The Limits of Economic Logic
Money mattered in the marriages I studied, but it was not the powerful “invisible hand” behind men who shared.3 For one thing, this is clear from the family portraits. Michael Sherman earned much more than Adrienne but his job didn’t matter more, and he shared the work at home. For years Ann Myerson earned more than her husband but put her husband’s job first anyway. John Livingston valued his wife’s job as he did his own, but she took more responsibility at home.
A number of researchers have tried to discover a link between the wage gap between working parents and the leisure gap between them, and the results have been confusing. All but one study found no significant relation between the amount a man earns relative to his wife and how much housework or child care he does. Among couples in this study, these two factors were not related in a statistically significant way.
An intriguing clue appeared, however, when I divided all the men into three groups: men who earn more than their wives (most men), men who earn the same amount, and men who earn less. Of the men who earned more than their wives, 21 percent shared housework. Of the men who earned about the same, 30 percent shared. But among men who earned less than their wives, none shared.
If a logic of the pocketbook is only a logic of the pocketbook, it should operate the same whether a man earns more or whether a woman earns more. But this “logic of the pocketbook” didn’t work that way. It only worked as long as men earned as much or more than their wives. Money frequently “worked” for men (it excused them from housework) but it didn’t work for women (it didn’t get them out of it).
Another principle—the principle of “balancing”—seems to be at work. According to this principle, if men lose power over women in one way, they make up for it in another way—by avoiding the second shift, for example. In this way, they can maintain dominance over women. How much responsibility these men assumed at home was thus related to the deeper issue of male power. Men who earn much more than their wives already have a power over their wives in that they control a scarce and important resource. The more severely a man’s identity is financially threatened—by his wife’s higher salary, for example—the less he can afford to threaten it further by doing “women’s work” at home.
Men who shared the second shift weren’t trying to make up for losing power in other realms of their marriage; they didn’t feel the need to “balance.” Michael Sherman had given up the idea that he should have more power than Adrienne. Art Winfield talked playfully about men being “brought up to be kings.”
But Peter Tanagawa felt a man should have more power, and felt he’d given a lot of it up when Ninas career rose so dramatically. He’d adjusted himself to earning much less, but to a man of his ideas, this had been a sacrifice. By making up for his sacrifice by doing more at home, Nina engaged in “balancing.” Among other couples, too, it’s not only men who “balance”; women do too.
Thus, more crucial than cultural beliefs about men’s and women’s spheres, were couples’ beliefs about the right degree of men’s and women’s power. Women who “balanced” felt “too powerful.” Sensing when their husbands got “touchy,” sensing the fragility of their husbands’ “male ego,” not wanting them to get discouraged or depressed, such women restored their men’s lost power by waiting on them at home.
Wives did this “balancing”—this restoring power to their husbands—for different reasons. One eccentric Englishman and father of three children, aged six, four, and one, took responsibility for about a third of the chores at home. A tenured member of the English department of a small college, he taught classes, and held obligatory office hours, but had abandoned research, minimized committee work, avoided corridor conversations, and long since given up putting in for a raise. He claimed to “share” housework and child care, but what he meant by housework was working on a new den, and what he meant by child care was reflected in his remark “The children do fine while I’m working on the house; they muck about by themselves.” He was touchy about his accomplishments and covertly nervous, it seemed, about what he called the “limitless” ambitions of his workaholic wife. Without asking him to do more, perhaps his wife was making up for her “limitless ambitions” by carrying the load at home. In the meantime, she described herself as “crushed with work.”
I looked again at other interviews I’d done with men who worked less than full time. One architect, the fourth of four highly successful brothers in a prosperous and rising black family, had lost his job in the recession of the late 1970s, become deeply discouraged, taken occasional contracting jobs, and otherwise settled into a life of semi-unemployment. His wife explained: “Eventually were going to have to make it on my salary. But its awfully hard on my husband right’ now, being trained as an architect and not being able to get a job. I take that into account.” Her husband did no housework and spent time with his son only when the spirit moved him. “I do very little around the house,” he said frankly, “but Beverly doesn’t complain, bless her heart.” Meanwhile, they lived in near-poverty, while Beverly worked part time, cared for their baby and home, and took courses in veterinary science at night, her overload the result of their economic need added to her attempt to restore a sense of power to her discouraged husband. As she let fall at the end of the interview, “Sometimes I wonder how long I can keep going.”
