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Staying Home (or "Opting Out") Won't Save Your Marriage

This week, the New York Times has yet another article about the dynamics of managing careers, marriage, and parenting. In The Opt-Out Generation Wants Back In by Judith Warner looks at what happened to women who ended up leaving their careers to stay home

Talking about one (now divorced) mom's situation, Warner wrote:

Even with the reduced schedule, the stresses of life in a two-career household put an overwhelming strain on her marriage. There were ugly fights with her husband about laundry and over who would step in when the nanny was out sick.

“ ‘All this would be easier if you didn’t work,’ ” O’Donnel recalled her husband saying. “I was so stressed,” she told me. “I said, ‘This is ridiculous.’ We’d made plenty of money. We’d saved plenty of money.” She quit her job, trading in a life of business meetings, client dinners and commissions for homework help, a “dream house” renovation and a third pregnancy. “I really thought it was what I had to do to save my marriage,” she said.

But the tensions in her marriage didn’t improve. The couple’s long-term issues of anger, jealousy and control got worse as O’Donnel’s dependency grew and a sense of personal dislocation set in. Without a salary or an independent work identity, her self-confidence plummeted.

"All of this would be easier if you didn't work" -- those words jumped out at me. The assumption that SHE needed to be the one to change something. The assumption that if someone was going to stop working, it was going to be HER. The fact of HIM telling HER what would be easier. Even before she quit her job, the inequity was evident. That was perhaps partly an inequity in their marriage and partly the inequity of the patriarchy overall, which suggests that women need to balance their career and their family, while men just keep on working the same hours and climbing the corporate ladder whether they have children or not.

In a healthy marriage with true equality, I can't imagine the conversation going that way. We once faced this situation, when our son was clearly not happy being put into daycare at twelve months old. But it was a conversation about our jobs, our financial needs, our professional happiness (or lack thereof), our parenting goals. Our, our, our. Which, ultimately led to my partner leaving a not-so-stimulating job with a horrible commute to stay home while I worked full-time.

We had always split the housework before we had children and continued to split much of it even when he was at home and I was at work, although there may have been some shifts in who did the heavy lifting in some of our shared tasks (like laundry). I didn't suddenly assume he would have dinner waiting for me when I got home, when I'd been the one to do the cooking before he started staying home.

Now, with both of our children in school full-time, he's also started working full-time again. Would it be "easier" if one of us didn't work? Perhaps, but we know how to work things out, to balance things, to share the load, or to let the less important things slide (no, we haven't finished unpacking from our vacation several weeks ago).

So why, when women stay home, does the slide into traditional gender roles become permanent inequality? In the article, Warner writes:

The husbands hadn’t turned into ogres. Their intent was not to make their wives feel lesser. But when traditional gender arrangements were put into place, there was a subtle slide into inequality. [...] But once she started working again, the expectations remained the same. “There just doesn’t seem to be a way to go back,” she said.

Is there no way back? I hope that's not the case. I think that the same type of conversation that should happen before someone decides to stay home (about "us" and "our", not about one person telling the other) should also happen on a continuous basis and certainly happen when anything changes.

Communication, after all, is a critical part of any marriage, as is compromise and helping your partner out.  I'm sick of talking about women opting out or balancing or having it all or leaning in. I'd like to talk about how to get more men engaged in the conversation so that it isn't always about the women.

Image credit: iLikePhotos! on flickr.

« Breastfeeding and Low Supply: Common and Surprising Causes and Solutions | Main | Back to School = Back to Gender Roles »

Reader Comments (23)

Yes!!! This: " But when traditional gender arrangements were put into place, there was a subtle slide into inequality. [...] But once she started working again, the expectations remained the same. “There just doesn’t seem to be a way to go back,” she said."

Sadly, I've been thinking the EXACT same thing. I didn't exactly choose to stay home (was laid off after my first maternity leave and have freelanced since), but now I see no way back into the workforce full-time onsite w/o feeling like _I_ am the one suddenly dumping the kids into full-time daycare/after-school care. And I suspect if I DID return to a full-time job outside the home, I'd still be in charge of All The Stuff (food, mostly--buying, cooking, keeping track of, storing, making sure everyone is fed all the time). And all the medical appointments, forms, sorting winter/summer clothing...all the crap that's somehow become MY area of expertise.

August 8, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterIt's Not Like a Cat

My husband and I both work full-time. We have talked a lot about expectations, housework and managing our schedules. That communication has got to be there. My husband took up a lot of the housework when I was nursing the girls. Now we split grocery duty, but he still does most of the dinner cooking. We talk to each other on the weekends about what we want to get done (ie cleaning, outside house projects, etc.). It helped cut down on the minor arguments we used to have about laundry and dishes.

August 8, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJenny

@It's Not Like a Cat:

Is it not something you could have a conversation with your spouse about? I.e. both about your desire to find your way back into the workforce and also the need for new arrangements on the home front if you did? As I said, I think communication is key.

