My husband and I moved into a small apartment in America after the wedding. I still remember my mother, half the world away in Vietnam, calling me and softly saying, “Now you have your own family. You should get up early and prepare breakfast for him.”
On the other end of the line, I silently nodded.
Those words reminded me of a familiar and unforgettable memory of my mother waking up at dawn, busily preparing breakfast and lunch for our family, and then taking a quick shower before heading to work.
I thought, “Well, of course, I should wake up early to prepare breakfast for my husband.”
However, the following morning was a different story. I woke up and got out of bed when the alarm set off, and my husband was still fast asleep. It suddenly struck me that it made no sense that a wife had to get up earlier than her husband.
Undoubtedly, breakfast was prepared in sleepiness and frustration. I cannot recall what I cooked that morning, but the fact that it was thrown into the trash bin. Here’s how the story went:
My husband: Oh Lord, why don’t you just sleep but cook this early and make unnecessary noise?
Me: What? I got up early to prepare breakfast for you, and you are annoyed with me?
My husband: Breakfast is not my thing, and I didn’t ask you to do so. You could cook for yourself if you like. Why even cook for me?
Me: But I did anyway. Just come and have some.
My husband: I can’t eat this early.
That morning saw our first argument after the wedding and my last attempt to get up early and prepare breakfast for my husband.
It’s been more than five years since that day, and my husband taught me a lot about gender equality along the way. Born and raised in America (although his parents are traditional Vietnamese), he knows that the well-established Asian culture has heavily pressured Vietnamese women to fulfill their roles and responsibilities.
He often proves to me that I always have a choice and that I own my life. No one or nothing (even centuries-old culture) can force me to do what I don’t want.
Though viewing myself as a modern, progressive woman who advocates feminism, I have to admit that my husband has taught me some priceless lessons on gender equality.
Always ask yourself, “Why am I doing this?”
Are you doing things because you want to or because others said you should?
The first step towards gender equality is to identify and distinguish what you want and what society has set out for you as a woman with its traditional culture and long-standing ideology. Admittedly, it remains the most challenging part for me even now.
I was born and raised in a traditional Vietnamese society where my mother and grandmother sacrificed their lives for their husbands and sons. Though well aware of the hard life women live through, they still taught me to accept and follow the conventional norms for women. Coming from such a background, I could hardly decide what I really wanted.
Even if I could, I was not brave enough to take action. I used to wonder, “If I go against the grain to do what comes from my heart, will it be considered a selfish act?”
More often than not, these thoughts are dismissed by my husband, such as, “Have you ever heard men say these things?” “I bet S never bothers herself with those thoughts.” (S is my American friend, by the way.) He has proved to me that I had a limited mindset instead of multiple and diverse perspectives.
He also highlights the existing cultural and gender differences. For instance, he used to ask me, “Do you notice that whenever we have meals with Vietnamese or Asian friends, women tend to gather in a tiny kitchen, crowd around a smoky grill, or rush to help even when it’s not requested?”
Indeed. Did I rush to help in the kitchen out of personal preference and because there are many things to be done? Or did I join the crowd for fear of being judged?
It is crucial to identify and differentiate our personal preferences and social norms because both women and men, deep inside, can only feel gratified when we are in our element. Of course, we can comply with the conventions out of responsibility; however, by doing so, we are less likely to enjoy true happiness.
If you are happy getting up early to prepare breakfast for your husband, becoming a full-time housewife to take care of your children, or helping in the kitchen, feel free to enjoy yourself.
However, if you do all this out of responsibility, you are more likely to suffer from disappointment, especially when your efforts are not recognized, for example, when you receive negative feedback on the dishes from your husband or when your aunt-in-law says that you are too clumsy. You can sometimes be criticized for spoiling your husband or children and causing their laziness and reliance.
Therefore, before doing anything, you should ask yourself, “Am I doing this because I truly want or because they (society, culture, ideology) say I should?”
Stop praising men for doing the housework.
My friends sometimes share photos of their husbands doing the dishes, cleaning, or cooking, often coupled with some flattering remarks, on social media. It is a lovely act, but sadly, it highlights that the gender gap remains wide.
There are indeed certain things that women can do better than men and vice versa. However, is it fair to praise men for doing some small good things while taking women’s sacrifices and attempts for granted?
My husband has used his actions to teach me this lesson. He left the restaurant, moved to a new city, and looked for a job there. Then we welcomed our first child, and he chose to become a stay-at-home dad.
What if I shared posts or photos of my husband doing the housework on social media every time he did it? There would be too many to count. I have never done such things because he consistently responded, “Don’t mention it. This is my job!
