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?

“Well,” I say, in the sudden vibrating silence, “this is interesting. Here sit four divorced women who are okay with our exes, and one married woman furious at her husband. I wonder if part of the problem is that we have partitioned off our men’s tasks and you haven’t, because, um, what all married women maybe secretly yearn for is not one husband, but four.”

Every­one agrees; we tease it out and come up with, essentially: The Four Husbands of the Apocalypse.

Not only do we 2012 women fail at being 1950s wives, we fail even more spectacularly at being 1950s husbands.

Mr. X: the financial partner. Not necessarily the financial provider—he’s more that calm, intelligent partner with whom to navigate the tedious finan­cial technicalities of life—the 401(k)s, the 529s, the various faintly conflicting health-insurance plans. If you are a mother in our economic class (we all married sensitive, intelligent, professional men, rather than barflies), this man will typically be the father of your children. You will feel that you chose correctly, never mind that you are no longer married (hence the name: “Mr. Ex”).

Mr. Y: the feelings guy. He is all about the glass of chardonnay proffered with soulful active listening at the end of the day. “Pampering”—a vague enough word—may ensue, but the DPMs decide this needn’t include “massage” (as some “date night” guidelines arduously insist). We agree that any sensible human would prefer a massage from a professional. When your “mate” rubs your back, it’s impossible to relax while you anticipate what reciprocation will be required—five minutes of sex or, worse, a 20-­minute massage back. This is a complex role; while it falls to Mr. Y to provide amorous rela­tions if needed, for some—most?—women, it would be enough, or even preferred, for Mr. Y to function as the gentlemanly squire (Maurice Tempelsman holding umbrella aloft as Jackie O steps out of Doubleday into the rain). Or he could even be (or appear to be, although he says he’s not) gay. (David Gest, to the staff: “Liza will be home at 7 o’clock. Ready the Vosges chocolates, draw the bath!”—although of course, that ended, after 16 months, in lawsuits and allegations of beatings, herpes, etc.) (Doesn’t Sir Elton John have a Mr. Y?) (I’ll Google this.)

Mr. Z: The Brawny paper-towel man. This Mr. Fix-It wheels out the garbage cans, repairs the electronic garage-door opener, resets the computerized and (why?) tankless water heater.

Mr. Q: the cheerful intern. Mr. Q executes whatever tiny tasks you assign, without argument—he accepts a stack of envelopes and addresses them, picks up the dry cleaning before noon, is on call for 24/7 emergency carpooling, and, best of all, when handed a grocery list, returns with—get this—that grocery list’s exact items (“not Tropicana carton orange juice but fresh-squeezed Naked Orange Mango”).

The problem, of course, is that no one man can possibly be all four of these people. Mr. X is notoriously bad at processing feelings, Mr. Y is notoriously bad at fixing things, macho Mr. Z hates to be micromanaged, and Mr. Q does not actually exist in real life, although in modern marriages, husbands and wives often do treat each other as interns (“You pick up the dry cleaning!” “No, YOU should, by 5 o’clock! And put it on the United miles card, NOT Bank of America!”).

“Speaking of men,” Annette says pointedly to me, “how are things in your home?”

I groan.

In The Richer Sex, Mundy describes female-primary-breadwinner couples who have made it all work—the dollars flow in, the children are tended, the family home life is functional and joyous. Unfortunately, the formula pretty much always requires a gender-reversed 1950s-style division of labor: the high-powered CFO wife makes $670,000 a year and constantly travels, leaving the stay-at-home husband to run the household and, interestingly enough, almost always, to golf—a lot. By contrast, although I share a home with a man (Mr. Y, my “boyfriend”—a ridiculous term at 50) whom I out-earn, I work at home, like an eccentric Silicon Valley game developer. Cathi Hanauer’s 2002 anthology, The Bitch in the House, charted women’s rage in “post-feminist” partner­ships where both spouses worked and yet women still did most of the housework. Imagine, then, if the woman still does the bulk of the household management and financially supports the household—what is to keep her from becoming, not the bitch in the house, but the monster?

When a woman supports the household, she becomes quite sensitive to how the man spends his downtime, particularly when laundry baskets overflow (is that my job?). I happen to be amazed at how long a man can read a newspaper (I’ve witnessed, on Sunday, more than three hours—even in Anna Karenina, in the opening, Prince Oblonsky reads the newspaper for only 10 pages).

Moreover, if you are a woman who is sometimes lucky enough to pull down a large amount of money in a short period of time, you begin to monetize the man’s work time similarly. “Right—you will now drive across town for a two-hour meeting with a nice nonprofit lady and make, what? Seventy-five dollars? After gas, which is now, what? About $4.59 a gallon?” (Again—curse of left-brained woman living with right-brained man—we always know what’s in the fridge and exactly how many rolls of Charmin we have left. They know, more holistically, that we are “bringing negativity face.”) “Honey? Perhaps it makes more financial sense for you to clean out the rain gutters instead, or make dinner so we don’t do that unnecessarily costly, last-minute ordering-Thai-food thing.” (Unmarriageable! Unmarriageable!)

Let’s say you, the man, have been fortunate enough to gain leave of the home to pursue employ­ment that, while perhaps not compensated at nosebleed rates, is of interest to you. (Perhaps you would also enjoy a few rounds of Wednesday-­afternoon golf—but with the monster in the equation, this is a non­starter.) You come home now to pleasantly share your tale, but sadly you don’t have waiting for you a 1950s wife—a woman deeply grateful for your financial support, listening raptly as you, her hero, relate a story of triumph, both of you afloat in a pleasant double-martini bubble. When the 2012 Type A woman listens to you describe a problem in your workday, she is mentally leaping forward, positing solutions, and also deciding how well or poorly you’ve handled the situation. But we proffer our answers in a creepily Socratic way, having learned from therapy (left-brain synapse fire: $275 an hour) that we should state our own vulnerabilities first, so as not to draw an automatic defensive response. We will open our hands and confess, with showy vulnerability: “What I am trying to work on, in myself, is putting more of my ideas out there without attaching any emotion to them.” (Teachable moments! Teachable moments!) “What do you think you are trying to develop, in yourself, Honey?” (Hovering in the wings is the eager haymaker: “Aha! Interesting! Maybe you should look at that.”)

Presented by

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

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