Women in the kitchen. Men watching football. Even a family with lesbian moms isn’t immune to a traditional division of holiday labor.
It’s Thanksgiving 2012 a couple hours north of San Francisco, and it’s cold enough outside to see your breath. In my car, I have both the heat and radio blasting as I wind over country roads shaded by oak trees toward the family ranch.
My family is very close. What we lack in wealth we make up for in the richness of our relationships. This is what leads my brother and me to make the nine-hour trek to spend the holiday there. We make the drive from Long Beach and Los Angeles, respectively, so that we can cozy up with our multiple mamas. Mine happens to be a lesbian family, and the ranch has been the site of countless women’s festivals teeming with bare-breasted revelers over the years.
Wandering into the warmth of the house, I spy my mother surrounded by cubes of butternut squash and green apple, all meant for soup. Despite her working 60-hour weeks, she has managed to grocery shop and menu plan. We have discussed during the prior few days what parts of the meal will be my responsibility. I am in charge of the sides and salad (as the resident vegetarian). She will handle appetizers and the bird.
“Where’s Ethan?” I ask, inquiring about my younger sibling.
“He won’t be here until 4pm because of the Niner’s game.”
We are off the grid up here. There is a small television, but it mostly gets used for watching movies. My brother has dallied in the Bay Area so as to not miss out on the football action.
Incensed, I bring up to my mother what is immediately obvious to me: “Let me get this straight, he gets to show up once all the work is done? How is that fair?”
The double standard around the division of domestic labor between men and women seems to be living on in my home. While I am expected to help prepare food, set the table, serve the meal, and clean up afterward, my brother is let off the hook. It’s like a bad stereotype of Thanksgiving. The women doing the work while the guys watch football. You’d think that these women, second wave feminists and all, would know better than to engage in this sort of behavior.
You’d be wrong.
“All I’m asking is for everyone to examine whatever internalized sexism may be in play here,” I beg of the assembled lesbian moms. “He’s like a king. You wait on him hand and foot.”
“You and your brother are both spoiled rotten,” declares my mom’s girlfriend Joan. She’s only been around the last seven years. We haven’t totally won her over yet.
“I baby both of my children,” insists my mother, while pouring me a glass of inky red wine, her own teeth already slightly blush tinged.
“There’s nothing I wouldn’t do for either of you.”
“Isn’t this holiday about being thankful or something?” Joan interjects.
“Fine,” I say to Joan, “Maybe we are spoiled, but shouldn’t he, by now, know enough to at least offer to pitch in?”
Some of the difference in expectations may be attributable to the 10-year age gap between us, but by the time I was the age he is now, I was involved. I don’t want him to be one of those guys whose wife gets no help around the house.
“You don’t have to pitch in if you don’t want to,” says my mom. She opens the oven and checks on the turkey. The skin is looking golden brown and crackly.
“That’s not my point! Remember when he used to call us all ‘woman’ back in the day, like ‘woman, go get me some hot chocolate,’ you let him get away with it…”
I’m trying to get my mother to see the dynamic she’s enabled.
“What was I supposed to do? Hit him?”
No wonder we ended up with a rugby-playing frat boy in the family. My parents hadn’t shoved the egalitarian ideal down his throat sufficiently. Maybe it was because he’s the second child? With me they at least tried to substitute Tonka trucks for Barbies. With him, perhaps, in parallel to their acquiescence to sugared cereal, they let more slide.
“Isn’t parenting about setting limits and molding minds? You could have put him in his place.”
After tossing butter lettuce into a bowl, I throw pomegranate seeds and slices of persimmon into a salad and then start whipping up homemade vinaigrette. Brussels sprouts get quartered, tossed in olive oil, and spread on a baking sheet to be roasted.
“With both of you, we concentrated on letting you be yourselves.”
My brother’s car pulls up, a loud layer of hip-hop rising from the cracked windows. He unfolds his lanky body from behind the wheel. I flashback to holding him as a baby, his elfin ears peeking through the straw colored fuzz of his head, his mouth gnawing on a proffered knuckle. Now he takes his time gathering odds and ends from the back seat while my mom holds open the front door. “Mama,” he says, “I hope it’s time to eat because I’m starving!”
“Sissy!” he exclaims as he walks through the door and sees me. I leave where I have just finished crumbling blue cheese over the salad. He wraps me in his now manly arms. “I missed you, Sissy!” (This is another example of what I’m talking about. When he was young and couldn’t pronounce my name, he took to calling me “Sissy” and the whole family followed suit—my new name based on a relational identity. So much for progress.)
Guests begin to arrive. I can see their pick-up trucks streaming up the dirt road driveway. The table gets set with vintage china bearing grape clusters. Three more bottles of wine are uncorked.
“You gonna at least help me carry things to the table?” I ask him.
“Sure,” he says, “Lemme just throw my stuff in my room first.”
By the time he’s back, the last few tasks are done.
Kellen Kaiser is loved and supported by her four lesbian mothers and one younger brother. As a child she represented the gay community frequently as a speaker on panels and in the media. She has a memoir-in-progress, Moms and Bombs, as well as blogging at kellenannekaiser.wordpress.com