I have never fancied myself much of a gardener. In fact, I might be the worst gardener that ever lived. I have no proclivity for gardening, no passion for it and nothing in the way of talent. No green thumbs here. However, ritually, every spring, I set out to tackle some type of approach to gardening in my yard. I have selected some shrubs that I really like – hydrangea and lilacs and roses – and I make a valiant effort of pruning and creating flower arrangements in pots for my front and back doors. And I do ok. Nothing spectacular. I am scrappy so I don’t too much research. I go by my gut and get drawn in to the pretty colors. I try to follow the directions of placing plants where they will get enough sun and make sure to space them far enough apart to grow to their potential. Invariably, I am cutting back wayward rose bushes and overgrown black beauties but I do my best.

Growing up, my father, an Italian immigrant, was the one who handled all the gardening in our family. Even though he and my mother divorced when I was young, I have memories of him mowing the lawn, planting shrubs, taming the roses and taking great pride in the manicured landscaping of our home. My mother could barely maintain a houseplant since she hardly ever let any light into the house. She kept the shades drawn because she believed there would be less dust that way (after all, the sunlight allows you to see the dust particles so she was able to fool herself into believing that if she did not see it, it did not exist.) I do not have that many fond memories of my father since he was not around all that much and, when he was, his drinking created an inordinate amount of chaos in our home. But, I do recall his work in the garden as something he was passionate about and it brings me warmth when I smell the fresh-cut grass or breathe in the scent of freshly bloomed roses. It takes me right back to being a little girl and standing in our small yard that was fenced in with the typical Queens chain link fence. My father managed to bring some beauty to our very drab row house. We had a corner property so there was lots of room on the side of the house to plant all types of shrubs and there was a large lawn in the front of the house. I remember my mother lamenting about this after my father was gone for it was a lot of work to maintain our property and I recall the days when the roses became overgrown and infected, the grass was tall and the shrubs were no longer perfectly pruned. The disarray of our gardens were a perfect metaphor for the chaos of our lives.

Yesterday I spent the day in my own garden, paring down my enormously overgrown butterfly bushes and trimming the lilacs that decided to bloom far too early and, as I do every year, I thought about my father and these tender memories. Last year, on my first day out in the garden, I was unusually angry. I resented the fact that I was the one trimming the roses because, in that moment, I irrationally believed it was the man’s job to handle that. That’s a pretty remarkable thought for someone like me who fancies herself a feminist and does not ever define gender roles in that way. But, emotions are a powerful force and mine resulted in irrational resentment and surprising nostalgia for a man who, otherwise, was not a very loving father. With every branch I snipped from my climbing rose shrubs, I longed for a man who would, like my father, take care of the important details like landscaping. In all fairness, my husband is pretty awesome about taking care of the outside of our home and, of course, my emotions had nothing to do with him and everything to do with the loss I was feeling at that moment. I was suffering from never having had the opportunity to experience a traditional father-daughter relationship and the only connection I could drum up was the one that overwhelmed me as I got thorns stuck in my hands as the large branches came down. The stickiness and pain that came with each thorn pressing into my skin was a reminder of what I lost when my father walked away all those years ago.

My father died last year and, in contrast to when my mother died, I found myself to be very emotional. However, similar to with my mother, I had been estranged from my father for many years – decades, in fact. He and I never had much of a relationship at any point in my life in that I was so young when he left and his alcoholism was so corruptive to everything in his life – especially his relationship with his family. He tried to forge a bond with me when I was in college but, after so many years of being told what a bastard he was by my mother and feeling alienated and confused, it was hard, even as a young adult, to bridge that gap. I regret that we never had that opportunity because I know, at his core, my father was a kind and loving man – and he and I were very much alike. Those who have known me since I was a little girl have always told me that all the goodness in me comes from my father – which makes it that much more difficult to accept the fact that he and I did not have a relationship. I would have liked to have known him differently and have had him enrich my life in positive ways. Alas, that was not possible for so many reasons – primarily because he was drunk for most of his life and was not that great guy that everyone remembered.

When my father died and I surprised myself with my emotional reaction, I spent some time trying to understand how I could feel sad about losing someone who never really was a part of my life – someone who caused a lot of pain in my life. I suspected it was because I managed to find a way to forgive him and release some of the pain I experienced. Or, maybe it was because he and I had a deeper bond that simply never had the opportunity to blossom. Whatever the reason, I am grateful that I sat with the feelings and allowed myself to make my peace with them.

