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Balance means taking charge or not

Who "wears the pants" in your household?

It's not an issue if you're single, but if you live with someone the question may come up.

The expression comes from the era when men were the only ones wearing pants.

And pants equaled power.

Growing up in the 1950s, most families looked the same to me: husband, wife and kid(s), with man as "head of the household."

On rare occasions, the wife appeared to be in charge. The whisper would go like this: "You can sure tell who wears the pants in that family!"

Is it "natural" for men to rule the roost? Male dominance is the norm in the animal kingdom (when it comes to some things), but if you're a female hyena, you call the shots. Hey, maybe that's why they laugh!

And then there's the praying mantis. After the female receives the male's sperm, she bites his head off. I mean, literally.

But for homo sapiens, I wonder if our male-dominance hierarchy is just something we've made up.

I do know this: as a husband, father of a daughter and grandfather of two girls, I'm glad some of those male-dominated customs I grew up with are evolving in a more equitable direction.

Values such as equality, sharing, respect, and maybe most importantly, love, are causing a course-correction for our species, slowly perhaps, but surely.

We evolve.

Still, the culture of the '50s left me with what feels like a hardwired understanding of how "things are supposed to work."

If unexamined, this understanding can lead to unskillful, habitual reactivity. It works something like this:

1. A cultural course change starts gaining steam;

2. That course change doesn't fit my childhood experience of how things "should" be;

3. Something in me (hardwiring?) issues a message: "This change is screwed up!"

So who's "in charge" of the household I share with my wife?

It is logical, loving and — OK — smart for me to answer that question by saying it's a shared thing.

But then just like that we can be walking down a street and I will automatically position myself closest to the curb. Why? I was taught that's what a guy does. (Protection from mud-splashing!). No matter how many times my wife tells me I don't need to do this, I robotically continue to do it. It's not a decision I make.

Another example: the first time I went canoeing with my wife, years ago, we were half-way down the lower Kinni when she said, "Hey, OK if I take the stern now?" We were early in the courting stage, so of course I said yes. But I thought, "What? She wants to be in control?"

The truth I now know: she is totally competent in a canoe stern; I just couldn't picture it at first.

Fast forward to a couple of weeks ago. We are canoeing on the Namekagon River. It's her birthday, so I suggest it's her call on who sits where in the canoe.

She chooses the stern. Instead of flinching, I nod and smile in the spirit of "Happy birthday, honey!"

All goes well, for a while. But then she starts telling me about a steering technique that the person in the bow can use in certain situations. The bow! Steering!

Now, I'm an experienced canoeist, and I've never heard of this "technique." But it's her birthday, etc., etc., and I go along, half-heartedly trying to learn it.

It turns out that I'm bad — really bad — at that stroke she's teaching me.

After a bit, I ask why the person in the bow would need a steering technique.

She answers, but I have no clue what she's saying because I'm too fully focused on practicing that weird stroke.

Just then, we pass a campsite along the river. A canoe has just landed there, and a couple is sitting in that canoe (guy in stern; gal in bow).

They turn and stare at us as we pass.

I'm sure they stared because what they saw was a capable woman in the stern and a hapless man in the bow, engaged in a failed effort at following the instructions that were being called out by the capable woman in the stern.

This turned out to be a double-challenge for that part of me that thinks 'Guys should be in charge." Not only was I not in charge, but I looked pathetic as I struggled to follow instructions being issued by the woman in the stern.

And I know the guy at that campsite was smirking at me as we passed. Fortunately there was a fast current and we were out of their sight just like that.

So who wears the pants in our house? Like I said, it's a shared thing.

OK, I'm practicing that shared thing. In some ways, it's like practicing an unfamiliar paddling technique.