When women stay home with the kids, men may start to view them differently. That’s one of the many takeaways from Judith Warner’s revelatory second look at the “opt-out generation” a decade later, published this weekend in the New York Times Magazine. A particularly noteworthy quote came from the spouse of one of the women profiled, seeming to indicate that his wife’s self-esteem was not a value he cared for. “Once she started to work, she started to place more value in herself,” said Mark Eisel of his ex, Sheilah O’Donnel, a housewife who had opted back in, “and because she put more value in herself, she put herself in front of a lot of things — family, and ultimately, her marriage.”
Bryce Covert neatly unpacks the hidden thesis in Warner’s article at her blog at the Nation, writing “that the actual circumstance of having a wife stay home changes men from being egalitarian to being far more traditional …” both at home when they expect a level of caretaking their partners may not have signed up for, and at the office where research has confirmed their views, colored by their own family structure, “take a turn for the sexist.”
The question I always ask at moments like this is what came first, the chicken of women spending more time at home, or the egg of home-based caretaking work being devalued by society? This attitude also explains why domestic workers and health aides aren’t treated as the hard-working, skilled laborers they are.
It seems that we’re so programmed by everything from our own family backgrounds to commercials on TV to look at the world through an old-fashioned gendered lens that, when we begin to fall into traditional roles, they take a more thorough and pernicious hold of us. That’s why I’d imagine same-sex couples who have one stay-at-home spouse and one spouse who works may fall into the same negative patterns that opposite-gender couples do (I’d love to see the research on that!).
Of course I believe that careers shouldn’t be the be all and end all of how we view ourselves. That’s why work-life balance, as enshrined by good policy, would help our relationships. In an ideal world, workplaces would be so flexible that both men and women could spend more time at home and derive self-worth from a balance of relationships and caretaking and the satisfaction of a job well done at work. Warner’s article shows that the model of one spouse at work and one at home may split a well-rounded personality into two parts, separate but not equal.