I got an early Valentine this weekend. Not from any of the usual suspects - husband, kids, or mother. (Yes, my parents still send me a Valentine's Day card every year!) And, well, it wasn't really a Valentine. But it did feel like something to savor. It's a New York Times article about working women and their happy marriages. Happier (or at least more stable) than those of women who don't work.
In She Works. They're Happy., the Times' "Well" columnist, Tara Parker-Pope, reviews a number of studies on modern marriage (and cites some anecdotal examples) to conclude: "Over all, the evidence shows that the shifts within marriages — men taking on more housework and women earning more outside the home — have had a positive effect, contributing to lower divorce rates and happier unions." One reason: without the pressure to choose a husband solely on the basis of his "provider" capabilities, women marry men who are more likely to share in childrearing and domestic life.
What a relief! Most of the time the news about working women - and working moms especially - is dismal. Or at the very least, fraught. So, it feels good to read a positive piece.
And it makes sense to me. (Even though the happiness level in my own marriage has been challenged in the past few weeks by sickness and sleep deprivation.) I've long thought - in my limited eight years of marital bliss (well, mostly) - that some rough level of equality in education, social status, and income between partners helps a marriage prosper. That a more or less "marriage of equals" - if not in the Shakespearean but in the professional sense - produces a happy couple.
I've mused, while folding the laundry, loading the dishwasher, and catching up on the latest work gossip and kid milestones with my husband, that I prefer our arrangement to the man-free life of the 1950's "housewife" conjured up by Sandra Tsing Loh in another New York Times piece published this weekend. (See My So-Called Wife from Sunday's op-ed section.) There, the breadwinner husband went off to work each day unencumbered by any domestic responsibilities (except, perhaps, mowing the lawn). The wife, meanwhile, spent her day in an "agreeable roundelay of kitchen puttering and grocery shopping" followed by a "leisurely trip to the hair salon, a spot of tennis and a lively game of bridge. . . . ." In Tsing Loh's mid-century universe, the kids "are in school, then afterward they ride their bikes freely around the neighborhood, settling their own disputes and devising their own entertainments." (I don't share her faux-nostalgia, or agree with Tsing Loh's conclusion that "co-homemaking" leads to conflict, but I do enjoy her always provocative writing.)
I've also concluded that, for me, challenging work, a measure of economic security, and interesting opportunities are a better fit than the updated child-centered "housewife" model. It's not that I don't love my kids or want to spend time with them. (In fact, I work a reduced schedule at some cost to my career and my pocketbook so I can do so.) It's just that I'd rather be working than on chauffeur or recess duty. (Unfortunately, I can't escape all driving duties).
This, of course, is just me. My preferences and values. My view of marriage and family. Which my husband shares. But I know many women - and men - who wouldn't agree with the choices (and compromises) my husband and I have made, and have different views about the best ways to raise children and sustain a marriage.
And, there are costs and inefficiencies - for my husband, our children, and me - from trying to stuff everything (work, family, life and house maintenance, leisure) into our busy days. (There are costs in other models of family life, too. Just different ones.) Egalitarian-inclined dual income couples face some challenges that traditional couples who have one spouse (typically, the wife) that takes charge of the home front don't. The issue of who takes care of the kids while the parents are at work, undoubtedly, is the Olympic hurdle of the modern two-earner couple's existence. (And on the less important end of the spectrum, who stays home for the plumber, is an unpleasant challenge on a busy workday.)
Plus, some of the studies Parker-Pope cites are more than a little fuzzy and not necessarily conclusive or universally applicable. I have many women friends who don't work outside the home and have - from my vantage point - very, very, happy marriages. (Interestingly, though, in many of these marriages, the husband - even if he works a lot - does a fair amount of the housework and childcare and the wife focuses far more on childcare than on housework and other domestic chores.) And I have other woman friends who work and have unhappy marriages with husbands who pitch in only when prodded.
Still, I'll take what I can get. For me, the validation (less divorce, more joy) of the choices my husband and I have made - or at least the affirmation of the value of a more egalitarian model of marriage - seems as sweet as any Valentine's chocolate.
Photo by victoriapeckham via Flickr.