floor. I feel like I can finally exhale completely. The stinging sensation I felt so often is gone.
Every day, he asks me how he can help. Sometimes it’s as simple as making a coffee for me as I rush out the door in the morning. Sometimes I’m weeks behind on my laundry, and I feel like a failure for even asking him, but he’ll take care of it. It’ll take time for me to accept that my womanhood isn’t defined by household labour, but I know it’s a start — and life is better because of it.
Artwork by Emily Thomson