EMOTIONAL PATHWAYS OF GENDER STRATEGIES
We not only adopt ideologies and feeling rules about dividing the work at home, we pursue gender strategies—persistent lines of feeling and acdon
through which we reconcile our gender ideology with arising situations. Thus, our acts of emotion management are not randomly distributed across situations and time; they are guided by an aim. This aim is to sustain a certain gendered ego ideal, to be, for example, a “cookies-and-milk mom” or an “aim-for-the-top career woman” or something else. And this aim also sustains a certain ideal balance of power and division of labor between husband and wife. If we understand ourselves not simply as people but as pursuers of gender strategies, and if we attune ourselves to the feeling rules that guide them, we can see a certain pattern in how feelings clash with rules and in which feelings need managing. Often our gender strategy corresponds to what we consider our “real self.” Who—as a man or a woman—we are trying to be fits who we think we really are. We may also find our gender strategy curiously at odds with our “real self.” Or we may be only vaguely aware or totally unaware of our gender strategies and of the conflicts they pose for our “true self.”
A gender strategy is a “strategy of action” in Ann Swidler’s sense of a conscious or unconscious plan for what to do. But a gender strategy is also a strategy about how to feel When we actively evoke and suppress various feelings we also clear a preparatory emotional pathway for our actions. We try to change how we feel to fit how we must feel in order to pursue a given course of action.
In the way they divided housework and childcare and in the way they felt about it, the couples I studied reflected long-term gender strategies. A few working mothers had always shared the work at home with their husbands and tried to maintain the arrangement of stabilized equity. Those who had not always shared did one of two things. They pressed their husbands to do more work at home, or they didn’t. Some wives who tried to get their husbands to do more at home pressed in an active, direct way—by persuasion, reminding, argument, or sometimes a you-share-this-work-or-else showdown (a strategy of active change). Other wives pressed their husbands in passive or indirect ways, “played dumb” or got “sick,” forcing their husbands to take on a larger load at home. Some women increased the cost of not helping out by emotionally isolating their husbands or losing sexual interest in them because they were “too tired.”
Other working mothers kept most of the responsibility and work of the home for themselves. They became “supermoms,” working long hours at their jobs and keeping their children (who napped during the afternoon at daycare) up late at night to give them attention. Some working mothers reduced their time, effort, or commitment to their jobs, their housework, their children and husbands, managing their overload through some combination of cuts.
To prepare the way for her behavioral strategy, the working mother created a certain emotional pathway for it. She tried to feel what it would be
useful to feel in order to follow her line of action. For example, a few women confronted—or almost confronted—their husbands with an ultimatum: “Either you share the responsibility for tasks at home with me or I leave/’ To go through with this showdown, the woman had to rivet her attention on the injustice of the unfair load she carried and dwell on its importance to her. She distanced herseH from all she would otherwise feel for her husband and suspended her empathy for his situation. She steeled herself against his resistance. One working mother described how she approached her husband:
I’d had it. I was wiped out. And he was getting his squash game in like before the baby came. So 1 steeled myself. I prepared myself. 1 told him, “This can’t go on.” … I figured if he couldn’t show me that consideration, he didn’t love me. I’d had it. I mean marriages end like this.
Other working mothers avoided steeling themselves by using indirect means, developing incompetencies at home and drawing their husbands into the work by “needing help” paying the bills or driving a car. Their task was to maintain self-esteem by distancing themselves from the helpless image they had cultivated. Working mothers who cut back on their hours of work often prepared themselves for this move beforehand by trying to suppress or alter their feelings about work and its meaning for their identity. Despite this anticipatory emotional work, one highly successful businesswoman with an M. B.A., who quit her job to consult part-time, felt naked in public without the status shield of her professional role. As she explained it, “I used to be so gung-ho at work. But I just decided I had to put that aside while my kids are young. It was much harder than I thought, though, especially when I’m walking in the supermarket and other people think I’m just a housewife. I want to shout at them, T have an M. B.A.! I have an M. B.A.!’ ” Other working mothers clung to their work commitments but relinquished their former concern about how the house should look or meals should taste. Interpreting the look of the house as a personal reflection on themselves, traditional women felt embarrassed when the house looked messy. On the other hand, egalitarian women tried not to care how the house looked, some priding themselves on how little they noticed the mess, how dirt no longer “got to them,” how far beyond embarrassment they were.
More important than cutting back on housework, working mothers sometimes also resolved their conflict by cutting back on the time and attention they gave their children. Under the tremendous pressure of the demands of work and family, they scaled down their ideas about what their children needed. One working mother described her feelings about putting her daughter in the care of a babysitter for ten hours a day at the age of three months:
She took long naps in the afternoon, but face it, ten hours is still a long day. When I started out, I told myself, “Don’t feel guilty." But when I leave her off at my sister-in-law’s, I see her perfect family—she’s home all day with her children. They have a dog and a yard. I think about the fact that my mom stayed home all day with me. I wonder if I’m giving my child the foundation my mother gave me. Then I tell myself, “Don’t feel guilty! Your guilt has do with you, not the baby. The baby is fine.” At least I think the baby’s fine.
In part the gender strategies of men paralleled those of women. In part they didn’t because it was not, by tradition, men’s role to do housework and childcare, and men did not so often find themselves doing more of it than their wives. So they did not so often pressure their wives to share the work at home. On the contra iy, men were more often the target of such pressure, and their resistance took many forms—disaffiliation from the task at hand, needs reduction, making substitute offerings to the marriage, and selective encouragement of the wife’s efforts. Some strategies went more against the emotional grain than others and took more emotional preparation. Perhaps the male strategy that took the most emotional preparation was that of “needs reduction." Some men conceded that sharing was fair but resisted increasing their labor at home by scaling down what they thought needed doing. One man explained that he never shopped because he “didn’t need anything.” He didn’t need to shop for furniture (the couple had recently moved into a new apartment) because he didn’t care about furnishing their apartment. He didn’t cook dinner because cold cereal “was fine.” His wife joined him in scaling down her notion of their needs, but only to a certain point, after which she gave up, furnished their apartment, cooked their meals, and resented doing so. While some men pretended to reduce their needs, others pursuing this strategy stood by the truth of their lowered notion of needs. They actually suppressed their desires for comfort. As one man described working two jobs and raising small children, “ It’s like being in the army. You set the comforts of home behind you.”