Other men earned less and did less at home, but weren’t “balancing.” They were going back to get a degree, and their wives were temporarily giving them the money and time to do this. The husband’s training for a job counted as much in their moral accounting system as it would if he already had that more important job. For example, one husband was unemployed while studying for a degree in pediatric nursing. His wife, a full-time administrator, cared for their home and nine-month-old baby. The rhythm of their household life revolved around the dates of his exams. His wife explained: “My husband used to do a lot around here. He used to puree Stevy’s carrots in the blender. He used to help shop, and weed the garden. Now he studies every evening until ten. His exams come first. Getting that ‘A’ is important to him. He plays with the baby as a study break.” She said she didn’t mind doing the housework and caring for the baby and got upset when he complained the house was messy. She said, “I keep myself going by reminding myself this is temporary, until Jay gets his degree.”
I heard of no women whose husbands both worked and cared for the family while the wives studied for a degree. For a woman, getting a degree was not so honored an act. There was no tradition of ‘putting your wife through college” analogous to the recent tradition of “putting your husband through college.” A wife could imagine being supported or being better off when her husband got his degree. Husbands usually couldn’t imagine either situation. One husband had shared the work at home fifty-fifty when his wife worked, but came to resent it terribly and finally stopped when his wife quit her job and went back to school to get a Ph. D. A job counted as legitimate recompense but working toward a degree did not. Feeling deprived of attention and service, one man shouted into my tape recorder—half in fun and half not: “You can’t eat it. You can’t talk to it. It doesn’t buy a vacation or a new car. I hate my wife’s dissertation!” Women who put their husbands through school may have resented the burden, but they didn’t feel they had as much right to complain about it.
Taken as a whole, this group of men—semi-unemployed, hanging back at work, or in training—neither earned the bread nor cooked it. And of all the wives, theirs were the least happy. Yet, either because they sympathized with their husbands, or expected their situation to improve, or because they felt there was no way to change it, and because they were, I believe, unconsciously maintaining the “right” balance of power in their marriage, such women worked the extra month a year. Meanwhile, their lower-earning husbands often saw their wives as intelligent, strong, “a rock”; at the same time these men could enjoy the idea that, though not a king at work, a man still had a warm throne at home.
Some women had other ways of accumulating more power than they felt “comfortable” with. One woman I know, an M. D., not in this study, married a former patient, a musician who earned far less than she. Perhaps feeling that her status was “too great” for their joint notion of the “right” balance, she—a feminist on every other issue—quietly did all the second shift and, as her husband put it, “She never asks.” Another woman, a teacher, secretly upset the power balance by having a long-term extramarital affair almost like another marriage. Life went on as usual at home, but she quietly made up for her secret life by being ‘wonderful” about all the chores at home.
In all these marriages, money was not the main determinant of which men did or didn’t share. Even men who earned much more than their wives didn’t get out of housework because of it. One college professor and father of three, for example, explained why he had committed himself to 50 percent of housework and child care:
My wife earns a third of what I earn. But as a public school teacher she’s doing a job that’s just as important as mine. She’s an extraordinarily gifted teacher, and I happen to know she works just as hard at her teaching as I do at mine. So when we come home, she’s as tired as I am. We share the housework and child care equally. But [in a tone of exasperation] if she were to take a job in insurance or real estate, she’d just be doing another job. She wouldn’t be making the contribution she’s making now. We haven’t talked about it, but if that were the case, I probably wouldn’t break my back like this. She would have to carry the load at home.
Ironically, had his wife earned more at a job he admired less—had she worked only for money—he would not have shared the second shift.
Other evidence also points away from the logic of the pocket – book. In a 1985 report, Joseph Pleck found that over the last ten years, men married to housewives have increased their contributions to housework nearly as much as men whose wives do paid work.4 Housewives earned nothing ten years ago and they earn nothing now. Yet husbands of housewives now help their wives at home more. That isn’t a matter of money talking, and not a matter of men “keeping the edge.” They had the edge, and are giving some of it up.
