Rich Couples Can No Longer Afford ’50s Gender Roles

January 22, 2009

By Deborah Siegel, The Women’s Media Center   
headermore posts in 
Sex & Relationships 

Can we talk about how gender relations in the wake of layoff shakeup were portrayed in the media this week? And can we all just take a deep breath and get real?

In a bloated front-page profile in the New York Times Style section on Sunday, a headline informs us that a laid-off dad from Darien, Connecticut is “A Bit Lost.” Scott Berry, the dad in question, lost his job as a technology analyst for a boutique investment firm in Manhattan in December 2007 and has actively been looking for a new position ever since. Meanwhile, Scott’s wife Tracey, who has gone back to work after a brief stint at home, balks at the prospect of buying her kids clothes at Walmart.

“How can you complain about my spending when you don’t have an adequate income?” Tracey asks Scott during their arguments. “How can you complain about me not earning an adequate income, when you can’t control your spending?” asks Scott. Less sympathetic is the anonymous wife from Tribeca who tells us that in her family it was his job to provide a nice lifestyle while hers was to run the household and the children’s lives. When he loses his Wall Street bonus and his income drops from $800,000 to $150,000 a year, she’s bitter and crushed. “Let me just say this,” she tells the reporter. “I’m still doing my job.”

Let me say this: I feel their pain. But is this Father Knows Best or the Great Recession of 2009?
 On one level, truly, I can relate, and far be it for me to add insult to injury or poke fun at another woman’s unease. The other night my husband and I got into our first layoff snarl. It’s Day 2 of his official unemployment, and I’m a freelancer who works from home. Earlier that day, we’re making business calls in separate rooms. When I catch him lying down on the bed for a moment, I panic. Stupidly. Out loud.

“What are you doing? Hey there, are you okay?” I call out, holding my palm over my cell so my colleague won’t hear.

And he is. My husband is fine. It’s me who isn’t okay.

Indeed, I count myself among the legions of women in this country adjusting with less grace than they’d like to the new role of primary breadwinner — for now. With a PhD and a consulting practice and a new book in the works, I’m relatively equipped for the job, and still it makes me nervous to have the burden fall entirely on me. Which is how men whose wives don’t work must be feeling right about now. So my heart goes out to the women in the Times article, in certain ways, and to their husbands, too.

But here’s where our stories part ways. When I married, I assumed my husband and I would both be earners. I assumed we’d be equal earners. I have confidence that we will be dual earners again soon. In the case of the women profiled in the article, the “deal” they brokered (He provides while She shops upscale and runs the house) is a hope less easily resurrected. And in truth, it’s historically naïve.

Remember that economic downturn of the 1970s? It was part of what catapulted egalitarianism into the future. Women went to work in droves because of a change in the culture — but for economic reasons, too. Feminism and recession have gone hand in glove. So if these Times couples come across as anachronisms, it’s because, statistically, they are. They are operating from a model that is no longer widely popular in part because it no longer works — especially in times like these.

Could it be that the Times meant to provoke? Because the gender mythology that courses through the article is as irksome as the class fantasy it conveys. Says Framingham State College sociologist Virginia Rutter, “The reason why reading an article like this one is so galling isn’t because we resent the rich — but hey, it is a little galling to read about the people who have to curb their luxury vacations to luxury weekends — but because the suffering we are experiencing is a consequence of the privilege the guys on top were enjoying.” In other words, these couples’ traditional gender roles were “purchased” through inflated Bush-era incomes that allowed executive wives to opt out of the workforce and hire a nanny too.

For couples like the Berrys, downsizing means replacing that fulltime nanny with a more “cost-effective” au pair and thinking about schools other than Harvard for the kids. Loss is relative, and the Berrys’ pain is no less real than mine. However, highlighting such stories accentuates the gap between the haves and have-lesses. I’d rather see stories with a wider range of families, a more realistic sample, portrayed. Recession is a leveler, and it’d be nice to see more level coverage.

In the end, money can’t buy love. But it can buy space, which, in New York City, is almost as good. While Tracey and Scott Berry got to retire to separate wings of their “five-bedroom Colonial home” after their fight to sip wine and do sodoku, my husband and I remained trapped in our small one-bedroom with two fighting cats.

Last night I made a promise not to hover. My husband made a promise to close the door. I hardly feel like he has failed me. We’re in this together.

We seem to be making do.

This article was originally posted by The Women’s Media Center at http://www.womensmediacenter.com. The WMC is a non-profit organization founded by Jane Fonda, Gloria Steinem, and Robin Morgan, dedicated to making the female half of the world visible and powerful in the media.


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