In Sunday’s paper, The New York Times reported on a rising phenomenon: Powerful female financial executives who are abetted by husbands willing to “stay at home” and be the primary caretakers of the couples’ children. “These bankers make up a small but rapidly expanding group, benefiting from what they call a direct link between their ability to achieve and their husbands’ willingness to handle domestic duties,” report Jodi Kantor and Jessica Silver-Greenberg. “The number of women in finance with stay-at-home spouses has climbed nearly tenfold since 1980, according to an analysis of census data, and some of the most successful women in the field are among them.”
It’s a reversal, in other words, of the stereotypical Wall Street—and, for that matter, American—marriage. And because more fathers are becoming primary caretakers and more women are becoming primary breadwinners, these dads could be read as canaries in the suburban coal mine. But ultimately, the roads these families live on are the exact opposite of revolutionary: The parents’ roles are reversed, but the structure is unchanged.
In the world the article depicts, gender roles remain entrenched, with the greater psychic toll exacted upon the men, who are shut out of many woman-dominated leisure and communal childrearing activities, and who experience what can only be termed self-esteem issues as they walk around knowing their wives support them and indeed make a helluva lot more than they ever could. “Other fathers in similar situations say they often tell white lies: They are retired, they are consultants, they work at home,” the reporters note.
Clinging to increasingly outdated gender stereotypes, as these men do, is bad for all the obvious reasons. But decrying these men’s inability to get beyond them doesn’t seem that productive, and not only because the women in the article share them (“I wish I had a wife,” one of the women complains). These stereotypes, no less than the economic fundamentals that are upending them, are facts on the ground, probably changeable only over a generation or more (and, of course, only after the good guys win the Daddy Wars). It also isn’t that productive because these men do not represent broader trends. Indeed, they barely represent anything. The article itself describes this new reality as “Wall Street-specific,” and even on Wall Street, according to the reporters, fewer than two percent of married women have stay-at-home spouses.
So here, by contrast, is what the future is going to look like in the context of two-parent homes: Both parents working and childrearing, due to greater unemployment among men following the recession, a general squeezing of the non-super-wealthy (which will require more than one stream of paychecks to keep families living in what we understand as middle-class comfort), and changing mores. This is a good thing! It is obviously more equitable. And besides, both men and women want to spend more time with their kids, and short of the classless utopia, the only way that is going to happen is if both parents work and if work provides greater flexibility and sympathy for parents.
The top echelon of finance, meanwhile, is one of the few worlds left where this isn’t true: Where not only can one breadwinner support a family in much comfort, but where that breadwinner can’t do it without someone to bake the bread back home. “Many discovered,” the reporters write of their subjects, “that even with babysitting and household help, the demands of working in finance made a two-career marriage impossible.” Indeed, in this elite world, the largest stigma is reserved neither for hard-charging breadwinner moms nor for stay-at-home dads, but rather for women whose husbands also work fulltime. “Being the breadwinner often means being taken more seriously in the workplace,” the reporters relate. “When one former banker was interviewing at a private equity firm, she said her prospective employers wanted to know what her husband did and seemed pleased that he had a low-paying but flexible job and handled more parenting duties.”
This is gross. Jobs are ultimately supposed to benefit the people who do them. They should not require the type of hours, effort, and rigid schedules that make the existence of a partner who doesn’t have a job a practical prerequisite. The men and women in this article are not leading indicators. They’re anachronisms.
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