Mom Talk: Raising Boys To Be Good Wives
Written by Frances Amper Sales
Photography by Frances Amper Sales
Lately, much has been said about the “mental load” of motherhood—all of the invisible labor that goes into running a household and managing a family. There’s a web of reasons why women are forced to take on so much—but it’s also clear in many relationships that men can (and should) be taking on more. With this in mind, many of today’s mothers with sons are also hell-bent on raising them to become the more equitable partners that the future (and our daughters) deserve and demand. In the book Boy Moms, a collection of essays on raising boys of all ages and stages, writer Frances Amper Sales shares her experience of raising her three sons to share in the mental load (or, as she says, to become good “wives”).
Below, is an excerpt of her Boy Moms essay, Raising Boys to Be Wives.
One afternoon, standing in front of a sink full of dirty dishes, I loudly grumbled, “I wish I had a wife!” My sons, ages 11, 9, and 7, heard me and asked if I liked girls. “Don’t worry, babies, I like your Papa.” They then asked if that’s what wives are for (washing dishes). “Not at all!”
My sons have always been loud and rambunctious, so I have to make myself heard. Of course, I should’ve been more mindful of what I grumbled about on occasion, but it did hammer home the fact that there are five people in this house and only one is doing the bulk of the chores: the woman.
I decided that things were going to change around here, and my new Mama Mission became: Teach my sons how to be “wives.”
I was raised to think that wives are nothing more than glorified servants of men. We keep house, cook, serve, make babies, care for those babies, and stay sexy and gorgeous throughout. At seven years old, I was already learning how to cook, clean, do laundry, and make the perfect cup of coffee while my brothers played outside, being kids. As a result, even though I knew all the secrets to being a good wife, I certainly didn’t want to be one.
But then I fell in love. I couldn’t help myself. Thankfully, my husband likes cooking, cleaning, and puttering around the house. He also loves doting on our sons, taking over various “mom duties” while I took over the “dad duty” of being breadwinner. That lasted for a few glorious years, during which “wife” took on new meaning: a loving partner in a loving and equal marriage.
When our sons started going to school, my husband and I both worked from home. We were able to work and do chores together. It was a great arrangement, but in hindsight, not the best, and it took a global pandemic for me to see where we were failing as parents, and I was failing as a feminist mom.
When the pandemic began, my husband became the breadwinner, and our household began to resemble a more traditional setup. While we tried to share work and house duties equally, we realized that while our boys knew what housework was, they were also blind to it. During quarantine, I became our sons’ teacher as well as homemaker, housekeeper, and bearer of invisible labor—the ability to look at every room in the house and know exactly what needed to be done.
For millennia, we’ve been told only women have this skill. Like when my sons’ bedroom looks like a tornado hit it and I ask, “What are we supposed to do here?” Their response: “Sleep!”
I love them with all my heart, yet some days I have to ask myself, “What have I done?”
One day I stumbled upon a Facebook mom group, their topic of discussion happened to be their husbands. Specifically, how their husbands take things too literally. One woman said she asked her husband to load the dishes into the dishwasher. She later went to the kitchen only to see that the dishes had been loaded, but the glasses, bowls, and utensils were still in the sink. She asked, “Why didn’t you load everything?” “Because,” he patiently replied, like she was the stupid one, “You said to load the dishes!”
So how do I teach our boys to be intuitive about what needs to be done at home? How do I show them how to share the load of invisible labor? In essence, how do I train my sons to be “wives”?
Having this innate ability is certainly not a matter of gender. My estrogen doesn’t automatically make me the domestic expert in the same way testosterone doesn’t make my husband blind to chores. We used to think it was as simple as giving our sons a list of things to do: Clean your room. Pack away your toys. Put your clothes in the hamper. Wash the dishes.
Quarantine showed me that a list isn’t enough. Showing them how to do chores efficiently isn’t enough. I’ve seen my sons wash dishes to perfection only to fail to see that the countertops need wiping down and the sink needs scrubbing. They did exactly as they were told while remaining blind to the other ways the kitchen needed to be rendered spic and span.
I think back to how I was raised. My father told me if I didn’t do household tasks well, my husband
could be forgiven if he ever left me for a true domestic goddess. That threat made me want to do my chores well, sure, but with mounting resentment. I don’t want my sons to resent their future partners. I eventually realized that successfully teaching them to figure out what needs to be done is largely dependent upon the way they see a room through my eyes (because theirs don’t seem to work)!
I started once again by showing them their room and rephrasing my question to “Look around. Then look through my eyes. What do I think needs to be done here?” Then they answer, “Aha! You would fold the sheets, plump the pillows, pack away the toys, and put the books on the shelves.” They know this because I was always nagging them about it. But now that I ask and don’t tell, they actually see and do!
These days, I don’t simply tell them what to do. Instead, I ask them what we should do. I discovered that the first step is to make them aware of their surroundings. That’s what opens their eyes to what needs to be done. Then, they need to simply do it without waiting to be told. I still need to remind them to complete a chore here and there, but that crucial first step is half the battle. It’s about meeting expectations and having responsibility and accountability. It’s not easy to teach, but I still have between seven and eleven years to finish the training, and they’re already learning quickly!
They now know that “clean up after dinner” means also wiping the table and pushing the chairs in. They know that “fold your freshly laundered clothes” also means putting them in neat piles in their closets. They’re in charge of the grocery list, reminding me to shop, and putting away the groceries as well.
And now that my load has lightened, they no longer hear me grumbling about not having a wife.
Frances Amper Sales is the author of Not Invisible, a memoir on marriage and motherhood. She is also the co-founder of Lean In Manila, part of the global support organization helping women achieve their dreams. Frances lives in the Philippines with her husband, novelist Vincent C. Sales, and their three sons.
This essay is excerpted from Boy Moms: Collective Tales of Mothers and Sons by Kara Forney. You can read more stories from other #boymoms by following along at @boymomsbook on Instagram, BoyMoms.org, and by picking up the book!
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