If women’s level of power in America is at an all-time high, why is their sense of adequacy at an all-time low? You’ll find some of the answers in Anne-Marie Slaughter’s recent and controversial essay, “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All,” in the latest issue of Atlantic Magazine. In it, she talks about her own feelings of inadequacy in juggling a demanding, high-powered career and the raising of two sons, remarking about her not always successful superhuman efforts, “I’d been part, albeit unwittingly, of making millions of women feel that they are to blame if they cannot manage to rise up the ladder as fast as men and also have a family and an active home life (and be thin and beautiful to boot).”
If you’re like millions of other working women, you might breathe a sigh of recognition at those words. How many days have I worked myself into a frenzy of stress, meeting inane deadlines, racing to get to daycare to pick up my daughter at a reasonable hour (or maybe going to dance class first because, after all, I have to exercise to maintain the figure of a 25-year-old when I’m pushing 40), coming home to put together what truly amounts to a pathetic dinner (thank heaven my daughter is only four and thinks making spaghetti takes skill), while I fold laundry while watching her finish her meal, then answer e-mail on my Blackberry while I give her a bath, and often find my quality time with her is accidentally falling asleep beside her in her bed after a 10-minute bedtime story.
And I’m not even married.
Slaughter is though. And while she acknowledges her husband is largely responsible for making her rise to the top possible (he took care of the kids while she was hours away in D.C. all week for two years), she does not once mention in her essay of many thousands of words making time for him. It’s about kids and career.
And, unfortunately, that’s exactly the kind of outlook that has led millions of American women to divorce high-powered husbands while their friends looked on in incredulity. Are the tables going to turn on American women (who are, by and large, responsible for initiating 80 percent or more of divorces)? Probably not. Men just don’t have the same high standards we do when it comes to relationship satisfaction. Lucky for us, I guess.
Pity for them.
I’m not suggesting Slaughter doesn’t love her husband or that she doesn’t value him. She obviously values him since she suggests that one way for women to climb to the top professionally is to “marry the right person.” That would be someone like her husband who is willing to take on responsibility for home and kids when she is away. And honestly, I couldn’t be happier that at least some men are willing to do this, even if only some of the time. But um, is that all the guy is good for? For me, it’s just a little too reminiscent of the perfect hostess/housekeeper 1950s housewife. Marry the person who will help you advance your career and keep you comfortable.
We’ll never know Slaughter’s take on the husband’s role (though we suspect being a lover has very little to do with it given her long hours) because she doesn’t go into it. But we do know she asks people to introduce her as a “mother of two sons” alongside all her professional accomplishments. She does not, however, ask to be introduced as the wife of Princeton University professor Andrew Moravcsik. Maybe she thinks her audiences already know this.
My point is, however, when did women, who have regretted for centuries their insignificance in the lives of husbands who were out in the working world, decide to be hypocrites and forget the men in their lives? Or at least overlook them a lot. I’m speaking of professional women, of course, and I know a lot of them. Some of them are devoted wives; some of them, however (and I’ll admit I’ve been guilty myself at times), have come to see marriage as a convenient partnership where the benefits accrue in a rather lopsided fashion.
Part of the trouble here, as is so often the case, is the shifting landscape of gender roles. I don’t know if Slaughter makes more money than her husband, and, thankfully perhaps, they enjoy professional parity at least, but there are an increasing number of women who have outstripped their husbands professionally and financially. And that’s where things get tricky.
A close friend of mine was persistently convinced during the seven years of my marriage that a likely source of the trouble between my husband and myself was the fact that I made more money than he did and, later, when he chose to be a stay-at-home dad for three years, I made the money, period. She insisted this just didn’t sit right with men. I persistently disputed her.
But when I look back at how frequently my former spouse defended his contributions to the household, even when they were not being questioned, I wonder. Because I’ve seen resentment on the part of female friends and acquaintances who have lower-earning spouses or stay-at-home dads for partners. They rarely mean to but they cannot help but see the guy’s role as somehow diminished because he is either not bringing home the bacon or not bringing home as much (or more) than she is.
