Another Perspective

Beasts of Burden

They’re driven to an early grave, leaving five widows for every widower.

By 11.7.03

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There are five widows for every widower.

Kevin, 37, is a computer programmer, making $80,000 a year. His wife, Jennifer, stays home to take care of their two year old. She is pregnant with another child and eager for them to buy a home. Kevin doesn't like being a programmer, but fears that a career change will mean a salary cut.

I ask Kevin if owning a home was important to him. He replies that it's "very important to Jennifer." I ask how he felt about having the second child. He says, half-heartedly, "Okay… Jennifer really wants it." I prod further: "When you first called me, you said you feel the stress is killing you. Should you be shouldering all the family's financial responsibilities?" A tear wells in his eye: "Jennifer reminds me that before we got married, I agreed to have two children. She says, and I guess I agree, that to bring our kids up right and maintain a home, is a full-time job. And she doesn't have my earning capacity."

Kevin rubs his head and sighs.

OVER THE PAST 17 YEARS, I have been a career and personal counselor to 1,500 middle- and upper-class women and to 500 middle-to-upper class men. Because of our relationships' confidentiality, I have learned much about what women really think on a number of issues.

Most surprising to me, is that most of the women, including many Ivy League graduates, either don't want an income-earning job or will only work part-time in an unusually pleasant job.

An article in a recent New York Times Sunday magazine suggests that my clients are not an anomaly. It reported that the number of stay-at-home moms has increased 13 percent in less than a decade, and among working women, two-thirds work part-time! This is true even among our most educated -- the graduates of colleges that bestowed on them a much competed-for slot based on the assumption the student would aspire to careers that would utilize that degree to make a big difference in the world.

Indeed, few of those women's application essays indicated they planned to be housewives. Yet among Stanford's class of '81, in just their first decade after graduation, 57 percent of mothers spent at least a year at home full-time. One in four stayed home full-time for three or more years. A survey of the women from the Harvard Business School classes of 1981, 1985, and 1991 found that only 38 percent of all women -- even if they were childless -- were working full time.

Beyond the elite colleges, among white men, 95 percent of all MBAs in the U.S. work full time, while the number for white women was just 67 percent. And "full-time" doesn't mean the same for men and women. Among my 1,500 female clients and many friends, very few are willing to sacrifice work/life balance to work the 60 plus hours a week it normally takes to rise to the top of a profession. Yet women's groups complain that women are "underrepresented" in the power professions: senior executives, professors, etc., because of a "glass ceiling" they claim is erected by men.

Of course, there are many ambitious, achieving women who are men's equals or superiors. But a significant percentage of my female clients and friends prefer the life of a housewife, perhaps augmented by a pleasant little part-time job, even if it means their husband, whom they claim to love, must work long, hard hours on jobs that few women would consider. For example, the vast majority of people who work in iron foundries, coal mines, and other clanging, polluted environments are men. Over 93 percent of workplace deaths occur to men.

"Dan," a client of mine, has avoided breathing carcinogenic air but his life is still at risk. He has two masters degrees in counseling, but here in the Bay Area, where it seems there's a therapist under every rock, hasn't been able to land a job as a counselor. He has a few private clients, which in total earn him $6,000 a year. He adds $8,000 as a mock patient in a medical school, and at night, Dan, 54, moonlights as a waiter at a large restaurant. He explains, "It's almost a quarter mile from the kitchen to the farthest table, so when I get home at one in the morning, I'm exhausted. But I'm still so wired, I need a couple of glasses of wine to get to sleep. If I'm lucky, I get five hours of sleep before I have to get up again."

Dan's wife Denise, a Cornell graduate, is 47, and says she's a musician. But during their years together, her net income has averaged just $800 a year. When Dan begs her to get a job that pays, she objects: "But I love being a musician. I'm trying to make a living at it." He keeps urging her to get a paying job, but after a while, he gives up. He can't make her get a job.

Meanwhile, Dan continues to drag himself through life like an ox yoked to a plow, a beast of burden. "I don't know how long I can keep this up," he admits. Statistically, he's right. It may be that male biology preordains men to shorter lifespans, but medical science is unequivocal that stress kills. Belying the biology argument, in 1900 males and females had the same life expectancy.

