Home Economics: The Link Between Work-Life Balance and Income Equality

The central conflict of domestic life right now isn't men versus women or mothers versus fathers; it's the family against money.
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Ross MacDonald

My wife leans in. A year ago, after nine hours of labor, she received an epidural and immediately asked me to pass the iPad so she could send a note to work. I suggested that this time should be for us and for the little girl who was making her way into the world, but it’s hard to argue with a woman who’s eight centimeters dilated. Besides, why not send the note? Soon enough the baby, our second, would be out. The pause for an epidural was the most calm we would see for months. We are all in the thick of it, in the mash-up of work and family, in the confounding blur of everything, instantly, at once, the way life happens now. Why waste a moment?

A year after The Atlantic published Anne-Marie Slaughter’s “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All,” the plutocratic wave of feminism continues to roll in. Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In looks to dominate the best-seller lists for months to come. Both accounts are full of stories like the iPad in the delivery room, stories of women furiously multitasking, worrying about family over champagne at a United Nations event, or diagnosing children with head lice while aboard a corporate jet. Men are mostly offstage. Slaughter, to her great credit, talks repeatedly about her husband, noting that he has done everything possible to support both her career and their two sons, including taking on the lion’s share of parenting duties while she commuted for two years from Princeton to Washington, D.C. Sandberg, too, talks about her husband’s role at home (in her book’s dedication, she credits him with “making everything possible”). But in the ensuing discussion of gender politics, which has been conducted almost entirely by women, for women, men are far more anonymous—implacable opponents of progress in the upper echelons, helpless losers elsewhere. Meanwhile, the good husbands—the selection of whom is “the most important career choice” young women can make, according to Sandberg—are as silent as the good wives once were.

Men’s absence from the conversation about work and life is strange, because decisions about who works and who takes care of the children, and who makes the money and how the money is spent, are not decided by women alone or by some vague and impersonal force called society. Decisions in heterosexual relationships are made by women and men together. When men aren’t part of the discussion about balancing work and life, outdated assumptions about fatherhood are allowed to go unchallenged and, far more important, key realities about the relationship between work and family are elided. The central conflict of domestic life right now is not men versus women, mothers versus fathers. It is family versus money. Domestic life today is like one of those behind-the-scenes TV series about show business. The main narrative tension is: “How the hell are we going to make this happen?” There are tears and laughs and little intrigues, but in the end, it’s just a miracle that the show goes on, that everyone is fed and clothed and out the door each day.

“What would you do if you weren’t afraid?,” Sandberg asks women in the opening chapter of Lean In. She obviously does not work in journalism (as my wife does) or academia (as I used to), let alone manufacturing. The question for most American women, and for most families, is much simpler: “How do I survive?” Sandberg’s book has been compared with feminist classics like The Feminine Mystique, but it really belongs in the category of capitalist fantasy, a tradition that originated with Samuel Smiles’s Self-Help and was popularized by the novels of Horatio Alger. The success of Lean In can be attributed, at least in part, to its comforting espousal of an obviously false hope: that hard work and talent alone can now take you to the top. This is pure balderdash, for women and men. Class structures have seized to the point where Denmark has more social mobility than the United States. The last myth to die in America will be the myth of pluck; Lean In is the most recent testament to its power.

Slaughter’s essay, too, reflects the blind spots of the technocratic elite. It is a superachiever’s guide to having a family. Here is how she describes taking a break from her usually harried work existence to concentrate on her family life during a sabbatical: “I think of these plateaus as ‘investment intervals.’ ” Louise Richardson, the vice chancellor of the University of St. Andrews, in Scotland, is so “ruthlessly” organized, in Slaughter’s telling, that when microwaving, she keys in 1:11, 2:22, or 3:33—instead of 1:00, 2:00, or 3:00—as a way of saving time. This is not so much a ruthless use of time as a fetishization of time—the cult of the billable hour run amok.