These husbands of housewives may be helping more because of a rising standard of male consideration. Just as nonunion industries often try to avoid unionization by keeping wages in nonunion shops comparable to those in unionized shops, so husbands of housewives may be unconsciously responding to the womens movement by helping as much at home as husbands of working wives. Without quite knowing it, some “nonunion*’ (nonfeminist) women may be enjoying the gains won by “union” agitators. Again, the political struggle behind a cultural shift and not the timeless logic of the pocketbook seems to determine how much men help at home. To push the analogy further, the women who struggle to get their husbands to do more at home and whose husbands divorce them because of it may be like the workers who fight the company for better working conditions, win the point, but get fired. The outrageous few improve things for the “good workers” who make no noise.
That doesn’t mean that money has nothing to do with sharing the second shift. In two different ways, it does. In the first place, couples do need to think about and plan around financial need. Most of the men who shared at home had wives who pretty much shared at work. The men earned some but not much more. And whatever their wives earned, working-class men like Art Winfield really needed their wives’ wages to live. Second, future changes in the general economy may press more couples to do “balancing.” Some experts predict that the American economy will split increasingly between an elite of highly paid, highly trained workers and an enlarging pool of poorly paid, unskilled workers. Jobs in the middle are being squeezed out as companies lose out to foreign competition or seek cheaper labor pools in the Third World. The personnel rosters of the so-called sunrise industries, the rapidly growing, high-technology companies already reflect this split. Companies with many jobs in the middle are in the so-called sunset industries, such as car manufacturing. As the economist Bob Kuttner illustrates: “The fast food industry employs a small number of executives and hundreds of thousands of cashiers and kitchen help who make about $3.50 an hour. With some variation, key punchers, chambermaids, and retail sales personnel confront the same short job ladder.”5 In addition, unions in the sunrise industries often face companies5 threats to move their plants to cheap labor markets overseas, and so these unions press less hard for better pay.
The decline in jobs in the middle mainly hits men in blue – collar union-protected jobs. Unless they can get training that allows them to compete for a small supply of highly skilled jobs, such men will be forced to choose between unemployment and a low-paid service job.
The “declining middle” is thus in the process of creating an economic crisis for many men. This crisis can lead to two very different results: As economic hardship means more women have to work, their husbands may feel it is “only fair” to share the work at home. Or, there may be a countervailing tendency for men and women to compensate for economically induced-losses in male self-esteem by engaging in “balancing.” If the logic of the pocket – book affects the way men and women divide the second shift, I think it will affect it in this way, through its indirect effect on male self-esteem.
All in all, men who shared were similar to men who didn’t in that their fathers were just as unlikely to have been model helpers at home, and just as unlikely to have done housework as boys themselves. But the men who shared at home seemed to have more distant ties with their fathers, and closer ones with their mothers. They were similar to nonsharing men in the hours they worked, but they tended not to earn a great deal more or less than their wives.
Sharing men seemed to be randomly distributed across the class hierarchy. There were the Michael Shermans and the Art Winfields. In the working class, more men shared without believing it corresponded to the kind of man they wanted to be. In the middle class, more men didn’t share even though they believed in it. Men who both shared the work at home and believed in it seemed to come from every social class. Everything else equal, men whose wives had advanced degrees and professional careers—who had what the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu calls “cultural capital”— were more likely to share than men whose wives lacked such capital. Men with career wives were more likely to share than men with wives in “jobs.” All these factors were part of the social backdrop to the working mans gender strategy at home.
Added to these was also the strategy of his wife. Nearly every man who shared had a wife whose strategy was to urge—or at least welcome—his involvement at home. Such women did not emotionally hoard their children, as Nancy Holt came to do with Joey. When Evan had been about to leave to take Joey to the zoo for a father-son outing, Nancy had edged Evan out by deciding at the last minute to “help” them get along. At first awkward and unconfident with children, Michael Sherman could well have developed a “downstairs” retreat had it not been for Adriennes showdown and continual invitation to join in the care of their twins. Often, something as simple as the way a mother holds her baby so he or she can “look at Dad” indicated her effort to share. Adrienne Sherman didn’t just leave her twins with Daddy; she talked to them about what Daddy could do with them; consciously or not, she fostered a tie to him. She didn’t play expert. She made room.
As a result, such men were—or became—sensitive to their children’s needs. They were more realistic than other fathers about the limits of what their wives provide, and about what their children really need.