Friday, March 02, 2007

Mom vs. Herself

There's something in the air. After a wave after MSM articles about stay-at-home dads, we're now hearing from the other side: their wives. And boy, are they pissed--or so we are led to believe.

I found too many pieces to list, but I'll cite some articles and blog postings:

One blogger (a "life coach," whatever that is) finds "feelings of resentment, jealousy, frustration" on the part of breadwinning moms. "Many of the women I know who are the bread-winners of their family tend to be controlling. Not necessarily a 'control-freak' or not necessarily consciously but by default. Husbands in the role of a stay-at-home dad may relinquish their role and behave in a subservient manner. The frustration for women comes when they not only work long hours in their career but are also expected to oversee or manage the household despite having someone capable at home."

In "A Breadwinner Rethinks Gender Roles," M.P. Dunleavey writes that breadwinning moms "are seething--with uncertainty, resentment, anxiety and frustration." While her own husband "cooks, cleans, shops and takes care of our son," Dunleavey is filled with "terror that I'll be the breadwinner forever."

But the mother of all these pieces is this essay in the women's magazine Marie Claire entitled, "Why I Left My Beta Husband." Initially author Amy Brayfield loved it when her first husband Mark stayed at home with their daughter, which allowed her to focus on the career she loved. Then she found herself "mortified" when co-workers discovered that her husband was a stay-at-home dad. "I had it all back then," she writes, "including a gorgeous toddler and a cool job. What I didn't have was a husband I felt proud of." She continues:

I felt guilty about being glad to go back to work, and in my head, I made it Mark's fault. Because he couldn't find a job, I blamed him when I was working late and had to miss the baby's bedtime; it was his fault I had to go in early every day, since the fact that he couldn't find a job meant that I couldn't afford to lose mine.

And when I got home, I seethed. I couldn't walk across the living room without tripping over some plastic toy or container of wipes. The baby was in the same little nightgown she'd slept in the night before. There wasn't a hint of dinner on the horizon. He was home all day—couldn't he at least run a freaking load of laundry?

Eventually, communication between Mark and me deteriorated to the point where all we talked about was the baby. Had she gotten enough sleep? What had she eaten for lunch? How could she have run through an entire value pack of diapers in one weekend? "Wait till I tell you what she did," he'd say every once in a while, as we gazed adoringly at the baby and at each other. In those moments—watching him gently rock her to sleep while singing "Punk Rock Girl"—I was reminded why I had once thought Mark was the sexiest man in the world.

But our sex life was in ruins. I chalked it up to the transition period all new parents go through. Then one day, I realized it had been almost a year since Mark and I had made love.
Perhaps we should stop there, before it gets uglier. Amy divorces Mark, and gets custody of their daughter. But there's a twist ending: "Nobody was more surprised than I was when I went ahead and fell for another stay-at-home dad."

Which, of course, allows her to continue to pursue her high-powered career.

Many breadwinning mommy bloggers disowned the image of the "seething" working mom who doesn't respect her "subservient" stay-at-home husband: see, for example, Elizabeth at Half-Changed World or Rebecca at Adventures in Applied Math. But we should not dismiss the feelings expressed by Brayfield and Dunleavey--there's obviously a parallel between the fish-out-of-water feelings they express and the angst of a new stay-at-home dad who finds himself alone on the playground.

So what should we think?

Let me tell you a story. One day I was talking with another stay-at-home parent on the playground. While our kids chased each other around the slide, we got to commiserating. I told her how overwhelmed I felt by the daily routines of childcare and housework.

"Well, now you know how women have felt for centuries!" she said, almost cheerful.

Right. I get it. It's a good perspective. And so, to all you ladies out there in reverse role families, let me return the favor.

When I read about women who "seethe" with resentment against the obligations that supporting a family forces on them, or when I hear that they live in "terror" that they'll be the breadwinner "forever," I'm afraid that there's only one response.

Get ready.

You can feel it coming.

Here it goes:

"Well, now you know how men have felt for centuries!"

So there. This is not to imply that we exist in a state of equality. Women still face the glass ceiling, the double shift, sexual harassment, and so on. Men are still the privileged group. We still run the world, though our overthrow is well on the way to happening.

