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?
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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.”

“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.”)

Further, not only do we 2012 women fail at being 1950s wives, we fail even more spectacularly at being 1950s husbands. In the Mad Men era, the archetypal dad came home; put down his briefcase; received pipe, Manhattan, roast beef, potatoes, key-lime pie; and was—­apparently—content. By contrast, dwelling in a grayscale midlife pur­gatory of grinding Pilates and ever-shifting diets (Atkins? Zone? South Beach?), if we breadwinning women were handed a Manhattan at the end of the day, we’d be likely to burst into tears and wail, “What’s THIS? What’s IN this? Why are you UNDERMINING me?!” We 21st-century female monsters are used to fussy bistros featuring spa cuisine and quinoa and dressing on the side. These husband-cooks whom Mundy lauds, however, want to make us some risotto (too carb­y) even while we are curled up in the fetal position, sucking in our ever-present pot­bellies (which the 1950s Dad didn’t worry about), dreaming desperately of a Manwich.

My own culinary moment of truth came on a recent day of frustrating business calls and frustrating writing, plus an hour-long installation of a complex new HP all-in-one printer thingy while roasting a chicken while struggling to fix our enigmatic dishwasher, after which I sat down to dinner with my male partner—who had just cheerfully returned from the outside world—with one candle (I couldn’t find the other). I made the mistake of asking “How was your day?” and he made the mistake of responding, and as I watched his mouth move, I felt my trigger finger twitch and thought those awful words only a woman who needs a man neither to support her nor to be a father to her children can think: How long until I vote you off the island?

In short, this new unwifeableness is exactly what all those finger-­wagging 19th-century British men thundered against. Mundy espouses this brave new world in which, freed from the usual economic and societal constraints, emancipated women can choose males based strictly on romantic feeling. But the flip side is: if romance is all the woman is in it for, the man had better BRING IT—or else. And how much easier is it to put on your hat in the morning, get on the train, and drag home a monthly paycheck than to consistently evoke heady romantic feelings in a (hungry! bloated!) woman?

In fact, very, very few adults possess so much charm that they can long be supported by another adult based on that attribute alone. It’s nature’s way—­children have to be cute for 18 years (an unusually long span, in the mammalian world) so parents are motivated to shoulder their care; dogs and cats need to give us affection so we’ll feed them; adult companionate relationships depend on the commerce of gratitude, which in the past has come down to the exchange of care for money.

And an excess of money, whether it’s the male or the female who has it, makes a monster of us all—or at least makes one less inclined to endure the cumbersome ordinariness of other people. Cue Charlie Sheen, and his serially dispensable goddesses.

Our party of DPMs is now in the hot tub, in candlelit darkness. And although we (the chorus) are no longer in our original marriages, we know that in Annette’s case, throwing it all away over a lightbulb doesn’t make sense.

Yet under what seem like such trivial technical mishaps in our domestic lives lies a surprising, real emotional volatility—­­a volatility engendered by a deep sense of loss. Every few years, I turn back to the lawyer Cheryl Mendel­son’s wonderful, poetically lyrical yet coolly scientific bible of modern homemaking, Home Comforts. (Firm, Jane Austen–esque opening sentence: “I am a working woman with a secret life: I keep house.”) I love the passage in which Mendelson talks about growing up and witnessing a “subtle war between [her] two grand­mothers”—one ancestrally Italian, the other, variously, from England, Scotland, and Ireland—each of whom believed the other was keeping house the entirely wrong way. Remembers Mendelson:

In one home I heard Puccini, slept on linen sheets with finely crocheted edging rolled up with lavender from the garden, [and in the other there were] hand-braided rag rugs, brightly colored patchwork quilts, and creamed lima beans from the garden.

The gentle, almost Beatrix Potter–y images make me feel weepy; they actually draw a tear as I remember my own German grandmother—the homemade chicken soup with fresh-from-the-­garden parsley, the warm strawberry crumble cake in the afternoon on a rolling glass tray, the doilies on couch arms, the polished, chiming grandfather clock. And then there’s us: like Scarlett O’Hara, on our bellies in the dirt, wearing vin­egar-scented T‑shirts, we raise our four-cup Pyrexes filled with sewage water!