August 8, 2013 | Registered Commenterphdinparenting

I just read the original article and kept thinking, "These couples need to sit down and have a talk about splitting the chores..." Roles shift and change and you need to have a way to talk about them and figure out new ways to make things work. If something isn't working for one or both members of the household, then that needs to be addressed. "There just doesn't seem to be a way to go back" that only seems true if your spouse is a jerk who refuses to re-evaluate how you do things as a couple/family.

The other thing I keep thinking of when reading these articles where the premise seems to be, "Look at these women who decided to stay at home and now regret their choice because they can't find work again!" is that many of these issues would go away or get a lot better if we actually VALUED care work. Maybe many of the stay-at-home parents who struggle with their feelings of worth (or lack thereof) wouldn't feel that way if we viewed at-home parenting as a worthwhile occupation rather than "time off" for "self-discovery." And maybe transitioning back into the workplace could be a bit easier if that time and the skills used while at-home could be valued as worthwhile rather than just a blank gap in your resume. It feels like individual women are being punished and fingers wagged at us for what is really a fundamental problem with our whole society.

(and this particular article in NYT isn't THAT bad, at least they specifically call out that many of the mothers they interviewed do NOT regret their time out of the workforce, but in so many of these articles there seems to be such a tone of "opting out is a dumb choice")

August 8, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterMarcy

"But when traditional gender arrangements were put into place..."

The original article totally misses the point - gender roles weren't put into place when she left paid work, she left paid work because those gender roles were already in place within her marriage. Like you said, why was it expected that SHE would leave work? Because (I read from this) it was understood (by her husband at least) that the home and kids were HER responsibility to begin with and SHE couldn't fulfill HER duties while working.

August 8, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterKrissyFair

"I'm sick of talking about women opting out or balancing or having it all or leaning in." Me, too. Some of this seems to be about having to be an adult. If I were not married, or married without kids, my house would still need to be cleaned and dinner made. These discussions kind of wear me out. Really, if you value your work (either at home or outside of the home) and you are comfortable with whatever you've arranged with your partner, then what more is there to say?

August 8, 2013 | Unregistered Commentermira

Definitely, Marcy. I think both men and women who take time off to stay at home and then want to return to the workplace end up being punished for it, both in terms of their resumes (what's that gap? why no recent experience?) and in terms of missed networking opportunities and simply no longer being top of mind when a job comes up.

August 8, 2013 | Registered Commenterphdinparenting

Absolutely, Krissy! 100%

August 8, 2013 | Registered Commenterphdinparenting

@mira: I think the challenge is that many people are not comfortable with whatever they've arranged with their partner and they simply grin and bear it until they can no longer bear it. Respectful two-way dialogue (being an adult, as you said!) is important to ensuring that everyone is comfortable with the arrangements or that if someone isn't comfortable with them that there is a plan or end in sight to those arrangements (life isn't always perfect, but we can get through the rough spots together...).

August 8, 2013 | Registered Commenterphdinparenting

Well said! When my husband and I had this conversation, we took a look at our finances and which one of us should quit our job to stay at home. It made the most sense financially for him to quit and become a SAHD while I worked full-time. And it's a "reversal of roles" as society would term it. He cleans, does most of the dishes, cooks dinner, etc. But that works for us. Some may term it emasculating, but marriage is a partnership, as is parenting. At the end of the day, gender roles aside, we had to look at what was best for our family AND our child.

August 8, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterAshley

Yes to all of this post. My husband and I have shared chores since the beginning of our marriage and each of us has had a turn at being a stay at home parent. If women (and men) don't want to live like "Leave it to Beaver" they need to speak up to their spouse.

August 8, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterOlivia

i always find these discussions interesting. i "opted out" from the beginning. i have always been at home with the kids but in that, we ( my husband and i ) have found a balance. there is only inequality if you allow inequality in. the marriage described in the article sounded challenged from the beginning.
even with our traditional roles being clearly defined ( our choice ), in the years we have been married and raising our children, roles have shifted and changed as our family and relationship has. that is what couples/families/partners do.
the slow anger, from not dealing with those little, building inequities can not be allowed to grow in a healthy relationship.

August 8, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterangela

How do you know she didn't also suggest to him it would be easier if he stopped working? Yes, he said it to her, and to you that seems unfair. But maybe she said the same thing to him, which is equally unfair.

August 8, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterStopMakingAssumptions

angela wrote: "there is only inequality if you allow inequality in"

I don't agree. I don't think that (many) relationships start equal because society is not equal. In fact, there are so many, many, many social and institutional pressures that support patriarchy, it is an exhausting, endless battle to achieve anything resembling gender-equality in opposite-sex partnerships. It is no wonder than many couples surrender. Often the arrival of children or a leave from the paid workforce is the straw.

August 9, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterKaren L

We could certainly have a conversation about it, or several. My husband isn't a slacker; he works hard at home (laundry, cleaning, etc.), but I'm still the one "in charge" of everything...the house manager. Shifting out of that role would be really, really hard. We could talk 'til we're blue in the face, but even if we did shift things somewhat, it would still come down to me. Me in charge. Me delegating. Etc.

