After consuming a delicious Thanksgiving dinner at my Aunt’s house, the men sauntered into the living room and the women retreated to the kitchen. Bellies full and waistlines expanding, the men slumped across sofas and watched football, their third game of the day. Meanwhile in the kitchen, the women scrubbed food off plates, packed leftovers into Tupperware and set the table again for dessert.
I’ve always understood this implicit arrangement, but this year was the first time I truly recognized it. Thanks, Sheryl Sandberg. The men succumbed to the sleep-inducing powers of tryptophan while the women took to work in the kitchen. And this was after cooking for days to prepare the entire meal.
Always the slowest eater in my family, I remained alone at the table scooping away the last bits of sweet potato casserole — my favorite, with the melted marshmallow glaze on top. Once finally finished, I lumbered into the kitchen, calling it quits after multiple rounds of consumption. In the kitchen, I offered to help clean up. I was promptly rejected. My dirty plate and silverware were snatched from my hands before I could wash them myself.
“Go watch football,” my aunt said.
I persisted, heading back to the table to gather the remaining dirty plates. But I was too late. My cousin — a girl, 14 — beat me to it. Following the example set by her mother, grandmother and aunts, she obeyed the gender norm and helped the women clean.
“Where’s your brother?” I asked.
She motioned toward the living room. “Watching football,” she said. Of course he was. With his father, grandfather and uncles.
I meandered around the kitchen, doing the odd job here and there. I shifted leftovers in the refrigerator to fit more containers and placed serving dishes in the high cabinets my mother couldn’t reach. But I kept bumping into people; the women, an apparent professional cleaning team, had this drill down pat.
“You really want to help?” my aunt asked me. “Here.” She handed over two bursting bags of trash.
“Garbage cans are in the garage. Put shoes on.”
I assumed my role and took out the trash. In the art of cleanup, it was apparently the only task that a man could accomplish without messing up. When I returned from the garage, the serving area had already been set for dessert. Pumpkin pies, banana breads and birthday cake were all ready to be eaten. The men awoke from their between-meal naps and entered the kitchen to eat again. We sang “Happy Birthday” to the latest age-turner — me, 21 — and dessert was served. I was handed the first slice of birthday cake. Somehow it fit in my stomach with the multiple plates of turkey and Thanksgiving starches I had consumed before.
Soon the men returned to watching TV. But for me, something didn’t sit quite right — and it wasn’t anything I’d eaten. It was something about my family’s passive acceptance of traditional gender roles. No one seemed to even notice the split. And I’m sure it wasn’t just my household.
But thankfully, I noticed — and I could help make a subtle shift.
A short while later, I returned to the kitchen to clear my plate. The women were at it again, cleaning the dishes and wiping the countertop. But this time, by the garage door, a bulging bag of trash was waiting for me.
Josh Barrett is a junior in Berkeley College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.