The plutocratic wave of feminism has positioned itself as the heir to a long-standing feminist revolution undertaken in the name of all women. And yet when I first read “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All,” I immediately thought of the men I know who might be said to “have it all.” The wife of one of my editors had a premature baby at 28 weeks; after they brought the baby home, he did not miss a day of work. Soldiers, I suppose, “have it all.” They have meaningful work and then come home (eventually) to their waiting families. Does anyone imagine that they consider themselves the victors of society’s current arrangement?

Although you might not know it from the discussion Sandberg and Slaughter have touched off, American fatherhood has evolved almost beyond recognition in recent decades. The Pew Research Center released a study called “Modern Parenthood” in March, well after either Sandberg or Slaughter could refer to it, which is unfortunate. When it comes to work-life conflict, the study found, about half of all working parents say it is difficult to balance career and family responsibilities, with “no significant gap in attitudes between mothers and fathers.” Perhaps this is not surprising, given that mothers’ and fathers’ roles have converged dramatically in the past half century. Since 1965, Pew reports, fathers have tripled the time they spend with their children. Fathers’ attitudes about mothers’ roles are changing quickly, too: In 2009, 54 percent of men with kids younger than 17 believed that young children should have a mother who didn’t work. Just four years later, that number has dropped to 37 percent. Finally, although stay-at-home dads are still very much in the minority, their numbers have doubled in just a decade’s time.

Meanwhile, women’s rise to economic dominance within the middle class continues. Since 1996, women have earned more bachelor’s degrees than men, and last year they started earning a greater number of master’s and doctoral degrees. It is an outrage that the male-female wage gap persists, and yet, over the past 10 years, in almost every country in the developed world, it has shrunk. In developed countries, by most economic indicators, women’s lives have improved relative to men’s. Of the 15 fastest-growing job categories in the United States, 13 are dominated by women.

What isn’t changing is that top leadership positions remain overwhelmingly filled by men. “As the 99 percent has become steadily pinker, the 1 percent has remained an all-boys club,” Chrystia Freeland pointed out last year, in her book Plutocrats. According to the World Economic Forum’s “Global Gender Gap” report, women around the world hold a mere 20 percent of powerful political positions. In the United States, the female board-membership rate is 12 percent—a disgrace.

We live in a hollow patriarchy: the edifice is patriarchal, while the majority of its occupants approach egalitarianism. This generates strange paradoxes. Even women with servants and powerful jobs and hundreds of millions of dollars feel that they have an institutional disadvantage. And they’re right. Women in the upper reaches of power are limited in ways that men simply are not. Various men’s movements have emerged, purportedly to provide a counterweight to feminism, but this proposition is inherently absurd. The greatest power still resides in the hands of a few men, even as the majority of men are being outpaced in the knowledge economy. Masculinity grows less and less powerful while remaining iconic of power. And therefore men are silent. After all, there is nothing less manly than talking about waning manliness.

The good husbands—the selection of whom Sheryl Sandberg calls “the most important career choice” young women can make—are as silent as the good wives once were.

In the 1950s, the patriarchy at work and at home were of a piece. The father was the head of the household because he provided for the family, and the boss was head of the company because he provided the work that provided for the family. At home, for the overwhelming majority of families, the old order has disappeared. The days of Dad working all week and then, having fulfilled his duties, going to play two or three rounds of golf on the weekend are long gone. So are the days of Dad as the head of the household, the decider in chief. A 2008 Pew study asked cohabiting male-female couples, “Who makes the decisions at home?” In 26 percent of households, the man did; while in 43 percent of households, the woman did. The family has changed and is further changing, while at work, patriarchy survives as a kind of anachronistic holdover, like daylight savings or summer vacation.

The hollow patriarchy keeps women from power and confounds male identity. (The average working-class guy has the strange experience of belonging to a gender that is railed against for having a lock on power, even as he has none of it.) The current arrangement serves almost nobody’s interests. And yet it may be harder to break than older modes of sexism. The struggles articulated by The Second Sex and The Feminine Mystique and The Female Eunuch were broadly oppositional—women against men, young against old, feminists against the existing structures of power. Today, men and women are not facing off on a battleground so much as stuck together in a maze of contradictions.

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Stephen Marche is a novelist and a contributing editor at Esquire.

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