We Americans are a pragmatic lot. We distrust authority, even tradition, and like to try things out for ourselves. We like to see what works and what doesn’t.
Pragmatism is a good thing, but it can be taken too far. After all, tradition is just the record of past pragmatic decisions.
Children might distrust authority, but no one wants to see a child defy tradition and learn for himself what happens when he jumps into an empty swimming pool.
Recently, many Americans have come to doubt the natural basis for gender differences. Many of them have mindlessly accepted the notion that gender differences are socially constructed.
For better or for worse, they have been trying it out at home. They have reversed gender roles and created a brave new world where more women are breadwinners and more men stay home, take care of the children, play golf and cheat on their wives.
Sandra Tsing Loh examines the situation through the lens of Dr. Phil’s question: How’s that working out for you.
In Loh’s view, there’s trouble in this new Paradise:
In nearly 40 percent of American marriages, the wife earns more than the husband. Data indicate that this power inversion can trigger not just problems with gender identity but a troubling amount of male infidelity (peculiar new trend: women who are financially dependent on their husbands tend to be faithful, while, paradoxically, financially dependent men tend to stray). One 2010 study showed that when a woman’s contribution to household income tops 60 percent, the couple is more likely to divorce.
Minor details those.
And then there’s the case of Annette, married breadwinner with a highly cooperative stay-at-home husband.
Loh offers a somewhat promising introduction to Annette and her husband, Ron:
Annette is a working warrioress, a high-level administrator who makes mid–six figures at a major foundation. She is married to Ron, a writer who decided to stay home for a few years upon the birth of their twins. In many ways, this division of responsibilities seemed an ideal fit. Annette is left-brained; Ron is right-brained. Annette anxiously crunches numbers on her Blackberry; Ron contentedly chauffeurs the kids while playing world music. He walks their choleric dog and initiates home projects like (this is hard to describe, but it’s very groovy) creating a family playroom/art studio out of found and recycled materials.
So far, so good. Loh then shows of how this arrangement becomes completely undone over a light bulb.
Readers of this blog will notice how well Annette and Ron make use of all the tools that therapy has provided them to negotiate this difficult and complex situation:
“So here’s the thing,” Annette says, wiping her mouth with a cuffed sleeve. “Two weeks ago, I pull into a dark garage at 7 o’clock—the lightbulb is out. Banging my shin as I get out of the car, I go to the drawer where the lightbulbs are supposed to be. It’s filled with paintbrushes and modeling clay. I find Ron in the kitchen, as usual, cooking a red sauce from scratch when Prego is just as good. I ask him to take care of it. Second night, I pull in, no lightbulb, banged shin—he says he’ll replace it. Third night—same thing, same thing, same thing. And the FOURTH NIGHT???” Annette’s face stretches into such a terrifying Medusa rictus that we recoil. “I wrench open the kitchen door and start screaming: ‘Oh my GOD, Ron! Either do it or don’t do it, but if you honestly and in fact have no plans at all to change the lightbulb, JU-U-UST TE-E-ELL ME!’ And Ron is actually indignant! It’s like I am the one who is being OUTRAGEOUS and require HIM to give ME a teachable moment. He’s saying: ‘Look at yourself—why are you so fixated on a lightbulb? That’s pretty shallow. We’re happy, we’re healthy—but all you see is the lightbulb. Are you aware of how negative you’ve become? It’s the first thing you radiate when you step in through the door.’ And it’s like I can’t breathe—I literally can’t breathe—and I’m saying: ‘It’s not about a lightbulb, it’s that you PROMISED, over and over again, and I TRUSTED you—which means your word means NOTHING!’ At which point he says—and he is literally waving the spatula now, like a king with his scepter—‘If you are so obsessed with the damn lightbulb—and I’m sorry if I don’t invest my whole EMOTIONAL LIFE in it like you do, and maybe you should look at that—WITH GOD AS MY WITNESS, I PROMISE FROM THIS DAY FORWARD YOU WILL NEVER SEE A BURNED-OUT LIGHTBULB IN THIS HOUSE AGAIN!!!’ ”
Punch line: The next night, she pulls into the garage, looks up … at which point, they begin emergency couple’s therapy....
If therapy has not worked, then, in today’s world, the cure is more therapy.
Why does this role reversal marriage not work? Loh replies:
Further, not only do we 2012 women fail at being 1950s wives, we fail even more spectacularly at being 1950s husbands.
By contrast, dwelling in a grayscale midlife purgatory of grinding Pilates and ever-shifting diets (Atkins? Zone? South Beach?), if we breadwinning women were handed a Manhattan at the end of the day, we’d be likely to burst into tears and wail, “What’s THIS? What’s IN this? Why are you UNDERMINING me?!”
The real problem, if I may summarize it, is that men, through no fault of their own, are bad homemakers. They do some of what needs to be done. They get the children off to school and they might even prepare meals. But they are not and will never become good homemakers.
So, a woman who is out working to support the family will never feel that, after a hard day’s work, she is coming home.
Loh quotes Cheryl Mendelson’s book, Home Comforts:
This sense of being at home is important to everyone’s well-being. If you do not get enough of it, your happiness, resilience, energy, humor, and courage will decrease … Being at home feels safe; you have a sense of relief whenever you come home and close the door behind you … Home is the one place in the world … where you belong … Coming home is your major restorative in life. These are formidably good things, which you cannot get merely by finding true love or getting married or having children or landing the best job in the world—or even by moving into the house of your dreams.
How does the modern woman deal with this problem? According to Loh she votes her man off the island. She gets a divorce.
At least, then, she does not have to suffer the pain of coming home to a situation that screams out that she is neglecting to make a home.