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Laura Jean Baker
Laura Jean Baker is the author of The Motherhood Affidavits, a braided memoir that explores her addiction to childbearing alongside her husband's casework in criminal defense. She teaches at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh specializing in memoir, women's stories, crime narratives, and children's literature.

The 17-Year Itch

Illustration by Ellice Weaver

Laura Jean Baker | Longreads | August 2018 | 10 minutes (2,590 words)



Four years ago, in the nook of our L-shaped kitchen on Hazel Street, my husband Ryan — equal partner in marriage — proclaimed, “I think I’m probably a little bit smarter than you.” He paused, remembering to cut me a compliment sandwich. “You just have a better work ethic.”

To what did I owe the pleasure of this rare expression of sexism? In our family, men and women belonged at the hearth. Ryan washed dishes, burped babies, and curried meals. We’d just pulled our fifth bun from the oven, a little boy, exactly what Dad had ordered to tip the balance in our two-boy-two-girl household. Are you hoping for a boy or a girl? With the first four pregnancies, he’d dare only to say, “a healthy baby,” but with Gustav, he’d openly declared his preference for the Y chromosome. My husband was sometimes a stranger to me, a throwback, a modern man sprung from an old seed.

Experts in family studies predict that by 2050, men in heterosexual partnerships will share equally in housework. That will be a year shy of what may — or may not — be our golden wedding anniversary. But can sociologists predict when men will totally reconfigure their mindsets? Is there such a thing as a blank slate, free from the ghost outlines of patriarchal history?

Household chores are tangible problems we solve together. How to empty the sink trap; how to polish the countertops; how to make a bed and sleep in it, alongside your wife. Implicit bias is a much more sinister thing, a bad omen for any marriage founded on equality.

On the day of Ryan’s regrettable comment — his decree of superiority — we’d foolishly cycled back around to an old conversation. As childhood sweethearts, we’d taken the ACT exam together — same test, same day. After two hours and 55 minutes, the proctor had authoritatively announced, “Time’s up.” Our equitability — our gender equality — had been examined and documented by American College Testing. We both scored 28 (very good but not impressive, according to the internet, which didn’t yet exist). We’d landed together in the 90th percentile. Our brains matched. We planned to become in real life what we represented on paper: equal-opportunity partners, relishing our shared smarts.

But as with athletes demoralized by a tie game, we were left longing for something definitive. We wanted to know who was smarter, and as it turned out, he still believed, on some deeply ingrained and unquestioning level, that I was just a “try-hard.” This is how my 12-year-old son, Leo, describes classmates, often girls, who labor over extra-credit projects. He’s talking about me, I concede internally, nearly surrendering to a new generation of boys and men.

“Teachers like girls better,” Leo says. “It’s reverse sexism.” He too believes he has something to prove. At least twice a week, he sends a cryptic message from his school-appointed Chromebook: “Come pick me up. I hate it here.”

One day, the message just reads, “Help.”

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