My Dad Did the Dishes, But He Did So Much More

by Vaidehi Joshi

When my dad first came to the United States over 30 years ago, he had two tattered hardcover suitcases in his hands and no one to pick him up at the airport. He came here on a leap of faith, leaving his home and everything he knew behind. And for him, home was thousands of miles away in Mumbai, India.

My dad comes from a socially conservative Indian family that has clung to traditions dating back hundreds of years. In his family, sons are often overtly shown preference over daughters. Until recently, women on his side of the family were denied an education, including my father’s mother, who remains illiterate. In fact, one of my earliest memories of my father is him sitting at the dinner table, telling us the story of how he taught his own grandmother to read.

It would have been very easy for my dad to follow these deeply rooted traditions. But he came to this country in the search of equality and opportunity, two privileges that were especially hard to find in a country where social injustices were woven into the fabric of its systems. And he made sure to model equality and promote opportunity for his two daughters in so many ways.

But while suds in the sink should rightly be part of the conversation, it’s high time that we moved past the scrub brushes. The fact of the matter is that achieving a truly equal society is going to take a lot more than dads getting their hands dirty.

Growing up, my dad encouraged us to pursue whatever activity we wanted, even if that activity was in a field dominated by boys. While I studied ballet for over a decade (out of my own choice), I also played tennis, basketball, and softball — my lack of hand eye coordination notwithstanding. For awhile, my dad became a dirt bike fanatic, which eventually led to my getting a motorcycle license. A couple of years later, he decided to get his private pilot’s license and encouraged my sister to try out flying as well. She just flew her first solo flight last year.

Beyond encouraging us to diversify our extracurriculars, my dad urged us to follow our passion in academics as well. For me, that meant pursuing an English degree; for my sister, that meant seeking out one in Engineering. In our house, aspiring to be a teacher held just as much value as wanting to be an astronaut.

What's more, even though he came from a culture that has historically treated both genders differently, my dad never showed any hint of this as a husband. To this day, he washes the dishes, loads and unloads the dishwasher, and vacuums the red carpet that winds up our staircase. He dusts, cooks, and (used to) carpool.

I never really gave a second thought to my dad doing the dishes until I read about a study in the journal of Psychological Science last month. This study found that fathers who did an equal share of housework had daughters who were more likely to choose broader career goals — namely, more “ambitious” professions, which are stereotypically more male-dominated. Inevitably, these results made the rounds across news cycles with headlines such as, “Dads, if you want your daughters to be CEOs, do the laundry,” and “Dad, do the dishes for the sake of your daughter”.

Talk about selling fathers short. Besides the fact that men doing half the housework is only fair, these headlines bring up a disturbing question of why men need statistics in order to prove that they should do their part at home. Is the only reason for fathers to load the dishwasher just so that they’ll boost their daughters’ future resumes? And more importantly, do we really expect that doing an extra load of laundry will make the world a more equal place 25 years from now?

Although this study shouldn’t be used as a crutch to prop up the concept of an equal division of household work, there is something to be said about its findings about modeling equality in the home. Alyssa Croft, a PhD Candidate in the University of British Columbia’s Department of Psychology and a co-author of the study explained,

These findings are important because despite our best efforts to create gender egalitarian workplaces, women are still underrepresented in leadership and management positions. So this study suggests that by creating gender egalitarian domestic roles, we might inspire little girls to pursue some of those careers where they had been traditionally excluded.

Clearly, modeling equality between both parents at home is a good place to start creating gender egalitarian households. But while suds in the sink should rightly be part of the conversation, it’s high time that we moved past the scrub brushes. The fact of the matter is that achieving a truly equal society is going to take a lot more than dads getting their hands dirty. While gender equality for our daughters and sons may start with the housework, we’ve got plenty of other things left on that to-do list.

One of those things is redefining “ambition” for our children. Yes, we all could benefit from more women in leadership and management positions. But gender equality doesn’t only mean more women in the boardroom. It also means more men in the classroom, at the nurse’s station, and at home with the kids. Making all workplaces less gender-specific may take a long time and a great deal of effort, but it will undoubtedly involve both men and women, and how they raise their sons and daughters.

Fathers play a huge role in their children’s lives, and the case for dads is a solid one. But when I think of my own dad, I think of how he taught me the importance of discipline, self-respect, humility, and hard work. I always remember the time that he made me get back on my motorcycle even after I crashed it and was afraid to ride again. Though I remember how many freedoms and opportunities he gave us, I can’t forget how he raised us to be independent and pushed us to stand on our own two feet.

Sure, my dad did the dishes while we were growing up. But he did a whole lot more than that. He raised his daughters in the same way that he would have raised us if we were sons. And to me, it doesn't get more equal than that.

Images: Vaidehi Joshi (2);