Recently, the New York Times treated us to another epic hagiography of the American career woman. The problem is familiar, and dire: women with degrees from prestigious universities and six-figure incomes feel vaguely unhappy. The article begins with the story of Sheilah, a wife who starts working fewer hours to cope with the demands of motherhood. Even though she was working much less than her husband, she balked at doing her new domestic duties, even as a nanny did much of the work anyway.
In the hopes of improving her marriage, she quit her job entirely. “A sense of personal dislocation set in,” we are told. “Without a salary or an independent work identity, her self-confidence plummeted.” The author of the piece, Judith Warner, begins to weave her thesis: traditional sex roles beget personal and marital failure.
Sheilah starts volunteering. Her husband Mark’s words about her volunteering are damning, if not surprising:
“I look back on it as the beginning of the end of our marriage…Once she started to work, she started to place more value in herself, and because she put more value in herself, she put herself in front of a lot of things — family, and ultimately, her marriage.”
The Times informs us that Sheilah and Mark “agree the job drove a destructive wedge between them.”
By dint of experience, Mark channels Julius Evola – “modern woman in wanting to be for herself has destroyed herself.” Her aim to realize herself destroys her marriage and her family. And Sheilah isn’t exactly cutting her own path – her family supports her divorce. Her father is complicit in the destruction of her family; he commended her for her independence as a child, and that’s now bearing bitter fruit. In America, these fathers are the rule, not the exception, saying they only want ‘what’s best for my daughter.’ Parenthetically, Sheilah refused to take Mark’s last name – let that be an omen to any man contending with a woman who insists on keeping her name.
Even as a single anecdote, the story of Sheilah might make one doubt whether traditional sex roles are healthy for a marriage. In truth, tradition was set to fail. Tradition had little chance of succeeding with a woman bred to believe her worth lay in making money and dominating others. Even in the most traditional of eras, some are pariahs, and are simply not suited for marriage or motherhood. Sheilah is a suggestive example.
Next, we are introduced to Carrie and Stuart. Carrie’s resentment grew because she hated doing housework. These wives, with their intolerance for wifely duties, are cruel caricatures of the American mother. Yet they are true, cartoonish entitlement and all. Carrie chafed at her husband’s expectation of a clean house; she would blab on inanely at the dinner table, boring her husband. Foolishly, he suggested she go back to work to become interesting again.
Carrie takes his advice, and soon enough, packs her schedule with attending to the children and a full-time job. She has little time to enjoy her husband, or catch her breath.
“I think a big issue is that we both want to be taken care of at the end of the day, and neither of us has any energy to take care of the other,” Carrie said. “It’s the proverbial ‘meet me at the door with a martini and slippers.’ Don’t we all want that? A clean house and someone at the door? I think when I wasn’t working I had some guilt that that wasn’t me, but now I want to be that other person. . . . When you’re absolutely exhausted, it’s hard to be emotionally generous.”
The irony is sweet, and tragic. The American career woman, in all her glory, vindicates the modest demands of the traditional father: a clean home, an attentive wife and her warm dinner after a long day’s work to provide for the family. Carrie admits that given her strenuous obligations, she wants that now. Implicitly, it’s not all that much to ask. The feminist harangues about the oppressiveness of domestic life start to ring hollow.
Many of the women I spoke with were troubled by the gender-role traditionalism that crept into their marriages once they gave up work, transforming them from being their husbands’ intellectual equals into the one member of their partnership uniquely endowed with gifts for laundry or cooking and cleaning; a junior member of the household, who sometimes had to “negotiate” with her husband to get money for child care…
But when traditional gender arrangements were put into place, there was a subtle slide into inequality.
The ominous tones call to mind that heroine of yore, the battered woman. The abusive husband of today is more subtle, and thereby more pernicious. Instead of gracing her with a black eye, he… lets her stay at home. He… doesn’t let her outsource child-rearing to a nanny of color. Arbeit Macht Frei. Work is redemption, and he keeps her from it. Her husband is patriarchal oppression personified, even as she prefers her new state. No amount of no-fault divorce and guaranteed alimony can save her; like her battered counterpart, the housewife is vulnerable and powerless to leave the dominion of her abuser.
Not a single woman I spoke with said she wished that she could return to her old, pre-opting-out job — no matter what price she paid for her decision to stop working.
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