I have lived apart from my parents for several years, and last year my younger sister finally left the nest to go to college. From conversations with them, I got the impression that my parents have had to learn to rely on each other all over again. I was happy to hear that their relationship seemed to have strengthened when the kids left. I was also excited to visit them in Jakarta and finally spend some quality time.
My husband and I got married last year after five years of being together. We live in Europe, where he is pursuing his PhD, and enjoy starting a household together without parental pressure. We share household chores and financial responsibilities equally, as we should.
When the Covid-19 pandemic broke out, we were in Jakarta and decided to stay in my parents’ house as it seems to be the most sensible option. But as much as we enjoy spending time with my parents, we have learned that it is probably a good thing to live so far away from them.
It all started with my mother’s comment when seeing my husband washing the dishes after lunch. She said to me, “Oh no, poor husband! Why are you letting him wash the dishes?”
At first, I treated it as a passing comment. I misunderstood her intention – I thought she meant that we are to treat him as a guest in this house. She kept repeating her comments (and I kept ignoring them), until one day she sat me down and said to me, “Washing the dishes, cooking, and cleaning the house are women’s job. You are doing your husband wrong by making him do your responsibilities. Go and wash the dishes!”
I have a history of conflict with my mother, and that day, I was not in the mood for an argument. So I simply said, “He ate too, so he has to wash the dishes.”
I walked to the kitchen to give my husband a hug. I told him about what my mother said and we laughed about it. But that was the day I started noticing how unequal my parents’ marriage has been.
My mother always bear the brunt of managing the household chores. If she doesn’t do it herself, she is in charge of managing a helper (or her daughters) to do it. After dinner, my father usually head to the sofa to watch TV, while my mother cleans the table and washes all the dishes. With me and my husband in the house, they expect me to help her while my husband is to join him at the sofa.
After she’s done with the dishes, my mother would usually update my father about her activities of the day. My father is usually either not interested or too busy attending his WhatsApp groups to listen to my mother. It is my impression that he thinks her activities are not as important as his. This, of course, makes me sad and I always make sure to take interest in her stories (it usually involves cooking and TikTok trends). But what happens when I’m not around to listen to her?
Meanwhile, when my father shares his stories of the day, he often addresses them primarily to me and my husband. When my mother has questions (for example, she doesn’t recognize a name he mentioned), he answers her with frustration, usually by clicking his tongue and sighing. And then he quickly moves on with his story. It is apparent to me that he does not view her as an equal thought partner. He thinks that his ‘serious’ stories (which usually involves politics) are more important than her domestic adventures.
These observations break my heart. I grew up idolizing my parents, I thought they were the coolest people and they had the best relationship. But now I realized how unequal their partnership has been. I know there is not much I can do to change their ways. But it has been eye-opening to identify the things I have to un-learn from their marriage as I work with my husband in building an equal household.
Lesson 1: Domestic responsibilities are basic human skills and should be everyone’s responsibility. I understand the history of how these chores have become so gendered, but it is time to change our mindset. Regardless of your gender, if you made the mess, you have the responsibility to clean it up. If you’re hungry, you have the figure out how to come up with food. If you live together with your partner, then tackle these tasks as a tag team. Never assume that women have to bear the brunt of these responsibilities simply for the fact that they lack penises.
Lesson 2: Good communication is the key to a happy partnership. And the key to good communication is an established mutual respect. When both parties respect each other, they start to listen actively and communicate more clearly. No more hidden messages, no more passive aggression. Sometimes it is hard work (for example, when you’re angry, hungry, or both), but that’s what makes a partnership work.
Lesson 3: You can love your parents but not listen to them. It saddens me to realize that my life-long role models are not that good for me anymore. I suppose it is a part of growing up. As I establish my values in life, I learned that it is okay to acknowledge that my values may be different than my parents’. And probably, it’s not my place to change theirs. All I can hope for is that they too can learn from our young marriage.
We won’t stay with them for much longer, or so we hope. So my wish for them is that they can learn to respect each other as equal and share responsibilities more equally. Probably not 50-50, but at this point in their lives, any improvement would be miraculous.