Essay October 2012

The Weaker Sex

How the new gender economics has more and more professional-class women looking at their mates and thinking: How long until I vote you off the island?
Wesley Bedrosian

Today’s women have achieved a goal that social commentators have inveighed against for centuries: economic in­dependence. Railed The Times of London in 1868, in opposing property rights for married women: “The proposed change would totally destroy the existing relation between husband and wife.” An American letter-writer declared in 1903:

The wife who has her own income is thereby rendered a poorer wife [and,] feeling independent of her natural protector, she becomes more critical, less lenient to his faults and failings.

And—as Dr. Phil would ask—how’s all that freedom working … for us? Not very well, says Mary Eberstadt, author of Adam and Eve After the Pill. The sexual revolution’s legacy, she maintains, is “the paradox of declining female happiness.” She cites a 2009 study in which two Wharton School professors, using 35 years of General Social Survey data, found that despite educational and employment advances, women were reportedly less happy than they used to be. Ouch!

Into this gloomy landscape, however, strides Liza Mundy, her bold new vision encapsulated in The Richer Sex: How the New Majority of Female Breadwinners Is Transforming Sex, Love, and Family. Instead of being a castrating, unmarriageable harpy, today’s reproductively and economically free female, Mundy asserts, is the trigger for a challenging but exciting new social order. In 2012 America, as she points out, women are better educated than men (women earn the majority of bachelor’s and graduate degrees); an escalating number of single women younger than 30 earn more than their male peers; and nine of the 10 U.S. job industries with the most projected growth are women-­dominated. This last figure has resulted from various societal shifts, ranging from a late-20th-century fall in manufacturing jobs to the rise of such lucrative, almost exclusively female professions as psychotherapy. (Indeed—do you know a male therapist? I don’t, and my last therapist charged a murderous $275 an hour.)

In nearly 40 percent of American marriages, the wife earns more than the husband. Data indicate that this power inversion can trigger not just problems with gender identity but a troubling amount of male infidelity (peculiar new trend: women who are financially dependent on their husbands tend to be faithful, while, para­doxically, financially dependent men tend to stray). One 2010 study showed that when a woman’s contribution to household income tops 60 percent, the couple is more likely to divorce.

But Mundy sunnily believes a bright day will dawn once households with a female primary bread­winner become the new American majority, as data suggest they will. Just as the workplace will become more feminized (let’s chant the shibboleth together: on-site-child-care-paid-­parental-leave-flextime), the home will become more masculinized. In short: Could the next wave be Adam and Eve snuggling together over a Desert Storm–camouflage Miele vacuum cleaner?

To answer this question, join me for a dinner party in Los Angeles. Have some white sangria and some pesto hummus—they’re from Whole Foods. To set the scene: we, this evening’s chorus, are divorced professional mothers (DPMs) who have adjusted, several years in, to life after marriage. Our children are fine. Their success no doubt owes a great deal to our largely graduate-level educations and our upper-middle-class income bracket, in which, interestingly, divorce is as rare now as it was in the 1950s. Although none of our exes initially welcomed divorce, in practice we’ve found our joint-custody arrangements to be surprisingly stable. Not to get too Ayn Rand on you, but although utopian thinking, nostalgic sentimentality, and even fear of confrontation may cloud communication during marriage, in post-marriage, both parties are forced to be realistic and rigorously accountable regarding kids’ schools, lessons, and pickups and drop-offs, and of course the finances. This clarity has, in turn, sparked a new appreciation for the benefits our children’s fathers bring. How happily our exes whisk the kids off to wholesome activities like swimming and camping and baseball, as we DPMs enjoy a lazy terrace supper together, easy in the knowledge that afterward we can go home, get into our flannel nightgowns, knit, and watch The Cheese Nun without being, to anyone, a colossal disappointment.

“To our exes,” says our hostess, Kate, lifting a glass.

“Hear, hear,” we reply, lifting ours.