Day by day in our frenetic, chaotic modern homes, how many of us become inexplicably unglued, suddenly losing our equilibrium in a disproportionate vale of anguish, as we open our refrigerator door (and what is that moisture our left foot is in—is it a puddle from the malfunctioning ice maker?) and confront the spillage from the leaking Ziploc bag or the microwave-deformed GladWare that forever will not close. On the one hand, these are a simple technical malfunction; on the other, they are another small but precise omen pointing to a world without the deep domestic comforts—and care, and arts—not of our mothers (many of whom were in a transitional leaving-home-to-go-to-work generation) but of our grandmothers, who still ruled the home with absolute power. No one is taking care of us! No one! And that is no small thing. Writes Mendelson:

This sense of being at home is important to everyone’s well-being. If you do not get enough of it, your happiness, resilience, energy, humor, and courage will decrease … Being at home feels safe; you have a sense of relief whenever you come home and close the door behind you … Home is the one place in the world … where you belong … Coming home is your major restorative in life. These are formidably good things, which you cannot get merely by finding true love or getting married or having children or landing the best job in the world—or even by moving into the house of your dreams.

“So, you’re not insane if you wish for a working lightbulb,” Joanne says, and then she sighs: “If only we could get men down from occupying 75 percent of our emotional life to occupying 25 percent.”

“But you know what?,” I say suddenly. “Our first experience living with men was not as tremulous newlyweds but as college students, street-battling our sweatpants-­wearing, Tron-watching brethren in co-ed dorms (the spattering lentil soup, dish-filled sinks, baskets of moldy laundry). Perhaps that formative experience is why we sometimes feel like we’re having the same peevish brother-sister fight, even though it’s 30 years later, everyone’s 50, and the dorm is our house.”

Indeed, winging homeward along the familiar freeways, just before midnight, I think about “the paradox of declining female happiness” and wonder what, if anything, we can do to reverse the tide. The problem is that, partly because we are women, a large measure of our happiness depends on our relationships—­including, unavoidably, our relationships with men.

I don’t think the answer lies with those professional gals in Liza Mundy’s book who say that what they’re looking for in a mate is a guy who will “take out the trash”—which makes him sound unpleasantly like an intern. If that’s what those women want, they should hire staff.

The answer certainly isn’t surfacing in Japan, where single women younger than 30 make more on average than Japanese men their age do. Working wives still spend 30 hours a week on housework, compared with the three hours a week their husbands put in. Maybe that’s why one Japanese word for husband translates loosely into “big bag of trash.”

And not everyone will be able to find the same contentment as The Richer Sex’s Felicity. She’s a high-­earning IT exec whose husband preferred watching porn over coming to bed with her and responded to her scoring big wins at work by getting mad. She got a dog even though he didn’t want one, and “one day she had a brainstorm: ‘I’ll keep the dog and get rid of you.’ And that’s what she did. The dog is extremely supportive of her achievements.” But many women still really do like men—­perhaps they like men more than they like husbands (and more than they like the monsters they themselves become when their husbands—any husband, or all four—fail them).

Mundy notes that, regarding the outcome of conflicted female-primary-breadwinner marriages, sometimes a high-earning woman will divorce a man who is financially under­performing and then, without actually remarrying, peacefully cohabit with him. Says Alicia Simpson, a psychiatrist: “It’s like, minus the personal relationship, we [my ex-husband and I] get along just fine. It’s the weirdest thing.” Mundy elaborates:

In this case, they would not be romantically partnered; they would be co-parenting in the same residence … Alicia was thinking she might buy a new house, big enough for [the whole family]. Envisioning a life where they were living under the same roof and he was helping with chores just like always, she joked, “That way, I still wouldn’t have to take out the garbage.” 

Of course, human nature and its accompanying green-eyed monster being what they are, this solution—which somewhat resembles the premise of a second-rate sitcom, or a scenario advanced by a progressive family therapist circa 1971—presumes that both members of the cohabiting but romantically and sexually uninvolved couple will not get sexually or romantically involved with anyone else. But then again, after kids are in the picture and a household forms, giving up sex to gain domestic calm and contentment (and after all, isn’t that what marriage is all about?) may not be such a bad bargain.

Much more precarious is the road I’ve pursued with my Mr. Y. If Mr. Y is what women (now economically dominant but still wanting companion­ship and love) are seeking, we’d better brush up on our Quicken and buckle up our tool belts. The non–Martha Stewart Living trade-off (and doesn’t it seem perfectly apt that Martha lacks a male partner?): as for the warm body in bed, men (at least some) are nicer to talk to than dogs, and if their domestic skills stink—well, many of ours are worse.

Upon arriving home, I am also reminded that Mr. Y is the rare heterosexual man who can really dance, and I reflect that dancing is something I cannot bring to the table myself.

So, men of the future, here’s a handy tip: continue to work on your dancing.

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