Exponent II Classic: Trading Spaces – My Thoughts on Sharing by D. Jeff Burton
Originally published in the winter 1985 issue of Exponent II, this essay discusses D. Jeff Burton’s experience with choosing to work part-time so that his wife Alice could work full-time. While this kind of arrangement was more unusual twenty years ago, I think contemporary readers of the essay will appreciate his insights and struggles, as the couple worked together to raise their four children and provide for the family. In the interest of space, I have edited out the first section.
Collapse of the Pedestal
Profound changes have developed in the way that I perceive Alice as well as our relationship. For the first time I had to face the proposition of Alice being truly independent – being with other men and making new friends outside our normal circles. I had to force myself to extend the same trust that I had always taken for granted and expected from Alice. I dealt with uneasy feelings of not being in charge, feelings of apprehension about relying on someone who had always relied on me, and feelings of fear of not living up to the expectations of a culture that teaches men to bring home the bacon. Although diminished, these emotions still occasionally creep out of the deepest valleys of my mind.
On a more mundane level, I found that the things that used to irritate me became familiar and forgotten. I used to come home to a messy kitchen and feel angry. Now Alice comes home to a messy kitchen and neither of us feels a bit angry: we know the kitchen is messy because someone was too busy with other matters. Alice used to get upset with me when I would arrive home from work and not pitch right in. Now she arrives home and understands how tired I was and how I needed a 10 to 15 minute unwinding period.
I found many new pleasures in daily family activities. One I cherish was the opportunity to be the “pre-school daddy” at Sarah’s school. I found fixing meals with the girls an opportunity to open delicious cans of conversation…
Up to the Mountain
Our pilgrimage quickly drew a lot of polite questions, quizzical looks, and knowing nods of the head from our brothers and sisters at church. We live in a ward where a few women work, so Alice’s working was nothing new. Because what was really unique was my not working full time, I got most of the questions: “How is it having nothing to do?” “What happened at work – did you lose your job?” “If you need anything just call – I can bring in a dinner if you like.” “Are the kids driving you crazy?”
I’m on High Council and I once mentioned our new arrangement during a talk in sacrament meeting. Someone spoke to the stake president, and he asked me not to mention it again from the pulpit. Reasons? It wasn’t traditional Mormon stuff, and we didn’t want to be encouraging behavior that others couldn’t duplicate….
The girls do say that they’ve had a chance to get to know me. (“We never saw you. You were always away at work or church.”) And I second the sentiment. I have come to know them in a way that I never did before. I hear them talking about things that I never heard before: school, clothes, homework, friends. They ask me questions that would never have come up before.
What It All Means
There are no majestic changes, no startling revelations, and no upheavals in our family to report. Perhaps that in itself is worthy information: you neither save nor damn a Mormon family by giving its females independence and opportunity. The gospel and its principles can flourish in an atmosphere of parental equality. Women and men can share in all family responsibilities.
Before our journey, we had wondered how to let our four daughters know that, if they so choose, they don’t have to wear the golden handcuffs of the traditional Mormon housewife. Merely saying it hadn’t done the trick. The surrounding culture had already reached so deep into their psyches that they were suspicious of the principles of equal rights for women.
We believe that to bring up a child in the way she should go, we must travel that way ourselves. And as we expected, our voyage has dramatically and forever changed their outlooks in ways ten thousand words could not. It has engraved on their minds a deep impression about the roles of men and womene and about the worth of women and men. One now says, “I learned that I can be a housewife if I want, or something else, or I can be both if I want.” I have heard them talking about medical school, law school, teaching, professional dancing, as well as marriage and family life.
We are having a rewarding and enjoyable experience – a journey from which we can never return.