Into the ever-churning vortex of debate about leaning in/having it all comes Lisa Miller’s New York
cover story bogus trend story about “the feminist housewife,” women who have, without changing any of their feminist convictions, decided they’re happier staying at home with the kids as their full time job. They insist that having a career mattered to them, but it simply couldn’t compete with the tranquility and stability of having one parent managing the household full-time. Several of Miller’s characters describe their pre-housewife lives as miserable and frayed by stress and marital tension. With both parents working, neither gets to the spend the time they want with the kids; dividing up the domestic duties and communicating about them non-stop makes life transactional and exhausting; inevitably someone’s dreams are going to get shorted. So the (two!) women in Miller’s story say they’ve discovered, in giving up an outside career and settling into traditional gender roles, that there really is some kind of “natural” groove of the dad going to work and the mom taking care of the kids.
This mass of work-family issues is debated to a pulp, and yet it somehow seems like no satisfying conclusion is ever reached. That’s to be expected, I suppose, considering that we are living through one of the greatest technological and economic revolutions in the history of the planet, and it’s a little ridiculous to assume that answers will be discovered easily. But there are several things these splashy gender-bomb articles tend to consistently leave out of the picture to the detriment of any serious discussion about the important issues they raise. So with this latest article as an example—and Anne-Marie Slaughter, et al, following closely in the rearview mirror—let me try to point out a few things that are continually overlooked and gotten wrong.
They’re too narrowly focused on rich people. I’m far from the first to point this out, but it’s striking the extent to which these debates about who chooses to do what are moot when the conversation is taken beyond wealthy white people. The main character of Miller’s “feminist housewife” story has a husband who makes “low six figures,” which may not be “rich” by Wall Street standards, but is a hell of a lot more than my wife and I make working two full-time jobs. One of us quitting is all but out of the question, and would be all the more so if we had a child So all the talk of optimal arrangements and the “hell” of filling each other in on domestic responsibilities we split becomes meaningless outside of a situation where you have considerable financial flexibility to adjust your domestic arrangement. For many people—including a majority of the people working for places like The Atlantic and New York magazine—the ability to have afford a child at all where they live is a much more pressing question than how to divide the chores.
They’re too narrowly focused on women. We are living in the golden age of the Great Women’s Internet Polemic, and, while I heartily support writing about and for women, this age—with its high quotient of trend exaggeration and trolling—actually does a disservice to public debate about family issues. Despite the way they are often packaged and discussed, I don’t see articles on subjects like Miller’s or Slaughter’s as “women’s issue’s journalism”; these issues are vitally important to my life as a husband and future parent. But when the conversation is all or mostly about who is and isn’t a proper feminist, and what magazine is getting how many pageviews by trolling who, it starts to feel like we’re spinning our wheels on a subject that our society desperately needs to discuss. (Not that that need by any means precludes discussion of the feminism angle; in fact, I’d say the bigger problem is the lack of male writers besides Rod Dreher, PEG and a couple others willing to engage.)
There is a desperate need for men write about what we absurdly think of as “women’s issues”—not to “mansplain” to women about what needs to be done, but because we have just as much or more work to do figuring out how to handle modern work, marriage and fatherhood. How much does a career matter? What are we prepared to give up to be parents? Do we have a realistic picture of how two careers and two kids are going to work in practice? And on and on. Unlike women, who have now had decades of feminist dialogue in which to work out these issues as the world changed around them, men have not thought and written enough about what a revolutionized world means for our choices and priorities.
They make too many assumptions about the genders, especially about men. It’s depressing to see old gender stereotypes returning as something like a settled truth: women “naturally” care more about kids and are better domestic administrators, and men are only fulfilled by outside work. (The main character of Miller’s story explodes with oddly unsubstantiated maxims of this sort, things that might as well have plucked from Phyllis Schlafly’s diary by Suzanne Vencker.) I don’t care whether you back it up that kind of claim with bullshit evolutionary biology or bullshit fundamentalist theology, it’s manifestly contradicted by the world around us, which has nothing but endless variation. Very little about the genders is “naturally” one way or the other. Many, many women dislike children and, even if they don’t, struggle to feel what others blithely call “maternal instincts.” An equal number of men are gifted with children, and only passively and regretfully put in their time at the office to feed the family they love. If someone were to seriously suggest that my wife will somehow “naturally” enjoy spending every day with our kids more than I would, or would be better at managing the household, I would ask if they had taken leave of their senses.
Nowhere does this tendency to impose gender stereotypes lead to more problems than in the sexist way we treat work-family balance a concern that only women face. Most of the time, men are never assumed to face any kind of choice about how they will sacrifice to have a family, or worse, not expected to sacrifice at all. Unlike women, if they succeed at work, all is more or less well and good. They’re automatically excused when they manifest their learned helplessness at cooking, washing dishes, paying bills, etc, while women still feel intense social pressure to succeed at those things even if they have full-time careers or don’t have that apocryphal female aptitude for grinding chores. I couldn’t possibly describe all the couples my parents’ age in which, even if the man is a natural administrator and the woman is not, the woman is left to shoulder—often poorly and with resentment—domestic responsibilities she’s no good at. The “women’s work” assumption still silently underlies the way we live and think, and the mythology that the man must go out each day to conquer the world continues to shield him from questions and choices that should fairly be addressed to both partners.
They fail to challenge the American idolization of work. So many of these discussions preserve the sacrosanct place of the career in American life, and this is perhaps one of the greatest impediments to actually achieving some sort of workable solution. I appreciate the women in Miller’s story who discovered—surprise, surprise—that jobs and careers are massively, massively overrated in American social life. But everyone in the story, including and especially their husbands, cares too much about work. As both Miller’s subjects and New York Times reporter Michael Winerip admit, being the stay-at-home parent is often lots more fun that schlepping to an office every day. Personally, I’d rather spend any day with kids than co-workers. If we could collectively admit that we often value and commit to work at a far deeper level than it deserves, maybe we wouldn’t be so neurotic about choosing arrangements that make sharing domestic life more natural: working from home, part-time jobs, freelance projects, and occasionally, a few years off when the kids need us most. The world really can wait.
Update: Tracie Egan Morrissey and Jess Grose have solid takedowns of the Miller article and both agree with me that its “weird gender essentialism” is not only made-up bullshit but pretty insulting to men who are great with kids and housework.