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Judith Warner published a fantastic, long look in The New York Times yesterday following up on the so-called “Opt-Out Generation”: the women who got prestigious degrees and high-powered jobs and then left it all behind to be stay-at-home mothers. This meme gripped the country ten years ago with the idea that feminism had really just opened the door for women to choose home life. Warner finds that today they often have regrets, try to re-enter the workplace yet struggle to do so and do not have rosy family lives.
But perhaps the most interesting part of her article is the men. Many tweeted about how terrible the husbands seem. While in the end all three women ended up with husbands who just want them to be home, do the laundry and be happy about it, they didn’t start out that way. It seems that opting out changed their relationships, mostly for the worse.
Warner follows three women and all three found this to be true. Kuae Kelch Mattox had an “egalitarian” marriage in which both partners moved wherever one got a good job offer and both shared household chores and caring for the kids. But after Mattox decided to stay home with their children, her husband started wanting her to “try putting some more time into their home,” Warner writes. He tells Warner he wishes his wife would take on picking up around the house, doing laundry and cleaning. Carrie Chimerine Irvin at first felt she had struck an “unstated bargain” that her husband would earn and she would care for children, but found that he also seemed to think that “the couple’s mutual mess was now seen as her concern.” Even after she reduced her work schedule, Sheilah O’Donnel found herself in nasty fights with her husband over laundry and childcare, and her husband told her, “All this would be easier if you didn’t work.” She dropped out to care for kids, but when she decided to get a job with a nonprofit to boost her self-esteem, it was the final straw in their 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,” her husband said.
This anecdata is confirmed by larger surveys. Pamela Stone interviewed these opt-outers and found that “the women’s husbands…were often changed by their wives’ years at home,” Warner writes. In the early 2000s, the women reported that their husbands were “studiedly neutral” about whether they should maintain a career or stay at home—nearly every single one. But a decade later, most of the women Sylvia Ann Hewlett interviewed said their husbands landed firmly in the pro-stay-at-home camp. Stone says in her recent interviews, “I’m hearing more, ‘My husband really prefers that I be home.’ ” The women report finding themselves suddenly living in a traditional household.
Warner herself interviewed opt-out women and found creeping traditionalism among their relationships as well. “Once they gave up work,” she says, they went from “being their husbands’ intellectual equals into the one member of their partnership uniquely endowed with gifts for laundry or cooking and cleaning.”
It seems, then, that the actual circumstance of having a wife stay home changes men from being egalitarian to being far more traditional in their expectations of what they should get from their wives. Chimerne Irvin comments, “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. It’s the proverbial ‘meet me at the door with a martini and slippers.’ Don’t we all want that?” In fact, we do all want that—and men may get overly used to it when they get it.
This is not the first example of family arrangements heavily influencing men’s views of women. A recent study found that men who have stay-at-home wives also bring a different outlook to the office. Researchers found that compared to men in more equal arrangements, these husbands “are more likely to exhibit attitudes, beliefs and behaviors that are harmful to women in the workplace.” In other words, it makes their views toward female colleagues take a turn for the sexist. They more frequently deny promotions to qualified women, view women in the workplace unfavorably, think that more female workers make things run less smoothly and find organizations with women in charge less attractive.
Another recent study goes back even further, to childhood. Researchers found that boys who grow up just with sisters are 15 percent more likely to be conservative in their views of women’s roles. Why? They speculate that these boys grow up watching their sisters be assigned more housework, thus learning that chores are women’s work. Boys who just grow up with brothers share the load. Family structure when these boys are young informs how they view women later in life.
We like to endlessly discuss the impact that women’s choices about how they solve the work/family equation has on children, the workplace and even the feminist movement. But rarely do we discuss the way choices at home also mold men. It’s clear that the personal becomes political for men as well. When a couple makes a decision to adopt a traditional model for their family, it changes their expectations of each other. And then it ripples outward. It’s not just that women who opt out of the workforce change the way we think of female employees and women’s choices. The structure of men’s relationships changes the way they treat the women around them and the perameters of those choices. We might want to pay more attention to that, too.
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