AS I was growing up, the feminist movement puzzled me. I could understand why a woman might want to prove something by getting a job in an area that was traditionally male dominated. But advocates from the movement made it plain that liberation for women also meant liberation for men. They believed that men needed to be freed from stereotypes about themselves just as much as women did. I think I understood this intellectually. But theory was never correlated with practice. The practical aspects of this ``liberation'' were brought home to me by a modest (on a cosmic scale) but poignant event. I lost my job.
With only two weeks' severance and little savings, I had no choice but to switch roles with my wife until I found another position. She would take temporary work (she's an expert in word processing) and I would stay home with our preschool daughter.
After a week passed, I told my wife that I didn't think I could hack it. I was sure the women in the supermarket were giving me weird looks as I wheeled our daughter around in a grocery cart. And the neighbors kept seeing me outside pushing her in the stroller. I was sure tongues were wagging and my masculinity was being challenged. In addition, watching over a youngster in perpetual motion was wearing me out.
My wife took it all very seriously. ``Oh, pooh,'' she said. ``The neighbors and grocery store ladies probably think you're on vacation. Besides, lots of men go shopping and help out with child care. You're really very fortunate to have this time at home with our daughter. It's an important stage in her development and you're able to be part of that. Aren't you pleased?''
Now I have to admit that I'm the product of a home in which my dad went off to work while my mom stayed home and took care of all the domestic chores. Dad did help with the dishes, however, and would sometimes pitch in with the cleaning. But by and large, the working father and homemaking mother were our neighborhood's norm. None of us were latchkey children and none of us came from a single-parent home. Ours was a world clearly defined by a traditional division of labor between men and women, and none of us could even conceive of what a reversal would be like.
As a couple of weeks passed, however, I found my new role becoming very agreeable. I felt less anxious about not being part of a time-intensive schedule imposed by an 8-to-5 job. Time, in fact, was becoming less a measurement of accomplishment (or nonaccomplishment) and more a point of reference among a network of interrelated and nurturing activities.
An agreeable side benefit of this situation was my wife's and my growing appreciation for each other's usual roles. As the Indians would say, ``Before you judge another, walk a mile in his moccasins.''
``Now I'm beginning to understand why you'd come home from work so whacked out,'' she announced one evening. ``Right now I don't feel like doing anything except reading the paper and relaxing on the couch. By the way, what's for dinner?''
``Tamale Pie,'' I answered. It was the result of an inspired idea I had after picking up four pounds of hamburger that had been marked down half-price at the local supermarket. I had been out shopping earlier that day and, in addition to scooping up the bargain hamburger, had scored a coupon coup by redeeming $3.30 worth of coupons on $17.60 worth of groceries.
For the uninitiated, coupons make grocery shopping a real treasure hunt. One day I bought a name brand of tissue for 7 (a 35 coupon, doubled in value). At last I was beginning to understand my wife's glee as she would pore over the Sunday paper, scissors in hand, exclaiming, ``Look! A coupon for Better Cheddars!'' Or, ``Oh, honey, 30 cents off on Minute Maid orange juice!''
``By the way,'' I said to her one evening, ``now I understand why the house wasn't always picked up when I came home from work. Our daughter has been trashing it all day. As soon as I go around picking up, she goes back and trashes again. It seems futile. As a matter of fact, the litter doesn't disturb me as it used to.''
``You're finally beginning to understand,'' she said in that way that wives have when they want you to know that you're not a hopeless idiot.
After about a month of domesticity I found myself much less concerned with my preconceived notions of what my ``male'' role should be and what my wife's ``female'' role should be. I remember preparing a lunch one day for her to take to work. Before, I would have bridled at the idea of doing something I considered women's work. But this day I thought, ``Now I'm doing this out of a sense of affection for my wife. And I don't care if it's traditionally considered a woman's task. I can express loving concern and I can enjoy doing it.'' This was a real breakthrough.
A book I have been reading recently has given me new insight into the ``why'' of this breakthrough. Called ``The Turning Point: Science, Society, and the Rising Culture,'' it was written by a physicist, Fritjof Capra. He says: ``A careful analysis of the process of [experimental] observation in atomic physics shows that . . . subatomic particles have no meaning as isolated entities but can be understood only as interconnections, or correlations between various processes of observation and measurement.''
He continues: ``Subatomic particles, then, are not `things' but are intercon-nections between `things,' and these `things,' in turn, are interconnections between other `things,' and so on. In quantum theory you never end up with `things'; you always deal with inter-connections.''
Applying this micro concept to my macro environment, I saw that I had made a mistake in seeing myself as an isolated entity instead of seeing myself as an active expression. The tasks I previously felt were ``mundane'' (wash the clothes, feed the baby, shop, feed the baby, clean the house, cook dinner) began to take on more important dimensions.
I began to see that ``male'' and ``female'' distinctions are more like those subatomic particles that ``can be understood only as interconnections between various processes of observation and measurement.'' The job of making a lunch for a family member to take to work may be called a ``female'' job, but can't it just as easily be called a ``loving'' job or an ``affectionate'' job or a ``caring'' job or a ``nurturing'' job? Isn't it the activity itself that's crucial?
I remember how my wife's women friends would respond when I first told them of our role reversal. ``Hey, that's great,'' they would say. ``I think it's terrific that you have this opportunity to be with your daughter and learn what it's like to be at home during the day.'' At the time they were saying this I couldn't have agreed less. Now I couldn't agree more.