An experiment in equality


At first, the plan seemed flawless. After my husband's layoff in 2008, we agreed to the following: He would spend the mornings job hunting and working on an internet start-up while I homeschooled our six children and started dinner preparations. In the afternoons he would take over with the kids while I wrote.

Previous to this arrangement, I was the traditional stay-at-home mom, Ian the traditional breadwinner. The recession seemed the perfect petri dish in which to test a different lifestyle. Ian could bond with the kids and enjoy as best he could a bit of mid-career downtime. I could give legs to some writing dreams I'd carried since college. For once, we would be "equals," each of us providing part-time income, while spending equivalent time with our children.

According to the feministic ideal that purports-in effect, that women aren't equal with men unless they are making as much money as men are-such an arrangement should have been nirvana for a formerly oppressed housewife like me.

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A recently released Pew Research Center study on marriage contains one section dealing with today's economic changes within marriage. According to the study, 62 percent of people think that a good marriage is one where the wife works outside the home. This is up from 1978 where less than 50 percent felt this way. Not surprisingly, the number of women working outside the home has also increased. A higher percentage of female college graduates is part of the reason. More men are marrying women who can support themselves. But women who are financially viable are less willing to stay in an unhappy marriage than they were back in the days where they depended on a man's income to survive. A Time magazine article about the Pew study illustrates this point with the following scenario: The doctor who used to marry his nurse is now marrying a fellow doctor. Economic equality is, according to Time, making "deft negotiation skills" imperative when it comes to splitting household chores.

Although the Pew survey reports the statistics, it doesn't tell much about the actual workings out of arrangements where both spouses are full-time breadwinners. There's no doubt some couples can make it work, like one husband-wife doctor team here in Wichita who equally split both their workdays and their childcare responsibilities.

But I can't help wondering if something gets lost in the shuffle in such situations. My experience in being an "equal" with my husband was, ahem, less than ideal. Perhaps one can argue that we never completely abandoned our traditional expectations of each other (he still expected dinner and I wanted the garage spiffy), which may be true, but I'm still not convinced both people in the marriage can work full time, even from home, without something having to give.

For us that something was-depending on the day-either our relationship or our sanity. The kids had their chores, but who makes dinner? The one who oversaw the kids' afternoon activities and ran the errands or the one who homeschooled them all morning and was supposed to be "working" in the afternoon? Most of what we do all day doesn't fit into a neat chore chart divided into eight equal sections. When both parents are home, who does the disciplining? Who mediates a fight between two boys, the mom on official duty or the dad who needs to knock some sense into them? Who tends to the crying 8-year-old girl, the father in charge or the mother who is working upstairs, but who knows the child needs her and her alone?

We may be, as a country, redefining marriage, but such a redefinition doesn't necessarily equate to more successful and fulfilling unions. I'm waiting for the 2020 Pew report to reveal that such experiments were, despite their initial blush of promise, unmitigated failures. I know ours was. When my husband started working a couple of months ago, the ballast of the family shifted for the better within the first hour he was on the job. Rules now came from one mouth, not two, making follow-through with disciplinary measures not only easier on the parent in charge, but also more predictable to the children, who for two years had both my husband and I thinking the other was in charge. A clear line of demarcation has been reestablished. Best of all, he can now work without the interruption of a house full of rambunctious kids. And I am, once again, queen of my castle and can load the dishwasher whichever way I want.


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