Yesterday, when I was undergoing my annual ritual in the garden, I decided to make it joyous. I chatted with friends and then listened to music – for hours. I spend a large chunk of my day trimming, planting, mulching and found it calming and enriching. My skills are no better, my eye is no more sophisticated and I am not sure what results will be yielded from my efforts. However, I was at peace. I remembered my father with fondness. I thought about all those summer afternoons when he would put on his shorts and t-shirt and sport his white boat shoes and tend to the garden. Memories I will forever cherish.


This morning I stumbled upon a piece I had written last year about gender stereotypes.  I spent a good portion of my time last year studying this topic through the lens of how it impacts children – particularly girls.  Being a lifelong feminist, I have always been out front supporting women’s issues and have believed that, as a woman, it is my obligation, to help advance the causes that help advance the women’s movement.  So, working on gender stereotypes as they relate to young girls was not a far leap for me.  Interestingly, what I found so surprising about this work is the sympathy for men that began to emerge when I started to study gender from both perspectives.

Uniting my professional areas of interest, I began looking at the stereotypes that men struggle with when it comes to finding some equilibrium with their life and work.  Naturally, we often think that men have it easy because they are always up for the stretch assignment and they are always in the pipeline for the C-Suite jobs.  Men have the advantage of being invited to the golf outings and cigar bars and can seamlessly maneuver their way into the inner circle.  But, this assumes that every man wants to be in the pipeline or that every man wants the stretch assignment or that every man wants to be at the golf outing or inside the inner circle.  We so often hear about women who have opted out of their careers in order to stay home with their kids or have a less stressful lifestyle where they can find more balance between work and family.  How often do we hear the same about men?

The Great Recession has shifted the balance of power in most families and this should be changing the equation for men.  When The Shriver Report was published last summer, there was so much press and buzz about how women were finally equal to men in the workforce with women representing 49.9% (compared to 35.5% a generation ago in 1969).  This, of course, is all great news for both men and women and corporate America.  There is so much evidence that women in the workplace – particularly mothers – increases productivity and, ultimately bottom-line performance.  And, while women are making 77 cents for every dollar a man earns, the gap continues to close and, perhaps, in my lifetime or my children’s, that margin will narrow even further.  So, what does all this mean for men?  A USA Today article in January 2009 reported that men were facing unemployment at much greater rates than women because of the industries in which they work.  Construction and manufacturing, heavily populated by men, were the hardest hit by the recession while healthcare and education had a bit more stability – industries where women represent nearly three quarters of the workforce.

So, going back to my original points, what does any of this have to do with how gender stereotypes impact men?

The reality for men is that they are equally – if not more so – impacted by the stereotypes imposed on them by our culture.  While many will agree that the role that men play as husbands and fathers has evolved significantly over the past several decades, it is still not unusual to hear – particularly in suburban communities – about the families where the dad works and the mom stays home to raise the kids.  In many of these communities, it would be highly unusual to see a dad at the playground during the day or a dad at pick-up after school.  Similarly, the men that work in more corporate environments tend to be more significantly impacted by stigmas about taking advantage of work/life offerings.  The stigmas, while different than the ones women face, are very difficult for dads to overcome.

Now, the question I ponder in 2010 versus when I originally started writing about the cement floor for men that affixes them to being in the role of breadwinner for the family, is whether or not this new normal created by the Recession will change the assumptions and expectations we, as a society have in regards to the roles men and women play both in the workplace and at home.  Sue Shellenbarger wrote a great piece in her column last week about the imbalance of benefits for dads vs moms and questioned whether men are discriminated against when it comes to work/family benefits and policies.  I would argue that men are absolutely discriminated against.  According to the Society for Human Resource Management’s 2009 Employee Benefits Report, only 15% of companies offer paid paternity leave.  The rest expect men to use sick leave or vacation time to be able to spend time with their new child and assist their wife or partner with the care of this child.  Shellenbarger reports in her column that the number of complaints coming from men about the availability of flex and family programs is increasing and that men are generally dissatisfied with how they are being treated in regards to these programs.

Fundamentally, I believe we have deep-rooted issues in the way we treat employees in general when it comes to strategies for helping them manage the multiple demands coming from their professional and personal lives.  And, as I have stated before, those companies that can make some headway in this area will have an enormous advantage over those that are stuck with their heads in the sand.  That being said, I also believe that we need to overcome our own struggles with stereotypical expectations that run along gender lines.  All the talk about the mommy wars – where are the daddy wars?  Why aren’t we more concerned about giving men the options they clearly crave to have choices when it comes to how they work.  The pressure on men to continue to conform to outdated models is still quite great – almost as great as the pressure on women to break through the glass ceiling.  We are getting more used to seeing men in caretaking roles simply because so many of them are out of work but it needs to become the new normal for men to be in those roles.

Tell me what you think about this topic.  Do you or your male spouse/partner have experiences you want to share?  Let’s see if there is any truth to all the hype.