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.

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.

In 2007, my life was right where I wanted it to be. After the lean misery of graduate school at the University of Toronto, I had, at 31, landed a job on the tenure track at City College in Harlem, as a professor of Shakespeare. My second novel was in the windows of appealing independent bookstores in Brooklyn, it had a good review in The New York Times, and the lead singer of the Decemberists was recommending it in interviews. This was basically all I had ever hoped for. Then I gave it up. My wife was offered her dream job as the editor in chief of Toronto Life magazine (roughly speaking, the New York of Canada), and we returned home.

You could see our departure as the triumph of egalitarianism, and in a way it was. I don’t think my father would have given up a tenure-track job for my mother. But in my marriage, the decision came down to brute economics: My wife was going to make double what I made. Good schools and good hospitals are free in Toronto. These are the reasons we moved. And if I were offered a job where I would make double what she does, we would move again. Gender politics has nothing to do with it.

Not that politics didn’t intrude. We were moving back to downtown Toronto, where people self-identify as socialists, so I expected open-mindedness. Yet the reaction to my reduced professional status and stepped-up involvement in child-rearing was sharply divided along generational lines. Among Baby Boomers, classic gender stereotypes prevailed. To them, I had become “the woman” and my wife had become “the man.” Boomer men could not wrap their heads around what I had done, while the women would smile an amazed smile, their eyes glinting with a touch of self-satisfaction. A younger generation was completing what they had begun.

I don’t think my father would have given up a tenure-track job for my mother. But in my marriage, the decision came down to brute economics.

Among people my own age, the reaction was more complicated. Our story possessed a sort of circumscribed romance: to academic friends, the idea that I had given up a tenure-track appointment was like the Charge of the Light Brigade—glorious professional suicide. At any rate, most friends and acquaintances in roughly my age group at least understood the nature of the decision. They appreciated that chasing jobs was part of 21st-century life, and that marriage sometimes requires sacrifice. Well over half my male friends have wives who make more money than they do. Nonetheless, in social life, I found myself more and more of an addendum: “This is Stephen. He’s Sarah’s wife.”

But let us get down to the details—specifically the financial details. The key fact of our story, the overwhelmingly most important factor in our personal gender politics, is that in Canada, we have access to high-quality, modestly state-supported (though far from free) day care. Of all the privileges my wife and I gained, our boy being in a safe place we could afford between nine and five was by far the greatest. It’s why this story has a happy ending; it is the thing that enabled me to build a new career for myself. Day care is not theoretical liberation. It is the real deal, for women and men alike.

Our new domestic arrangement, like the move that precipitated it, was shaped more by circumstance than by ideology. I was a freelancer. My wife was running a magazine. So I picked up the boy from day care each afternoon and pushed him in his stroller though the unbearable Toronto February. When she was out at various events, the boy and I had “guys’ night,” the two of us watching hockey and eating take-out Portuguese chicken, often in our pajamas. Think of it as our answer to Slaughter’s “investment intervals.”

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.

For the Boomers and members of older generations, a married couple’s decisions about work were ultimately questions of power. For younger generations, marital decisions boil down mostly to money. And yet the debates about gender, particularly the debate that has emerged in a thousand blog posts surrounding “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All” and Lean In, retain the earlier framework. These discussions tend to recognize the residual patriarchy, but they do not see its hollowness, or the processes hollowing it out.

The plutocratic feminists almost always end up, out of habit, calling for an attitude adjustment, a switch in thinking—they hope to re-create, and perhaps cash in on, the transformational optimism of ’60s-era consciousness-raising. But the consciousness has been raised. Gender attitudes do not affect economic reality, but rather the other way around. The rise of women is not the result of any ideology or political movement; it is a result of the widespread realization, sometime after the Second World War, that families in which women work are families that prosper. And countries in which women work are countries that prosper. In 2006, a database created by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development demonstrated what common sense tells us: with few exceptions, countries in which women have more economic and political power are richer than countries where women are relatively powerless. Patriarchy is damn expensive. That’s why it’s doomed.

Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In Circles”—her national network of book clubs cum professional self-help groups for women—are not supposed to be mere marketing exercises; they are intended to be psych-up sessions for elite women who want to learn to be more demanding. Good for them, I suppose. But do we want women emulating the egomania of the corporate male? Do we really want that particular brand of insanity to spread? Wasn’t it exactly that arrogance that led to the 2008 financial collapse? I suppose a world in which female bankers spend as much on blow and hookers as their male counterparts would be a fairer world; is it a world worth fighting for?

