Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
Looking for Enjoli

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Late at night, when I've stopped worrying about the hole in the bathroom ceiling, the mess on Nick's bedroom floor, and the various appointments I have for the next day, I start in on the main event: death. I don't actually think about it a lot -- not the afterlife, or whether there is one, not about my own or my children's or husband's deaths in any great detail. No, I have a specific worry, one that my late nights have not yet come to terms with: I worry that I can't die, or the family will go broke.

Oh, I know, I have life insurance -- but I pay the bills on-line, and no one else has the passwords. What will happen? How long will it be before they send real bills in the mail? Before Mark realizes that he hasn't made a mortgage payment, or a car payment? Before the credit cards get confiscated at the grocery store?

It probably wouldn't happen like that. Maybe they'd get evicted first, and the other bills would never catch up to them. Maybe they'd be able to start over.

Maybe. But it seems too risky, so I've decided not to die.

That usually works, in the middle of the night, and I get back to sleep. In the daytime, though, reality sets in. I didn't really plan this life, but here it is; I'm in the middle of it. And my nighttime worries reflect a little of my daytime reality: I have become the indispensable one in the family, both primary wage-earner and primary care-giver. In other words, I'm the Enjoli woman. Remember her? She could "bring home the bacon, fry it up in the pan, and never let you forget you're a man!" Well, I don't know about that last part, but I certainly bring home my share of the bacon, and if anyone's going to fry it up in a pan, it'll probably be me. There she was, singing on my TV screen, infiltrating my teenage mind -- and she was probably worried about who'd watch out for her family when she died, too.

Or maybe not. After all, what about that man? What was he doing? What's my husband doing, when I lie awake worrying?

I don't know about Mr. Enjoli, but Mark sleeps through the worry. He's pretty tired, after all, from bringing home his own share of the bacon, and carrying his own share of the work around the house. I may think I'm indispensable, but in fact, he's the one who will fix that hole in the ceiling, who helped make the happy mess on Nick's bedroom floor, and who will probably help clean it up. In the division of marital labor sweepstakes, I made out pretty well.

So why do I think I'm indispensable? I'm not sure, but I know I'm not the only one. To hear some of my friend talk, you'd think they married incompetent, helpless slobs, men without memories or skills. They only know how to feed the kids at the drive-through, they let them stay up too late and watch too much TV, and they can't dress them in clothes that either fit or match.

And yet I know it's not true. These guys, after all, lived on their own (most of them) for years before marriage. They've accompanied their wives through labor and delivery, and they coach soccer, work hard, make sure the bills get paid, and even buy their wives an occasional gift. (And we're not just talking Kobe-Bryant-forgive-me-honey gifts, either.) So what makes these smart, funny, thoughtful moms describe their husbands as incompetent, and themselves as indispensable?

I don't blame the Enjoli woman entirely, but someone like her seems to have had a profound effect on the women I know, and not on the men at all. But here's the ugly truth: it's not so much that we're indispensable, or that our husbands are incompetent, as that the culture allows for a certain incompetence in the male of the species that's simply not acceptable for women. Think of the guy in your office who leaves the coffee pot on the burner after it's empty, for example, or the one who can't add paper to the copier. Or, at home, the guy who can't find his socks, or the kids' pediatrician, or the bank statement. There's a certain freedom that goes with that inability, isn't there? It's called "learned incompetence," and -- for the most part -- only men can get away with it.

Women, who after 40 years of feminism are still proving themselves in the workplace, certainly don't want to portray themselves as incompetent there. And those who've given up successful careers to stay home with children are not only used to demonstrating their competence, but (perhaps) need to be needed, need to justify their temporary or permanent step off the career track. Women like me, with one foot in each camp, are Enjoli women, the ones about whom we hope people are whispering behind our backs, "I don't know how she does it." We worry a lot, but maybe we don't need to quite so much. (Single parents, the real Enjoli women of the world, have my immense respect and admiration -- they know they're doing it all. I can only hope they're too busy even to worry about being thought incompetent.)

No one has named him that, but my husband probably is Mr. Enjoli. He works full time, does a goodly portion of the child care, grocery shops and cleans and cooks in proportion (sometimes out of proportion) to mine. For years, I both cooked and did the dishes -- feminist nightmare, right? But no -- because while I was calmly doing the dishes, dishes that didn't talk back or cry that they had soap in their eyes or hurt my back when I bent over them, he was managing bath-time. For us, that's a division of labor that worked.

Now that the kids can (mostly) bathe themselves, Mark and I often find ourselves doing the dishes together. It may be inefficient, but we've decided that our goal isn't, in fact, efficiency. Because child rearing is not an efficiency test, nor should it operate according to the rules of mechanization and industrialization. In fact, a certain redundancy is a good thing, a necessity, even. Why do you think parents generally come in pairs, or why it takes a village to raise a child? Not because each has a specific gift to give (though that may fortuitously happen), but because everyone needs to be able to pitch in when necessary. No one has to do everything if everyone can do something. Doing the dishes together isn't a revolutionary act, but it is a chance for us to talk, a time we can work together and catch up on the day without being interrupted. (After all, no one else wants to help!)

I'm still working on that Mr. Enjoli campaign, then. I'm hoping he'll become a new media icon, maybe the grown-up version of the metrosexual. I have a feeling there are more of them out there -- we just need to find them. I've already got mine, and I'm pretty sure he'll be able to take care of things if I need him to.

Libby Gruner teaches English and Women’s Studies at the University of Richmond in Richmond, VA, where she lives with her family. Her academic writing has appeared in SIGNS: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, Children’s Literature, and other journals. Her personal writing has been featured in Brain,Child: The Magazine for Thinking Mothers the Seal Press anthology Toddler: Real-Life Stories of those Fickle, Urgent, Irrational, Tiny People We Love, and Mama, PhD: Women Write About Motherhood and Academic Life.

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