What’s going on here? Isn’t this what we wanted? Isn’t this what our mothers’ generation fought for? For us to have equal earning power with men? And to have no glass ceilings?
Sure it was.
But remember the old adage, Be careful what you wish for.
I’m not suggesting for a moment that I’d like to see American culture go back to a 1950s model. I am beyond grateful for the fact that I can be economically independent as a woman. And were it not for the freedom I have had to grow professionally and financially, whether married or not, neither I nor my daughter would enjoy the opportunities we have to live far richer and more meaningful lives than the women who went before us.
But there is a problem here. Men are becoming largely insignificant, at least in the lives of women who can pull off six-figure salaries or better. Because even if he knows how to do laundry and change a diaper, well, you could always hire a housekeeper and a nanny. So if the sex isn’t over-the-top or if he’s not just plain enormously charming, what exactly is his point here outside of offering a sperm donation?
This is a question, I’m afraid, more and more men are asking themselves. And we women aren’t helping matters. Because the plain and ugly truth is, there are an awful lot of high-income earning women married to men who just aren’t in the six-figure category. Why? Well, my theory is that rich and powerful men really don’t want competition. So those of us with brains, no matter how beautiful we are, are not likely to land any millionaires. If you check out the spouses where the wife is earning as much or more than a high-earning husband, my guess is you’ll find the two of them have been together since before either one of them was making much of anything. Women who have chosen to delay marriage until they themselves are financially secure are not likely to get too many proposals from men playing at the top of their game in high-paying fields.
So is my friend right? Is it hopeless to expect men and women to co-exist in a mutually loving, respectful relationship where the wife is bringing home the bacon and the husband is cooking it or maybe bringing home a basket of eggs instead?
It’s not an easy question to answer, especially given the archetype many of us still hold, sometimes against all reason and education, that men are the providers and protectors. It’s not just men who hang onto this idea and feel themselves less than men if it’s their wives who have the bigger bankroll. Women buy into it, too, even the liberal, executive-level women who have chosen as their life partner an incredibly worthy guy who, despite all his intelligence, charm, and decency, has an annual paycheck of $50,000. Or maybe, because daycare is so darn expensive anyway, he’s decided to stay home until the kids hit school age while she goes into work every day at a law firm.
Is it possible to maintain love, respect, and passion under this scenario that seems so in conflict with biology, tradition, and the Jungian archetypes of our unconscious brains?
The answer is “yes,” but you better be prepared for some complex choreography:
1) Never forget for a moment that your spouse is and should always be the single most important person in your life. Put your career first, put the kids first, and you’re screwed. And that’s the case no matter who’s bringing home the bacon. Get that in your head before you even get married because once lost, it’s awfully hard to get it back, if not impossible. Respect and love are earned; once lost, they are rarely regained…unless, of course, you want to spend $150 an hour on cognitive behavioral therapy with a marriage counselor.
2) Create an atmosphere of equals. If you think the fact that you earn more money (or all the money) is going to mess with your ability to see your spouse as an equal, then you probably shouldn’t get married. But if you’re already in the stew, then make sure things are as equitable as possible. If you’re bringing in a quarter million a year and working 14 hours a day six days a week, it won’t take long for you to resent the spouse with the regular 9 to 5 job who’s not earning nearly as much. Together, figure out what you need to do to make things feel more equal. If that means he mows the grass, cooks dinner, and gets the kids to bed, fine, do it. And if that’s the agreement, stick to it. It’s not fair to start resenting later when he’s pulling his weight exactly as you asked him to.
3) Don’t pull out all the feminist crap. After all, it’s the two of you, not society at large. Let him do things for you. Let him carry your luggage, open doors for you, pay the cab driver, hold you when you’re scared, kiss away your tears, fix things that are broken, take charge of whatever he wants to take charge of. And don’t think there is something wrong with you because some part of your brain needs all this. We’re human, and it’s totally okay to let down your defenses with the one you love.