But do women like Dunleavey and Brayfield (elite members of the East Coast media) really carry more burdens than, say, an African-American dad who works as a custodian in a place like East St. Louis or perhaps a Latino migrant worker dad who sends money back to his family in Mexico or a gay dad in Lincoln, Nebraska who works every day to support his husband and children, despite all the obstacles society throws in their way? Or even just a regular Euro-American dad in a regular Midwestern city whose life has thrown him one too many curve balls?

Dunleavey and Brayfield sound to me like they have (or had) damn good husbands, not to mention good jobs and happy, healthy kids. The husbands' main failing is that they don't measure up to Dunleavey and Brayfield's image of traditional fatherhood: "Someone who walks out the door with a pressed shirt on, a leather briefcase, and a confident gait. Someone who wins bread." But whose failing is that, really? As their writing makes clear, the problem here is not that their husbands are failing as partners and parents. The problem for Dunleavey and Brayfield is that their image of the father and their image of the mother are both stuck in the 1950s, a long-gone era.

My simple point is that when we talk about these things, we need some perspective and we need some empathy--and we need to look forward, to what we really want and where we're really going.

When I read stuff like this, I just want to take these women gently by the shoulders and tell them this is the way it is. "I write here a fair amount about what I call 'reverse traditional families'--families with working mothers and at-home fathers," says Half-Changed World. "One of the strains on women in these families is that we rarely give ourselves mothering credit for being breadwinners. We often beat ourselves up for the things that we don't do, without giving ourselves corresponding brownie points for the things we do. Maybe we should stop worrying about whether we're good enough mothers, and decide that we're damned good fathers."

These are wise words. It's certainly better than the angry and unhealthy alternative described by Dunleavey and Brayfield. To them I say, as a working father: Welcome to the club! Stop by and talk anytime! We're all in it together!


Readers should also see my February 28 post, "Shelley's story," for another perspective on being a bread-mommy.


Anonymous said...

One thing we all need to realize is that, regardless of which parent stays home, what matters is not the parent, but the child. The reason stay-at-home parents stay home is to raise a child.

Who cares how men feel or how women feel? Well, that's more than a little harsh. But we're parents, and we have a job to do. So let's do it.

Jeremy Adam Smith said...

Absolutely. I think that's precisely what Brayfield and Dunleavey lost sight of, based on the evidence offered by their essays.

I dunno. I try to refrain from judging or condemning a parent who takes the courageous step of opening up their lives to an audience--but I think I might make an exception here. I really feel like Brayfield (in particular) behaved in a way--which she sort of admits--that was self-destructive and destructive to her family -- and I wonder what her daughter thought of all this?

More importantly, I don't think we (who is "we"? well, me and anyone who agrees with me) can let this sort of thing dominate discussions of reverse role families. Sure, some people will have trouble with it, but they need help working through it, and part of the way to do that is to show other, successful models--of which there are many.

Rebecca said...

Very interesting post. I wonder how the women who were unhappy with breadwinning would have fared as stay-at-home moms. It seems to me that they were just unhappy to begin with, so they might not have liked staying at home any more than they liked working. The difference would be that staying at home is socially-sanctioned, while working is not.

Personally, I think I could be happy either way. It's just that my skill set is more suited to making money and my husband's is more suited to taking care of children, so that's how we divide the tasks.

Anonymous said...

From the quote you chose it looks like the real underlying issue of Brayfield is that she came home to a messy house, no dinner and laundry she would end up having to do.

It's NOT mothering and fathering. It's parenting, both the child care and the income earning.

Jeremy Adam Smith said...

"the real underlying issue of Brayfield is that she came home to a messy house..."

You know, I have yet to speak to a breadwinner -- this includes straight dads, lesbian moms, gay dads, female breadwinners --who doesn't feel this way at least some of the time. Even former stay-at-home parents who are now the breadwinners can find themselves gritting their teeth when they come home to a hearth that isn't as ideal as they'd like. See what Shelley has to say in my Feb. 28 post, when I ask her about if she ever gets annoyed when she comes home to a messy, disorganized home: "I really try to remember when I was staying home, and I wouldn't even think of housework. But, yeah, sometimes I get pissed off."

So I see the issue Brayfield raises as being a run of the mill domestic conflict, that mature people should be able to negotiate. But as her full article makes clear, she didn't leave Mark because of a messy house--her rage at that was a symptom, not a cause.

