Sometimes Women Have Jobs and Families Part 3

Lookie! Another article about how women sometimes make some choices about how to balance work and family!

Another “trend” piece about upper middle class (mostly) white women!

Is the internet aghast? Is the twitterscape littered with comment-tater-tots? Crispy on the outside, soft on the inside comment-tater-tots?

Is this Thinker for Hire all over it like the Church of Scientology on intimations of malfeasance?

So let’s just start out by saying: Yes. I hear you, comment-tater-tots, and I agree.

Yes, this is a faux trend piece. Yes, pretty much every piece on parenting in the New York Times (and anywhere else, frankly) focuses on the wealthy.

Yes, “opting out” or “staying in” or “pulling out your hair with anxiety over how you’ll get it all covered” are not choices that most women can make.

Yes, I’d far, far prefer real numbers to go behind the stories, and I’d far, far prefer those numbers and stories to be about the rest of us.

Like, for example, who are these families, striking at fast food joints to get a living wage because low-wage workers are now older and better-educated than they used to be but the salary structure assumes that they’re teenagers like fast food workers used to be? What do they do with their kids while they work, and how are their “choices” constrained by our rigged systems?

I’d rather read that story than the one about the ivy-league-educated women who may as well be high powered Hollywood Scientologists, for all their lives overlap with mine.

Also, ahem, same-sex couples? I thought they were swarming us, destroying straight marriages, converting our children to their sinful lifestyle? What if one of them stays home to care for kids?

So yes, Internet, I agree. Except.

Except. The article included a black woman who described ways her ethnicity informs her choices—and her husband’s. The article pointed out differences among the Ivy-league educated and the women without the elite networks.

E.G. The “superelite” got back into the workforce just fine when they wanted to. The less elite struggled.

And, heartbreakingly, and this is why I liked the article: it is disarmingly honest about the ways that gender norms and women’s inequality seeped into these marriages over the years. Even the marriages of the elite. The elite!

The husbands hadn’t turned into ogres. Their intent was not to make their wives feel lesser. But when traditional gender arrangements were put into place, there was a subtle slide into inequality.

“The dynamic changes,” said Hope Adler, a former manager at the professional-services firm KPMG who spent 10 years at home full time with her four children before starting work again and choosing to take a much-lower-paying job at a smaller consulting firm that allowed her to work some of the time from home. “When I worked at KPMG we did 50/50,” she said. “We were making equal money. Then once I started staying home, I was doing laundry, dinner. . . .” But once she started working again, the expectations remained the same. “There just doesn’t seem to be a way to go back,” she said.

Only a handful of women were interviewed. About as representative of womankind as Madonna. Still, most of them described their marriages in the same way:

When the were both working, before kids, they felt equal to their husbands. Husband and wife both had it going on. After kids, and after taking leave of their high-powered careers to help out more at home—to help their marriages as much as to help their kids—the resentments built up, inexorably, steadily.

Women felt useless. Men felt jealous.

See, turns out that MEN VALUE STAYING AT HOME WITH CHILDREN TOO. And wish they could. And WOMEN VALUE OTHER ASPECTS OF THEIR TALENTS AND SKILLS. Even women who are thankful for their time taking care of their kids.

Also, turns out that no one likes housework.

These truths probably hold across class. Though maybe sometimes some people get to like doing dishes or something. Like the feeling of making something clean can offer one a sense of control over encroaching chaos and darkness.

But when women make 75 cents for every dollar, we make these non-choices about who gets to/has to stay home.

And then, when we make those choices, and those choices match up with traditional gender norms, our brains subtly transform into 50s brains. Cocktails, baseball cards, liking Ike, groping and propositioning your employees, the whole mishugas.

With more men vocalizing their interest in work/life balance, parenthood, and artisanal pickling, I may be cautiously optimistic that we won’t start conforming to the fantasy version of the 50s. And I’m not all that convinced that “traditional gender arrangements” would lead to a less equal marriage across class and ethnicity. And also, what if both parents are men? Or women?

That’s why we need more stories from more people—more different kinds of people. People who love Star Trek AND people who love Star Wars. Both kinds of people.

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3 thoughts on “Sometimes Women Have Jobs and Families Part 3

  1. So true! I think NYT piece was a well-written article showcasing the struggles of a very very small subset of women. I had a conversation with a woman about the article the other day who is literally making twice what I make, and still looks at it as several levels above decisions she has the freedom to make.

    I think it would be really fascinating to hear the same sex side of this opt-out opt-back-in framework given stories like this: http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2013/06/the-gay-guide-to-wedded-bliss/309317/?single_page=true

    That was the whole point right? Our marriages would all be better off if there weren’t ‘traditional gender roles’ to fall back on? I’m not sure that helps anyone with their work force re-entry, but I wonder what the difference is in post re-entry quality of life…

    • Elizabeth says:

      I think that one way to look at the “small subset” of women in this piece is this: our system is lousy for families. Just lousy. If even people with very high salaries can’t find a way to make it all work.

      There’s talk afoot of the possibility that men will get steamed up enough about their own limitations on work/family balance that change will finally happen. A. Annoying but probably true and we need allies and B. Fat chance of it working. Our culture is too embedded in a Puritan workaholism to allow for anything remotely like subsidized daycare or even basic (paid) family leave. It reminds me of this Jill Lepore article I read a few years ago about the history of breastfeeding: now big companies are installing pumping rooms instead of offering paid leave. It’s an evocative metaphor about “human resources.” Pumping the women so they can get back to work faster.

      Thanks, also, for linking to that article about same-sex marriage! I was thinking about it, too, while writing. I don’t want to romanticize same-sex marriages, but certainly the idea of marriage without heteronormative gender baggage sounds fantastic! But I suspect that there’s always heteronormative baggage for all of us, no matter how we identify.

      And the job market seems to still be brutal for both low-skills jobs and high-skills jobs. Not sure if that’s going to change–so who’s going to jeopardize their gigs by agitating for more family-friendly policies??

      Anyway, you may also be interested in this piece, which is more about marriage and class than family: http://www.slate.com/blogs/xx_factor/2013/08/13/marriage_wage_gap_post_recession_only_middle_class_americans_can_afford.html

      Some sociologists found that marriages are much happier when the couple has expendable wealth to invest in it. Vacations, self-care, and such.

      • I’m surprised at the vehemence in the comments of that Slate article. I’m assuming it’s a bit typical for folks to rail against sociological studies with cries of ‘oh! that can’t be true, it doesn’t apply to me!’ but gee, folks really do NOT like to hear about broad societal relationship trends…

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