August 9, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterIt's Not Like a Cat

Yes. Gah. I read a secondary commentary in The Guardian yesterday and can't quite understand why everyone seems to be writing about this issue as though it was crisp, clean and cookie cutter results for all. It absolutely comes down to communication and the type of marriage you have in the first place (of course insert privilege in here as well).

August 9, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterLyndsay

The inequity in the assumption that SHE had to be the one 'doing something about it' was like a kick in the teeth.

Other women - friends, relatives, colleagues - living out 'traditional' married/together lives tell me how 'lucky' I am.

But 'luck' implies that what I have - equality within my long relationship - is a luxury, not a right.

We married young. Cared for his disabled father in our shared home. Had five children. Kept the house. Studied. Worked f/t. Shared what money we had in a communal family pot.

Maybe it's very buttoned-up Scottish but we've not discussed how or why or who - not once. Just got on. When I was at home for babies he'd come home from his working day and load the washing machine or change the baby or amuse the others or make some food or... If there was a fight (early doors when I was pregnant ) it was over getting him to relinquish a few tasks to make me feel 'useful'...

Of course, there are tasks that we've simply adopted. He only passed his driving test two years ago - so the role of 'principal driver' is mine. I clean better but he tidies best. I change plugs and sockets and repair electrical things. He hangs the wallpaper, cleans the cars, does the garden.

If I took the bigger share of early years childcare it's because a) financial reality that his career was already established (he's older than me - and I was doing a second degree) and b) I wanted a min 6 months f/t with each of them.

Maybe we didn't have 'conversations' about who, what, when , where, why because we already knew very well what our Politics about equality were. We were fighting the same political battles. Why would our private not reflect our public?

There's been a mismatch from the start - something as basic as who looks after the kids or who does the ironing is not the cause of marital breakdown - it's the underlying assumptions, the worldview you entered into the relationship with that cause that breakdown.

August 10, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterYvonne

@Marcy I agree, I find it frustrating that when we care for parents or children ourselves it doesn't reflect as a tangible contribution in a country's economy. Yet if I look after a neighbour's child for pay, all of a sudden it counts towards the GDP.

You quickly get the message that even if it's hard work making productive future members of society out of your children, society does not value your efforts, at least in a monetary sense. That has got to change, some how.

August 10, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterAmy

A few generations before the opt out generation that now wants back in were the Real Housewives of the Cold War.
The mid-century housewife knew in her heart - because all the magazines confirmed it to be so- that love, marriage and children was The career for women. My own mother Betty would follow in the footsteps of another Betty, Betty Crocker, seemingly satisfied in her role as housewife and mother. But in the fall of 1960 another magazine article appeared in Good Housekeeping questioning the role of women. It wouldn't be until 1963 when the article's author Betty Friedan's book the Feminine Mystique appeared.The problem that had no name was so unfathomable to many homemakers at the time no one even thought they had a problem. It was buried as deeply as our missiles underground and would cause the same explosion when they were released. For a look at the real housewives of the Cold War visit


August 10, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterSally Edelstein

So spot on in your analysis, as always.

I would so love to see an article about men's "work/life balance." About what it would take for men to "have it all." About the role of care work in a "fulfilling life."

And as you wisely point out, getting men more involved in the conversation seem to be key.

August 13, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterKristen

I agree we have to get men involved in the conversation. I also believe that these are things a couple should start talking about once they are making a decision to start a family.

My husband and I both have jobs with little flexibility. Mostly we have dealt with that by working different hours. It isn't the ideal solution, but it has helped us avoid a lot of situations where we wonder what we'd do with a sick kid etc.

One thing that doesn't get talked about much is what people do who don't have as much flexibility in their jobs. Not everyone can go to their boss and have the expectation they'll carve out a schedule that is more family friendly..that is the case for both my husband and I, who both have healthcare related jobs.

One other thing I think women who are thinking about pursuing a long term relationship with a man and possibly having kids is to assess the amount of buy in he has to the idea of having an equal marriage. I used to think that the majority of men were open to such an idea, that women just needed to have the conversation with their spouses. Now I am not so sure, after having peeked around in the "manosphere" a bit. If the buy-in to the idea of equal parenting isn't there to start with, it will be a much tougher road.

August 15, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterKate

YES! What Kate said. Where are the discussions about creating a flexible work life for as many professions as we can. My husband in in human healthcare, and I was a veterinarian. No flexibility to either job, no set end-time to go home each day. It was untenable. I opted out because there was not way really either profession would make raising kids a sane experience. Flexible jobs for me would be tough to find without any seniority, we had no family help either, and my job didn't earn enough to make it worthwhile if we had more than one kid (which we did). There needs to be a bigger conversation about valuing family and creating balance for all. Denmark has done it, we can too.

August 29, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterAmy

I highly recommend Bridgid Schulte's 'Overwhelmed: Work, Love and Play when No one has the Time.' She takes care to approach the issue as far as both women AND men are concerned.

August 29, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterDenise

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