But Brayfield's particular case aside, I think it's critical for true partners to at least try to walk in each other's shoes and provide as much support as possible for each other, whatever struggles they are facing. Rebecca's points are well taken; these marriages might have been in trouble no matter who did what.

I strongly recommend checking out this article, "Feeling Like Partners," by Phil and Carolyn Cowan, two of my favorite family researchers.

Anonymous said...

The point was that you chose a quote that made her sound petty.

Rebecca makes a great point. I agree except that my own insecurities stemming from divorced parents and the following financial disaster of my childhood make me very nerveous when I'm not earning money myself.

Jeremy Adam Smith said...

Helen, you're raising something that I think about fairly often -- like you, because of my family backgound -- but rarely write about in DD, which is that at-home caregivers, male or female, are profoundly vulnerable to shifts in family stability. I imagine Mark had a very tough time of it after the divorce.

I don't write about it partially because so many feminist writers have covered that ground; we focus on guys and guys are still not as vulnerable--in her book Do Men Mother? Andrea Doucet talks about how she found that even hardcore (multiple children, many years) stay-at-home dads seldom give up work entirely: they freelance, they start home businesses, etc. Doucet argues that this is something SAHDs might have to teach SAHMs. Though we give Linda Hirshman a hard time here for denigrating caregiving, in many ways she's right about women and work: each of us should keep working, even if it's only a small part of our lives, and thinking about the future and always try to avoid becoming overly dependent on our spouse.

Stephen de las Heras said...

As usual I agree with most of what you say. You have the dynamics of the whole role flipping and counter flipping down pat.

But your feminist views make me blink a little and say whaaat...The glass ceiling and the double shift are mere myths. What passes for evidence for a glass ceiling is usually just gender imbalances in the workplace. Which rests on the assumption that men and women make the same work life decisions in the same numbers. We both know that is not true.

Evidence for the double shift usually leaves out the extra hours men put in at the office, and the fact that many men are the primary breadwinners with the more substantial career. Women on average have more downtime than men. Mostly because there are more stay at home moms than stay at home dads.

The truth is that those of us who live in liberal cities tend to move through a world that routinely favors women because of their perceived underdog status.

I hope you don't take this as an anti-feminist rant (which it is), but simply as a little push to base your views on actual evidence and not poorly researched popular assumptions.

Jeremy Adam Smith said...

"The glass ceiling and the double shift are mere myths."

Now, Stephen, you know them's fightin' words. But, eh, I didn't get much sleep last night (out partying, whoo hoo! - actually, I just had insomnia) and today I don't got much fight in me. I will instead refer readers to Arlie Russell Hochschild's books The Time Bind and The Second Shift, which contain way more empirical evidence and analysis on this stuff than I can muster in a blog comment.

Jeff Pollet said...

erm...Stephen? Why is the burden to provide evidence on Jeremy here? I don't see you offering up any evidence that what you say is the case is, actually, the case.

Anonymous said...

Hi. I have just stumbled across your site and will be showing it to my husband.
I am a stay at home mum (I'm an Aussie!) for now- but am going back to work full time when my daughter is 10 months old. Then my husband will be a stay at home dad.
I have no bad feelings about either of these things. I am happy that I can be contributing by earning money, AND I am happy my husband will be at home raising our child.
I don't agree with the comments in their article at all. These days if either parent can stay at home it's a win-win situation. It doesn't matter who is the caer and who is the breadwinner- it just matters that the child is being looked after.
I will be proud and privilidged that my husband will stay at home- not ashamed or resentful.

Anonymous said...

I find it funny how the man is expected to be able to turn into a masculine version of "mom", yet he is still expected to be an "alpha male" for the wife.

Worst thing of all is that this was fixable in Amy's case. Instead of dumping her husband, she should have taught him what she wanted. I'm sure the guy would have made an effort to learn.

This is one of the reasons more and more men are preferring to stay single nowadays.

ocean said...

The problem that I'm facing is that I have alway been the bread winner and my husband has been the stay at home dad. He is a great dad and husband but I would like to have another child. Our daughter is 7 years old and my husband has a job now but he makes very little. For us to support ourselves I can't take any time off and time is not on my side I'm 42. I have no regrets in life but I feel like not having another child is one that I will regret. I don't know how people have more children and afford it. We just get by. I don't want to be angry but I don't think men understand how this really hurts a women's hart.