My husband is not an inherently sexist man. When we were dating, one of the most appealing things about him was his belief and commitment to equality. He loved, and still loves, empowered women. But in that moment, I realized my bargaining power (my “threat point”) when it came to the housework, the kids, the myriad of demands of home and family, had been significantly reduced. Somehow after I had changed my life from work-first to family-first and my paycheck shrank in proportion to his, I became the thing my mother had warned me against: a housewife.
I am not alone. Many of the women I interviewed were blindsided by how their seemingly equal marriages became lopsided seesaws once they paused their careers. When we asked Women on the
Rise survey respondents what compromises they had to make to pause, many of them shared they took on all of the burdens of the household when they left their jobs.
“My husband’s career was so demanding I was forced to take on all of the household responsibilities. So much for equality,” one wrote.
Sue Tachna, a member of my Not-So-New Mothers Group, thought she and her husband Steve had it figured out after their first son was born. Both committed feminists, they agreed to split the housework and child care down the middle.
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Steve was working as a high-tech consultant and Sue was working in communications for a pharmaceutical company. Her job required extensive face time, but Steve was able to create his own hours. He staggered his schedule so that three mornings a week he stayed home with the baby and then worked from mid-day late into the evening. Sue was in charge of night-time duty on those days. Their son Daniel was in day care the other two days a week.
“It seemed like a perfect solution, but we were always exhausted and our work demands kept getting in the way,” Sue told me. So they both “leaned in” and put Daniel in full-time day care. Sue didn’t enjoy her job so she found a new one, hoping that would solve her dissatisfaction. She still wasn’t inspired by the work, but they needed the money. When she became pregnant with their second son, Avi, Sue had had enough. They agreed to rework their finances so Sue could work part-time.
“Steve loved his job and I didn’t. It seemed to make perfect sense for me to be the one to step down for a while,” Sue said. Steve’s career started to take off and the family’s financial situation improved, so Sue stopped working outside the home altogether. She, too, became what she least wanted to be: a housewife.
Sue can laugh about it now. She’s since found the work she loves and feels she was always destined to do: She’s an elementary school science teacher. But those years when she and her husband fell into a more traditional marital structure, Sue pondered if you could truly be a feminist if you gave up your economic independence. Today Sue is more resolved about their life choices. She says, “We are living the traditional thing, but we’re not traditional thinkers.”
In situations like Sue and Steve’s, the first power shift in a marriage often happens when one person’s career takes priority and that person becomes the primary breadwinner. The second shift happens when the person who paused reengages her career and suddenly she is not focused on the needs of the family anymore. The women I interviewed told me again and again it was challenging for the family to adjust to their new roles now that they were back in the workforce.
When you pause your career and then again when you relaunch it, the dynamics will change in your marriage and in your family. Be conscious of how your actions and choices align with the reigning ideas about gender roles and be conscious of the inevitable guilt that comes when a mother puts her goals and dreams first.