4) Don’t forget why you married him in the first place. You can tell yourself it was because the doctors, lawyers, and CEOs wouldn’t give you the time of day (and maybe they wouldn’t), but did you really want that kind of man anyway? The kind who considers his career more important than you? And let’s face it, the man who is top-notch in the boardroom is rarely top-notch in the bedroom—he really just doesn’t have the time. So honor the characteristics that led you to choose this man who may not be CEO of a Fortune 500 company but who puts meaning, love, and joy ahead of making money and gaining power. Count the many blessings of having him in your life. And no, I’m not talking about the fact that he knows to separate whites from darks before tossing clothes in the washing machine. I’m talking about the way he looks at you as if you are the only human being on earth…because, in his mind in those moments, you are.
Before some of my female cohorts jump my case, let me say that none of this is to suggest that there are not men out there who will not take advantage of their six-figure earning wives. Some intend it from the beginning; some do not but end up doing so over time, just as the “desperate housewives” do who come to value the backyard pool, the European vacations, and the BMW more than their spouses. If you’ve married the kind of guy who sees your high-powered job as a great opportunity for him to kick back and enjoy the fruits of your labor without contributing much labor of his own, then my uncensored advice is this: dump him.
Because if you’ve climbed the ladder high enough to have attracted (or created) a gold digger, then you’re worthy of something far better…unless, of course, you have failed at points 1 through 4 above and the most exciting thing outside your professional life is the cocktail you have after work to deaden the heartbreak of going home to kids who know you only as the person who paid for the latest trip to Disney World and to a spouse who has grown more accustomed to sleeping with the family dog than with you.
Nothing is set in stone, however, much though it may feel that way. With summer here and school out, I have been letting my daughter stay at home from daycare a couple days of the week, and she occasionally drifts into the home office, leans against my chair, head tilted into my shoulder, and says, “Mommy, why do you have to work so much?” And some days, like today, I get a clue and break from my story editing to cut out paper dolls for her.
My own mother rarely played with me when I was a child. She was too busy working. One of my girlfriends, who graduated college at the top of her class, had the same experience with her own mother. Despite all of her promise as a rising professional, she dumped it to be a stay-at-home mom, and she actually plays with her kids, knows how to relax into it, and can leave dirty dishes unattended for hours without too much guilt. I’m not quite that good. But I’m trying to learn the art.
Long ago, I became a writer in part because I envisioned it as a flexible career that would give me greater control over my time. And it did to a point. Once upon a time, my ex-husband and I enjoyed three-week long vacations and monthly weekend getaways. Never would this have been possible in a conventional career. My career also made it possible for him to retire from the military and stay at home after our daughter was born. I cannot thank my work enough for the life it has given me.
But it has also taken some things away.
And that is the challenge for women, who, for better or worse, are still expected to be nurturers, caregivers, and lovers even as they also assume the role of breadwinner. We are never allowed to slough off any of our roles. We just keep adding more, and so often they seem incongruous. That is the hardest part, trying to figure out if it is okay to be in charge at the office and then let go of it in the arms of our spouses.
I’m here to tell you: it is okay, and it is critical.
Keep bringing home the bacon if you will. But if you really want the meaningful home life (and one that includes your husband as well as your children), you’re going to have to drop the role of powerhouse at the door and allow yourself to be vulnerable to love, open to being cared for, and willing to let go of the idea that you have to be on top of things all the time. You do not. Give it up. Let it go. So maybe your husband fell in love with you, in part at least, because he found something tremendously sexy about your take charge attitude, your intelligence, the way you look in a suit and three-inch heels. My guess is, however, that he also fell in love with the idea of finding the vulnerable woman who needed him beneath all that.
Let him have her.
And soak it up whenever you can because heaven knows there is rarely a place for letting down your guard at the office.
And when you’re standing on that stage accepting the Nobel Prize or whatever grand distinguishment your career earns you, remember to thank all the important people in your life who made your success possible, including, if you’re lucky enough (and hopefully, you know just how lucky you are), the man who has been confident enough to stand aside and let you have your glory.