TO BE FAIR, some men encourage their wives to stay home, but often, the impetus comes from the woman. Many women use dubious arguments to convince their husbands they should have, at most, a part-time job:

It's better for the children. Yes, on average, kids with stay-at-home-mom do a bit better, but that is largely because a couple that can afford to have mom staying at home are, on average, from a higher socioeconomic class, which confers many other benefits on the child. Millions of children with working moms do just fine.

Having reviewed the literature, I can say what counts most is quality time: reasonably consistent, loving, limit-setting but not punitive parenting, even if it begins after the workday. And even if a child accrues a small net advantage from having a stay-at-home mom, that advantage is usually more than outweighed by the great pressure added to the husband's life and the lifestyle decrement that comes from the lack of a second income. Having to provide all the family income also precludes men from considering rewarding but not lucrative careers such as teaching, and most jobs in non-profits, the arts, journalism, etc.

Taking care of the kids and home is a full-time job. These women stretch homemaking into a full-time job with activities far less beneficial than a second income to the family and certainly to her husband's health and quality of life: preparing home-cooked dinners most nights, sitting with other moms watching a playgroup when a babysitter could do that.

Being a homemaker is at least as stressful as being in the work world. These women point to their having to deal with a frequently crying baby or claim that being at home is a three-ring circus. But fact is, much of the stay-at-home mom's day is spent on low-stress tasks such as supermarket shopping, playing with the baby, making dinner, and chatting with friends while baby is napping. That life is much less stressful than most out-of-home jobs, which are filled with unpredictable commutes, ever increasing workloads because of the relentless downsizing, bosses with unrealistic expectations, co-workers who don't pull their weight, and tough tasks, which if not completed satisfactorily can result in criticism or even firing.

I don't have your earning power. Dr. Warren Farrell's authoritative research debunks feminist organizations' specious statistic that women earn 79 cents on the dollar. When controlled for hours on the job, performance evaluations, and years of experience, women earn $1.01 for every dollar men earn.

The reason women have fewer years of experience is that they disproportionately elect to stay home with their children, or even if they work "full-time," they work far fewer hours than their male counterparts so they can spend more time with their kids or on their avocations. Many more women than men -- full-time workers and not -- ensure they have time for yoga, get-togethers with friends, art class, volunteer work, and visits to the day spa. Since 2000, despite the economic downturn, the number of spa visits nationwide, the vast majority of whom are made by women, has doubled!

MOST OF THE MEN I work with haven't even really stopped to think about what their wives have done to them. They accept their plight of having to work, work, work at jobs they don't like, ever pushing for promotions, without really questioning it. Men have been preprogrammed to be the hunter, the provider, to keep their nose to the grindstone no matter what. Many wives only encourage it. Just today, a client who earns more than $200,000 a year as a not-partner attorney at a major firm, said that if he doesn't push right now to make partner, "my wife will kill me."

But when I ask male clients to step back and think about it, so many of them acknowledge that their wives have tried -- usually successfully -- to subtly or not so subtly coerce them into being the primary or sole breadwinner, the beast of burden. Those women use the above arguments plus manipulative techniques such as crying, guilt-tripping, screaming, and forever promising to look for work but making feeble efforts.

Meanwhile, many men live stressed-out lives: work 10 plus hours, commute home, and drop into the couch exhausted. Their reward: an early grave. Despite an epidemic of obesity among women, there are five widows for every widower. Yet all we hear about is another fundraiser for breast cancer.

Men need to think about whether they feel they're shouldering an unfair amount of the stress, and if so, speak up authoritatively, and resist coercion. More men should consider whether they might be wiser to work part-time and do a larger share of the child-rearing and domestic duties.

More women need to hold up their economic end of the marital partnership and stop complaining about gender unfairness in the workplace. It's simply not true.

(I changed a few irrelevant details about my clients to protect their anonymity.)

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About the Author

Marty Nemko is a career counselor, employment columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle, and host of Work With Marty Nemko on KALW, 91.7 FM, a National Public Radio affiliate. His wife, Dr. Barbara Nemko, is the Napa County Superintendent of Schools and fully and happily pulls her weight in the marriage.