Monday, February 15, 2010

Modern Marriages of Convenience

We are in the middle of major renovations at my house right now. Unfortunately nothing fancy — more like a getting back to zero scenario (sealed walls, doors that close, upgrading the 70s mushroom brown paint, though that won’t stop me downing a few glasses of serious bubbly when it’s done).

As a result, we currently have no internet access at home. We have been spending our nights, once the kids are asleep (on the loungeroom floor), listening to the radio and painting walls. It has been strangely cosy and kind of a relief to be barred from the computer for a while.

The only downside is that I keep hearing things on the radio I’d like to comment on without the time, or easy means, to post something.

One subject I seem to keep hearing (and thinking) about is the issue of mothers judging other mothers. I am flagging that up as something I want to write about.

But more urgently—despite being about six months late on this one—I recently listened to the repeat of Megan Basham talking on RN’s Life Matters about her book, Beside Every Successful Man.

It could be seen as one of a spate of post-feminist books coming out of the US over the past decade about “modern marriages”.

You can read an article I wrote for Arena Magazine back in 2004 on this subject here.

Also, definitely listen to Monica Dux's great follow-up comments.

Basham is arguing that, since most mothers are choosing not to work full time, they may as well shift their focus on to supporting their husband’s career, as this makes economic sense all round.

Hers is the kind of conservatism that can dress itself up as pure “reasonable-ness”.

She seems flabbergasted that anyone would feel troubled by what she sees as a simple idea: the idea that you help your husband’s career so that more money is flowing in for the whole family.

We all know that statistics show most mothers of young children choose to stay at home, at least part time. This in itself is not in itself a controversial notion (though the basis for that choice can be very complex).

It is Basham’s leap to the idea of exploiting the “marriage premium”, as it’s called, that is so disturbing.

Her “supporting your husband” idea is based on “personal experience” (ie. as a woman surrounded by other women married to men with high earning capacities) and economic data that shows the presence of a “wife” at home has a positive impact on a man’s professional success and income.

The economic argument is a no-brainer. This is the division of labour that has traditionally characterised the neo-liberal economy. But at whose expense?

Hasn’t she watched Mad Men lately?

Basham quotes data that shows a man with wife at home will make 20–60% more than single man with the same job/credentials. The more hours a wife works, the smaller that marriage premium, or “advantage” becomes, she says.

She calls this teamwork.

This is surely the most expedient notion of teamwork I have ever encountered. Instead of a partnership being about individual growth and development, it’s about privileged couples milking the current system to suit their economic ends — no matter the impact on women generally.

She says women who do want to work full time and get to the highest levels should be able to, without a glass ceiling preventing her — but she doesn’t acknowledge that her argument is one of the very ideas that creates such ceilings.

It is all about encouraging an economic system that sees people get ahead by working long hours, unimpeded by family responsibilities — the very thing feminists have been trying to transform for three decades.

It is this deeper, underlying conservatism that poses the real danger for women. Along with the whole tone of the argument: men and women reverting to their most traditional roles; leading separate, if mutually serviceable, lives.

Personally I don’t want to be at home all day alone with the kids from 7am till 9pm and a husband we only see on weekends, sacrificing my own interests to his career purely so that he can make us some more money.

Is that really what life is all about? Is that the life my mother fought for me to have?

After all that, you better hope he won’t leave you for a younger model…

11 comments:

genevieve said...

...or that she won't wake up to the fact that she's trapped, go back to school or Provence, get a job and leave you! or be openly furious you are not involved with the children, etc etc. Yep, it cuts both ways.
Most of us know without reading Ruth Park (whose wise mother told her to be sure she could earn a crust) that all our children should be taught to look after themselves financially, in case anything at all happens - and that that does not mean 'marry someone with dollars'. Great post, Rachel. We are about to go through our old paint crap in our shed - I remember doing what you're doing, and dammit, it's nearly time to bloody well do it again.

Christine McCombe said...

And I also couldn't help relating this to a doco on SBS last night - The Love of Money - Sunday @ 9.30pm. This looked at the collapse of Lehman Brothers in the US in 2008 and the preceding craziness. I just thought of all the supportive wives egging on their fabulously wealthy husbands to the acquisition of even more wealth, at someone else's expense. Yes, we need more of that. Excess Wealth and Greed - are NOT good. And yet again, it is as though feminism never happened.