Both Sandberg and Slaughter imagine benefits to women flowing from the top to the bottom. Slaughter wants

to close the leadership gap: to elect a woman president and 50 women senators; to ensure that women are equally represented in the ranks of corporate executives and judicial leaders. Only when women wield power in sufficient numbers will we create a society that genuinely works for all women. That will be a society that works for everyone.

She may well be right—but in the meantime, having a few women in positions of power has hardly proved to be a panacea. Britain had a female head of state and leader of government for nearly 12 years without becoming a feminist paradise. Sandberg makes a big deal out of how “one pregnant woman at the top” can make a difference for other women. But the specific example she cites—her campaign for designated pregnant-woman parking spots at Google—hardly seems revolutionary.

I remember, as a boy, waking up on a mattress in the back of a station wagon in a hospital parking lot in Edmonton, Alberta. My father was not in town—he commuted to another city by plane every day for two years. And so, on a few occasions, my mother, who is a physician, left my brother and me in the car while she delivered a baby in the middle of the night. At the time, I loved the adventure. Later, I came to realize that my parents had worked their way into the middle class through many such superhuman maneuvers. My mother-in-law, for her part, used to return home from her job as a broadcaster, feed two children, put them to bed, and then return to the office for a couple more hours of work. If it was like this for doctors and broadcasters, what must it have been like for factory workers?

The solution to the work-life conundrum is not “enlisting men” (as Slaughter puts it) in the domestic sphere. The solution is establishing social supports that allow families to function. The fact is, men can’t have it all, for the same reason women can’t: whether or not the load is being shared 50-50 doesn’t matter if the load is still unbearable. It will not become bearable once women lean in, or once the consciousness is raised, or once men are full partners, always, in domestic life. It will become bearable when decidedly more quotidian things become commonplace—like paid parental leave and affordable, quality day care (which Sandberg and Slaughter both advocate).

As was recently noted in a New Republic cover story titled “The Hell of American Day Care,” the National Institutes of Health has rated only 10 percent of child-care facilities nationwide as providing “high-quality care” (most are instead rated “fair” or “poor”). And in every state, the average annual cost of day care for two children exceeds the average annual rent. Not surprisingly, low-income mothers are far more likely to stay at home today than are upper-income mothers. Such women are forgoing paid work not because they refuse to lean in but because they can’t earn enough money at their jobs to cover child care.

If men’s voices are absent from the conversation about family, we have, I’m afraid, only ourselves to blame. Yes, there are the occasional pieces in newspapers and magazines by new fathers—a genre that at times seems more oriented toward establishing one’s literary machismo than toward engaging in substantive dialogue—but men have generally failed to make themselves heard. Those who speak loudest tend to be either members of the aforementioned men’s-rights groups, or explicit anti-feminists, who long for a traditional family that bears little resemblance to the current reality. Men are not victims in this story, nor helpless witnesses to their wives’ struggles. And yet: A chorus of women demands maternity leave. Where is the chorus of men asking for paternity leave?

A conversation about work-life balance conducted by and for a small sliver of the female population only perpetuates the perception that these are women’s problems, not family ones. If you doubt that such thinking is still pervasive, see the recent op-ed in The New York Times about tax policy’s effect on working families, which contained this sentence: “Most working mothers who pay for child care do so out of their after-tax income.” That’s right: child care is a not a father’s expense, or a family’s expense, but a mother’s. As Sandberg points out, when the U.S. Census Bureau studies child care, it “considers mothers the ‘designated parent,’ even when both parents are present in the home. When mothers care for their children, it’s ‘parenting,’ but when fathers care for their children, the government deems it a ‘child care arrangement.’ ”

As long as family issues are miscast as women’s issues, they will be dismissed as the pleadings of one interest group among many. And truly, it’s hard to see, at least in terms of political theatrics, why the complaints of the richest and most successful women in the world should bother anybody too much. Fighting for the American family is another matter. When gay-rights activists shifted their focus from the struggle for their rights as an oppressed minority to the struggle to create and support families, their movement experienced nearly unprecedented political triumph. It is easy to have a career as an anti-feminist. Force the opponents of day-care support and family leave to come out instead against working families. Let them try to sell that.

Gloria Steinem’s famous declaration that “women’s liberation will be men’s liberation, too” is true. The opposite is also true. Real liberation will not be one against the other, but both together.