Home/Gracy Olmstead/Husbands, Wives, and Work

Husbands, Wives, and Work

We’ve created a “toxic” workplace environment, writes Anne-Marie Slaughter over at the New York Times:

[W]e are losing women. America has unlocked the talent of its women in a way that few nations can match; girls are outpacing boys in high schools, universities and graduate schools and are now entering the work force at higher salaries. But the ranks of those women still thin significantly as they rise toward the top, from more than 50 percent at entry level to 10 to 20 percent in senior management. Far too many discover that what was once a manageable and enjoyable work-family balance can no longer be sustained — regardless of ambition, confidence or even a partner who shares tasks equally.

… This looks like a “women’s problem,” but it’s not. It’s a work problem — the problem of an antiquated and broken system. When law firms and corporations lose talented women who reject lock-step career paths and question promotion systems that elevate quantity of hours worked over quality of the work itself, the problem is not with the women. When an abundance of overly rigid workplaces causes 42 million American citizens to live day to day in fear that just one single setback will prevent them from being able to care for their children, it’s not their problem, but ours.

THE problem is with the workplace, or more precisely, with a workplace designed for the “Mad Men” era, for “Leave It to Beaver” families in which one partner does all the work of earning an income and the other partner does all the work of turning that income into care — the care that is indispensable for our children, our sick and disabled, our elderly. Our families and our responsibilities don’t look like that anymore, but our workplaces do not fit the realities of our lives.

She calls on businesses to “support care just as we support competition”—to have a wider range of parental leave policies, affordable and high-quality childcare services, more flexible work-from-home or part-time options, and even “reform of elementary and secondary school schedules to meet the needs of a digital rather than an agricultural economy” (I’m curious as to what these hours/schedules would look like).

Slaughter wrote a similar article for The Atlantic three years ago, in which she argued that “having it all” (the perfect work-life balance) was impossible for women—and that it’s society’s fault that they can’t.

Interestingly, her husband Andrew Moravscik just wrote a piece for The Atlantic last week describing his own experience as a stay-at-home dad, while his wife served as primary breadwinner during the years described in her earlier story. His perspective seems slightly different—perhaps slightly less political—than his wife’s: for while he acknowledges that the workforce has little room for either man or woman to build a prestigious, successful career while also serving as a highly-involved parent, he seems to indicate that this is more an issue of time and resources than a societal conspiracy or flaw.

[My wife and I] had bought into the prevailing wisdom among other dual-career families we knew: 50–50 parenting was not just desirable, but doable.

While our boys were young, it was. But then we hit a few obstacles that other two-career couples will likely find familiar. For one thing, taking turns was easier said than done. One spouse’s job responsibilities do not conveniently contract just as the other spouse’s duties expand. Nor are all careers created equal. From the beginning, Anne-Marie’s jobs at Harvard and Princeton imposed greater demands than mine, because she entered the university-administration track early on; she also accepted more outside leadership roles. And, as we learned, intense jobs tend to beget even more intense jobs—a phenomenon that, in Anne-Marie’s case, led to a deanship at Princeton, followed by one of the highest positions at the State Department, followed by the leadership of a major nonprofit.

… Confronted with such realities, most two-career families sooner or later find that one person falls into the role of lead parent. In our family, I assumed that role. To be sure, Anne-Marie was actively involved with our boys, taking responsibility for specific chunks of their lives, like dealing with teachers and planning college trips. … But none of this is lead parenting. Lead parenting is being on the front lines of everyday life. In my years as lead parent, I have gotten the kids out of the house in the morning; enforced bedtimes at night; monitored computer and TV use; attempted to ensure that homework got done right; encouraged involvement in sports and music; attended the baseball games, piano lessons, plays, and concerts that resulted; and kept tabs on social lives. To this day, I am listed first on emergency forms; I am the parent who drops everything in the event of a crisis.

… Among those mothers who are beating the grim odds and succeeding in the most-demanding jobs, a startling number have a lead dad in the wings. As Anne-Marie puts it in her new book, Unfinished Business, “This is the dirty little secret that women leaders who come together in places like Fortune magazine’s annual Most Powerful Women Summit don’t talk about: the necessity of a primary caregiver spouse.” A female business executive willing to do what it takes to get to the top—go on every trip, meet every client, accept every promotion, even pick up and move to a new location when asked—needs what male CEOs have always had: a spouse who bears most of the burden at home.

What Moravscik’s experience seems to indicate is that certain jobs are high on involvement and low on flexibility, and that parents who pursue these jobs will need to be the lead worker. They will not be able to “have it all” simply because of the nature of their job. Others will be able to pursue lower-commitment jobs with greater flexibility. Or, if their spouse makes enough, they can choose to stay at home and focus on kid-raising full time.

We need better parental leave policies, absolutely—they help promote the longevity of a person’s involvement in the workforce, foster the physical, psychological, and emotional wellbeing of employees, and serve as an important encouragement of family life. Some may not see this latter point as necessary for a business to encourage. But our current policy of encouraging a single sort of worker—young, tie-less, career-centric—is both unsustainable and unhealthy. Moreover, our lack of pro-family policies in the U.S. can often lead to larger problems—they can foster an environment antithetical to the health and flourishing of the poor, an environment in which abortion is a more viable option for many women.

But we also need to consider the argument that Moravscik puts forth in his Atlantic piece: that there will always need to be a “lead parent,” and husband and wife will need to determine who will be primary worker, and who will be primary caregiver (unless they have the monetary resources available to outsource most of their childcare). In cases where childcare is expensive, difficult to procure, or unwanted by the parents for whatever reason, parents will have to decide who is best suited to work in a part-time or stay-at-home capacity—and who should remain more involved in the workforce. Slaughter’s right that we’re not likely to return to an age in which women are usually, if not always, the “lead parent.” We still need to provide space in society for those women—because they’re out there, they do work hard, and are providing an important service. But we also need to consider how best to create a healthy workforce environment for people who choose to, or have to, live in a dual-income household.

We also need to consider how best to foster a healthy work environment for single parents—be they single moms or dads. Though I think this is also a larger social and cultural issue, and we need to consider what societal/familial supports these parents have at their disposal, it’s also true that pro-family policies can help these single parents continue working and providing for their families.

Regardless, we confront a working world in which it seems impossible for any one parent to “have it all”—to achieve that mysterious yet longed for “work-life balance.” Yet perhaps with the right spouse, and/or with the right community, we can build a work culture in which lead parenting and pro-family policies help us be content—even happy—with what we have.

about the author

Gracy Olmstead is a writer and journalist located outside Washington, D.C. In addition to The American Conservative, she has written for The Washington Times, the Idaho Press Tribune, The Federalist, and Acculturated. Follow Gracy on Twitter @GracyOlmstead.

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