However, I never take that for granted, just like any caring act in human relationships. I always make it a point to express my gratitude to my husband in one way or the other.
My husband also points out the differences in compliments paid to men and women. For example, when I was expecting our first child, he always accompanied me to the hospital for prenatal check-ups. Being complimented on taking me to the hospital, he just replied, “It’s my wife who bears the injection, not me. I do nothing but sit here and play games while waiting for her.”
Other times, when he took our baby for a stroll in the park, other mothers often greeted him with remarks, “You are such a good stay-at-home dad!” In such cases, he responded, “You are good stay-at-home moms, too!”
He told me those stories to clarify the differences in social judgments of men and women. Men can do little and get praised to the skies, while many women’s efforts and sacrifices are taken for granted and even greeted with judgy comments.
Unable to eliminate social stereotypes on his own, my husband makes it a point to show me that there remains a distorted view of men and women in our society. He always encourages me to ignore all the noise and be confident to do whatever I like.
Not all your personal matters should be discussed with men (boyfriend, partner, or husband)
I intended to have my smooth waist-long hair cut short. I was then bombarded with questions from my family members and friends. Did you ask Joe first? Does he like you with short hair?
I was taken aback at first, thinking, “Oh heck! What does Joe have to do with my haircut?” However, their constant and consistent questions soon triggered my fear. Better safe than sorry, I asked my husband, “Are you okay if I have my hair cut short?” “Why ask me? It’s your hair, so it’s up to you!” said my husband with a frown.
It’s true! Why should women ask for men’s permission to do self-care activities? Men have their hair cut without asking for women’s approval. If we keep asking men for their approval regarding our personal decisions, we are fueling paternalism in men.
Thanks to my husband, I have also learned that our personal decisions should be made on our own, so we can spend time discussing important matters affecting our families, such as life events, plans, creative projects, financial investments, or careers. For big decisions to be made, our opinions are considered equally.
All this can only happen if we have an equal footing in our daily life, which means no one dominates the other in a husband and wife relationship, and we can decide for ourselves in small, personal matters.
Women need to be independent to achieve equality
It is essential to acknowledge that gender equality will remain out of reach if women advocate feminism while remaining dependent on men. True equality must come from both genders.
My husband is supportive, often lending me a hand in many things, such as picking me up and dropping me off, opening bottles, or carrying things. That said, he doesn’t like me being heavily reliant on him. By saying, “I trust you. You are strong; you can do it!” he encourages me to be independent in everything within my power.
Over time, we understand what needs mutual support and what should be done on our own.
I have never pressured my husband to keep up with the Joneses because I understand better than anyone that social stereotypes are devastating, and I am convinced that women can do most of what men can do. Therefore, it is crucial for women to be independent and constantly advance themselves to achieve gender equality.
Some advocate gender equality by claiming that women can do nothing and that men should cover everything for women. However, to the best of my knowledge, it is perceived as an act of laziness or dependency. If women want to be heard and respected by men, they should respect themselves first.
I remember a friend who always said, “Let me ask my husband first,” or “I don’t know how to do this; let me ask my husband.” To make matters worse, her emails were read and summarized to her by her husband because he was held responsible for her email account. It turned out that she always asked her husband to deal with technology-related things and then ended up being too reliant and lazy to learn anything new.
They got divorced two years ago. My friend has become a single mom, raising her child while doing online business. To my surprise, she even knows how to create a website. “I was so reliant that my ex-husband looked down on me. He supposed that I could not live a day without him. However, I realize it is not so hard to manage to do everything independently. Oh, I was such a fool!” shared my friend with a smile.
Her smile reflected regret and confidence, but it shone brightly because she had become a strong, independent woman. That image of her is something that I can never forget.
Gender inequality will remain a concerning problem in Vietnam and the world and will not end in several years or even dozens of years.
Women have to transform how they view and treat themselves first. We cannot expect to garner respect from men and society until we respect ourselves.
More importantly, our thoughts should be accompanied by actions. We cannot advocate gender equality while performing all household duties, asking for no help from our husbands, or relying too much on them. Otherwise, we will end up strengthening paternalism in men.
If you prefer the traditional family model with fixed gender roles, you should go with it. Many of my friends have chosen this model, and they have my full respect. However, if you choose the traditional model but feel uncomfortable, you had better reflect on what your heart wants. We can hardly get the best of both worlds.
There exists a wide gap between traditional norms and modern perceptions of gender equality, and it is hard to find a reconciliation. Therefore, you should choose either the conventional model or the current dynamics – don’t drain yourself by following both, and don’t even impose your choice on others. Advocacy of feminism also includes embracing differences, which means allowing other women to go their own sweet way.