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?

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.

Presented by

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

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