D said...

yes. again I agree with you.

on a more general social level women who support their husbands careers tend to stand out at a morning tea or general mum get together on account of their perspective and how they speak of their self, or rather don't speak of their self unless it's in relation to child or husband. I find this a little sad; very sad.

recently I was doing a mamma tea at a friend's house and there were maybe 5 or 6 of us; all great women. one of the lovely ladies kind of helps her husband's business out and has good and reasonable intentions to keep on doing so. I think it makes perfect sense on the surface.

as the tea and cake event rolled on i noticed that as talk moved from small talk to children talk to life and the larger world talk the woman I write of could only refer to the working world through her husband's experience. while we were all talking about the child/work challenge she simply didn't understand it and spoke about her husband almost as if she were too his professional experience, but in reality she spoke of what he told her, not from what she knew. she is clever and sharp and I couldn't help but feel a bit disappointed that the world was missing out on finding out who she was going to become and what she was going to give.

I suppose my point is that I felt sad for her. though it seems like a good idea to support daddy now so that the moolar moves in, but what of the future? what of the now, the capacity to pull and tear away at your own active public life and the gold it brings you personally? what of independent challenge and it's inner reward?

watching a woman support her husband in his work is on one hand very sensible and the other completely gutting because of the vacuum created around the Woman's Potential; conversationally she is even partially absent ...

tricky subject.

Damon Young said...

Rachel, what does your ideal family & work life look like?

I don't mean your Grand Plan for Everyone, I just mean your own ideal.

And have you achieved it? Close? Far away?

cristy said...

Yes, yes, yes! I hate the idea that it could be considered a good thing to promote such a lack of work/life balance that will continue to make more equal partnerships so difficult.

And on a personal level - what kind of economic leverage does that leave a woman with? It is pretty hard to negotiate changes in a marriage when you really don't have the freedom to leave with throwing yourself into poverty due to a complete lack of work experience etc. This is not only problematic for women in marriages that they need to leave (be they abusive or whatever), but also for women who need to have the capacity to genuinely threaten to leave unless things get better.

Finally, of course, there is the personal fulfillment stuff that you also mentioned. I'd wager that there really aren't that many women who would feel as though they were living with any real passion etc. if their dominant role was one of support crew.

Frances said...

Rachel: Society is moving inexorably in the direction that you seem to want, but may I suggest that you also keep an eye on what kind of society you want your daughter to inherit?
Motherhood continues to be devalued, and the poorer a woman is, the less right she has to raise and nurture her babies.
For example, according to this article in "The New Yorker"
http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2009/01/19/090119fa_fact_lepore
breast feeding is out and lactation is in. That is, that universities, high-end businesses as well as low, have "lactation centres", where women can plug in their breast pumps to express milk, rather than be stuck at home breast feeding. Yes, industry can get you back to work for them from day one, and will inexorably pressure women to do so. Drop the baby and back to the paddy field.
I suggest that keeping your eye on your daughter's right to mother, rather than just give birth, is an important issue, as this right has hugely dwindled over the last 40 years.

little red hen said...

Or even an older one as recently happened to a friend of mine after 29and a half years of marriage. She bore and raised his 4 children, gave up her career and moved state to support his career- Yes they were very well off and live in a beautiful house in a posh suburb (often making me feel inadequate at the modest house I own in a fairly descent suburb) but now she is left having been out of the work force for 18 years in her supporting role, single and doing photocopying in a private school, a job well below her capabilities but she has little choice after so long bolstering his career, raising the kids, being involved in the school and being a professional full time mother and housewife. What's more she has very little super... and although she is asset rich she has little money and not the means to earn it.
One does not want to think of the worse case scenario but boy it happens often enough.

Kirsten said...

Eek, I've heard about this book in general terms, but hadn't actually gotten around to finding out what it was all about.

But... "to be at home all day alone with the kids from 7am till 9pm and a husband we only see on weekends, sacrificing my own interests to his career purely so that he can make us some more money." - Me neither! And for that matter, neither would Chris. The deal is I get to work part-time as long as he does too (or he does as long as I do too, whichever way you want to look at it).

It's interesting if Basham really doesn't see how her argument becomes part of the problem limiting women's options.

Rachel Power said...

Wow--I've had such great responses to this post!
Yes, I think giving up your professional/creative interests to bolster your husband's is dangerous on all sorts of levels--financial, emotional, psychological...
Basham bases this research on the stats that say most women would like to work less and be at home more, given the choice. But if you dig a little bit deeper, it would be interesting to see what variables that's based on. And how many men do you think would say the same? What would the answer be if this question was posed: What would be your ideal work/life balance scenario regarding both you and your partner (if you have one)? Exactly the question Damon is asking above!
It's the couples, like Damon and Ruth, and like Kirsten and Chris, who seem to have that balance worked out, even if it means less money.

Rachel Power said...

Sorry, what I meant to say is it's the couples who both work part-time... Sheesh, it's the 3pm brain-dead hour.

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