It’s nice to say that working or not working is simply a matter of personal choice, but in reality it’s a highly gendered one — and one that puts women at a disadvantage when it comes to stability, equality and independence.
All of those factors push women in certain directions and men in others, and inevitably lead to inequality and resentment. Warner’s piece details it well: the wife opts out, only to find that her marriage starts to become a traditional one, with her husband expecting her to keep a perfect June Cleaver house in addition to taking care of the children. She’s resentful of that expectation, feeling like her contributions are under-valued and like he doesn’t find her descriptions of her days particularly stimulating. She knows that without her taking care of everything on the home front, he simply wouldn’t be able to succeed as highly and dedicate as much time to his career, but that goes largely unrecognized.
On the husband’s end, he doesn’t understand why he’s working 50-plus hours a week to financially support a grown woman as well as their children only to come home to the expectation that he do 50% of the housework and support his wife’s unpaid volunteer efforts. He’s resentful of the fact that his wife appears to have all the “choices” while he foots all the bills. Neither of them are unreasonable. Both of them are unhappy. Neither is a selfish monster.
When those relationships end in divorce, though, it’s largely the opting-out wife who’s left high and dry. A small segment of very wealthy women who volunteer on coveted boards in large cities can leverage their connections into full-time work. Most, though, find themselves with outdated resumes and a tough job market. And that’s not an entirely unfair situation. Fields change, jobs evolve and skill sets atrophy, and if you take a decade off of work it’s not reasonable to expect to come back in at the exact same position and with the same salary as you left.
In the meantime, though, the husbands with the privilege of wives who stay home have been able to dedicate even more time and energy to their jobs than husbands who by necessity have to pitch in more around the home. The men with at-home wives are the ones who are better situated to show up at the 7am meeting, attend the late client dinner or go to a networking event well into the evening. By the time they get divorced, they’ve already earned reputations as hard workers. What they’ve missed out on, though, is a life outside of the office and a chance to cultivate deep and life-changing relationships with their partner and children. It’s a tired cliche at this point, but few people on their death beds wish they’d spent more time at work.
In other words: the current model, where women are much more likely to drop out of the workforce, is bad for everyone. But it’s particularly financially perilous for women. Unfortunately, that advice doesn’t tend to resonate, because few people believe they’ll end up divorced. Even outside of divorce, though, opting out of paid work entirely and making oneself financially dependent on a male partner inherently puts women in a traditional role. For better or worse we live in a capitalist society, and money is power.
For large swaths of the American population, this entire conversation is non-issue: most people, female or male, have to work to support themselves, and “opting out” isn’t an option. But for those who do have a “choice,” it’s worth evaluating what’s sacrificed when one decides to assume complete financial dependency on a partner. And it’s worth evaluating the circumstances that lead one to decide such dependency is a desirable thing. Is it an inflexible job? The assumption that childcare is your primary duty? A partner who simply isn’t pulling his weight?