At that moment, the front door blows open. Enter Annette, the only woman still in her original marriage, an hour late. She’s texted ahead her drink order and is thus handed a stiff vodka diet tonic with a wedge of lemon, as she launches into the story of … the lightbulb.

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Annette is a working warrioress, a high-level administrator who makes mid–six figures at a major foundation. She is married to Ron, a writer who decided to stay home for a few years upon the birth of their twins. In many ways, this division of responsibilities seemed an ideal fit. Annette is left-brained; Ron is right-brained. Annette anxiously crunches numbers on her Blackberry; Ron contentedly chauffeurs the kids while playing world music. He walks their choleric dog and initiates home projects like (this is hard to describe, but it’s very groovy) creating a family playroom/art studio out of found and recycled materials.

In short, Ron is a prize.

“So here’s the thing,” Annette says, wiping her mouth with a cuffed sleeve. “Two weeks ago, I pull into a dark garage at 7 o’clock—the lightbulb is out. Banging my shin as I get out of the car, I go to the drawer where the lightbulbs are supposed to be. It’s filled with paintbrushes and modeling clay. I find Ron in the kitchen, as usual, cooking a red sauce from scratch when Prego is just as good. I ask him to take care of it. Second night, I pull in, no lightbulb, banged shin—he says he’ll replace it. Third night—same thing, same thing, same thing. And the FOURTH NIGHT???” Annette’s face stretches into such a terrifying Medusa rictus that we recoil. “I wrench open the kitchen door and start screaming: ‘Oh my GOD, Ron! Either do it or don’t do it, but if you honestly and in fact have no plans at all to change the lightbulb, JU-U-UST TE-E-ELL ME!’ And Ron is actually indignant! It’s like I am the one who is being OUTRAGEOUS and require HIM to give ME a teachable moment. He’s saying: ‘Look at yourself—why are you so fixated on a lightbulb? That’s pretty shallow. We’re happy, we’re healthy—but all you see is the lightbulb. Are you aware of how negative you’ve become? It’s the first thing you radiate when you step in through the door.’ And it’s like I can’t breathe—I literally can’t breathe—and I’m saying: ‘It’s not about a lightbulb, it’s that you PROMISED, over and over again, and I TRUSTED you—which means your word means NOTHING!’ At which point he says—and he is literally waving the spatula now, like a king with his scepter—‘If you are so obsessed with the damn lightbulb—and I’m sorry if I don’t invest my whole EMOTIONAL LIFE in it like you do, and maybe you should look at that—WITH GOD AS MY WITNESS, I PROMISE FROM THIS DAY FORWARD YOU WILL NEVER SEE A BURNED-OUT LIGHTBULB IN THIS HOUSE AGAIN!!!’ ”

Punch line: The next night, she pulls into the garage, looks up … at which point, they begin emergency couple’s therapy (in Los Angeles, I remind you, this is $275 an hour).

“For God’s sake,” exclaims Kate, who is an independent producer. “With all the damn money you make at that foundation, why don’t you just pay $40 a week for a lightbulb intern?”

“Ron’s SUPPOSED to do the grocery shopping, but we’re always running OUT of things—lightbulbs, milk, toilet paper,” Annette drones on. “He’ll buy four rolls of Charmin at Gelson’s as an afterthought, whereas whenever I do get to Costco—on the weekend—I will NEVER BUY LESS THAN A PACK OF 36. He just wants to keep buying the same four rolls of Charmin over and over again, like Sisyphus! Does he not understand that we will go through it in a week, that we have PLENTY of storage space and NEVER ENOUGH TIME, and that toilet paper is the ONE thing—unlike his fucking Chinese shallots—­that DOESN’T GO BAD?”

Annette continues: “Those shallots. He may be an A-plus house­husband, but he’s a B-minus housewife. He knows the toilet’s clogged, so why doesn’t he call the plumber and—more important—arrange a time to let the plumber in so he can fix the problem? At midnight last Wednesday, I’m bailing out the flooded balcony with a four-cup Pyrex.”

Presented by

Sandra Tsing Loh is the author, most recently, of Mother on Fire.

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