“We are never at fifty-fifty at any given moment—perfect equality is hard to define or sustain—but we allow the pendulum to swing back and forth between us.”
The PEW Foundation’s report (published May 29) on “Breadwinner Moms” ignited a firestorm in the media and on blogs.
According to the report, “A record 40% of all households with children under the age of 18 include mothers who are either the sole or primary source of income for the family.” That figure is up from 11% in 1960.
Of the 40%, roughly a third (37%) are married and out-earning their husbands. Two thirds (63%) are lower income single mothers.
Both groups have come under fire—high-earning wives for outshining their husbands and allegedly abandoning their families and children; single mothers for being mothers in the first place, and the whole lot of them for pursuing a way of life that “could undermine our social order.”
In her article, “When a Woman Makes a Lot of Money and Her Husband Doesn’t,” Mary Kassian castigates the higher-earning wife marriages as the “alpha woman-beta boy relationship model.” (Lobbing that grenade should do wonders for ongoing peace talks intended to end The Mommy Wars.)
I may be wrong, but I suspect Chapter 8: “Make Your Partner a Real Partner” might create a little heat over attitudes towards working mothers and changing roles in marriage.
Here goes …
By the time the PEW Report was released, Sheryl Sandberg’s book, Lean In, was already flying off the shelves. Yet despite the timing of her book, Sandberg anticipates the rise in bread-winning mothers in this chapter and addresses the kinds of practical adjustments couples face in sharing housework and parenting responsibilities when both husband and wife are bringing home the bacon.
This chapter engages today’s reality for families. Couples don’t all following the same road map in the choices they’re making about home, family, and work. Sandberg doesn’t pass judgment or pit one family’s choices against another. It may surprise some that she so strongly defends the contributions of stay-at-home moms, but she does.
“I also feel strongly that when a mother stays at home, her time during the day should still be considered real work—because it is. Raising children is at least as stressful and demanding as a paying job. ” (p.118)
If this chapter should cause anyone to squirm, it is probably husbands and dads. Yet, like Sandberg’s husband, more and more men understand they can’t have it all. They get the fact that a working wife and mother means figuring out new ways of parenting and sharing domestic responsibilities at home.
As she does in other chapters, Sandberg offers practical suggestions to manage this shift away from the traditional model. She cautions wives to avoid “maternal gatekeeping” (p.108) when husbands start to pitch in around the house. In other words, “let him put the diaper on the baby any way he wants so long as he’s doing it himself.” (p.109)
She and her husband find it helpful to decide which responsibilities each will take, instead of constantly negotiating tasks. (p.109) They’ve made it a practice to “sit down at the beginning of every week and figure out which one of us will drive our children to school every day,” describing her marriage as “a work in progress.” (p.111).
She argues rather convincingly that, far from taking a toll on children or depriving men of the freedom to kick back and relax when they get home, the partnership models is good for everyone. Kids get plenty of attention from both mom and dad, and dads (many who want this anyway) have greater opportunities and more time to invest themselves in the lives of their children. She even highlights stay-at-home dads (already 4 percent of parents) and the stigma attached to their decision. “Fathers who want to drop out of the workforce entirely and devote themselves to child care can face extremely negative social pressure…. It can be very isolating.” (p.114)
Benefits for working mothers are also significant.
“For women, earning money increases their decision-making ability in the home, protects them in case of divorce [I would add or the unemployment, disability or premature death of her husband] and can be important security in later years, as women often outlive their husbands.” (p.118)
The upshot of this chapter?
“As more women lean in to their careers, more men need to lean in to their families. We need to encourage men to be more ambitious in their homes.” (p.120)
I married a man who, from the age of seven, was raised by a single mom. That proved to be an unexpected blessing since my mother-in-law taught her four sons to pitch in around the house. Anyone who knows the James Gang wouldn’t dare call them “beta-boys” or would be sorry if they did.
From day 1 of our marriage, Frank ironed his own shirts and was quick to volunteer for laundry duty. To this day he rarely surrenders his post as dishwasher. During seminary, he even spent a year as a stay-at-home dad and came away from the experience agreeing with Sandberg: “Men who don’t get to do this are missing out!”
We never had that 50/50 conversation.
To be honest, I was relieved when Sandberg tossed the 50/50 idea as a worthy or even an attainable goal. I’ve always thought the 50/50 mentality sets couples up to keep score. The pendulum metaphor—reflected in her statement that “Each of us makes sure that things that need to get done do indeed get done”— seems to be a healthier, more flexible model and frees both husband and wife to do whatever is necessary to get the job done.
Overall, I liked this chapter. If anything, Sandberg is a realist. The world has changed. Women have changed. Our lives have changed. Inevitably, that means other changes will follow. She’s raising the right questions and offering helpful ideas for how to move forward.
Divvying up household chores, juggling parental responsibilities, and making sure we have enough bacon are important practical changes that may foster better teamwork. But they leave us talking logistics and fall short of producing the kind of deeper partnership that can make a marriage thrive.
Sandberg doesn’t take us far enough. But then, she probably never heard of the Blessed Alliance.
As I was thinking about “My Take” on this chapter, I had one of those conversations with Frank that reminds me of what a “real” partnership can be like. He was working on a project and started telling me about it. I was interested and began asking questions that sparked new thinking. It was one of those invigorating iron-sharpening-iron experiences where we enter into what the other other is doing, and something new and better comes from engaging one another.
In A Grief Observed, C.S. Lewis describes that kind of alliance—a real partnership/a deep friendship—as he lamented the death of his beloved wife Joy.
“For a good wife contains so many persons in herself. What was [she] not to me? She was my daughter and my mother, my pupil and my teacher, my subject and my sovereign; and always, holding all these in solution, my trusty comrade, friend, shipmate, fellow-soldier. My mistress, but at the same time all that any man friend (and I have good ones) has ever been to me. Perhaps more…. Did you ever know, dear, how much you took away with you when you left?”
So What’s Your Take?
What challenges have you faced (or watched other women face) as a breadwinner mom? In your experience, how are working mothers viewed in the church? How can we, as Christians, set a different tone in the career versus stay-at-home mom debate among us?
And more to the point, how can we make progress towards forging that Blessed Alliance in our marriages no matter where we work?
Lean in with your comments!
Previous Lean In Posts …
- Introduction: Women, Work and the Church
- Chapter 1: The Leadership Ambition Gap
- Chapter 2: Sit at the Table
- Chapter 3: Success and Likeability
- Chapter 4: It’s a Jungle Gym, Not a Ladder
- Chapter 5: Are You My Mentor?
- Chapter 6: Seek and Speak Your Truth
- Chapter 7: Don’t Leave Before You Leave
Other related posts …