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Men As Beasts of Burden

By Marty Nemko

There are five widows for every widower.

Kevin, 37, is a computer programmer, making $80,000 a year, $48,000 after taxes. His wife, Lisa, stays home to take care of their two-year old. She is pregnant with another child, and eager for them to buy a home. Kevin doesn’t like being a programmer, but fears that a career change will mean a salary cut.

I asked Kevin, “Is owning a home important to you?” He replied, “It’s very important to Lisa.” I asked him how he felt about having the second child. He sighed, “Okay, but Lisa really wants it.”

I asked, “When you first called me, you said you feel the stress is killing you. Should you be shouldering all the family’s financial responsibilities?” He pursed his lips: “Lisa reminds me that before we got married, I agreed to have two kids. She says, and I guess I agree, that to bring our kids up right and maintain a home is a full-time job. And she doesn’t have my earning capacity.” Kevin rubbed his head.

Over the past 17 years, I have been career coach to 1,500 middle and upper class women and to 500 middle-to-upper class men. Because of our relationships’ confidentiality, I have learned much about what women really think on a number of issues.

Most surprising to me, is that at least half of the women, including many graduates of elite colleges, either don’t want an income-earning job or will only work part-time in an unusually pleasant job.

A recent New York Times article suggests that my clients are not an anomaly. It reported that the number of stay-at-home moms has increased 13 percent in less than a decade, and among working women, 2/3 work part-time. This is true even of graduates of prestigious colleges, women who were bestowed a fiercely competed-for slot at an elite college on the assumption they would use that coveted degree to make a big difference in the world.

Few of those women’s application essays indicated they planned to be housewives. Yet among Stanford’s class of ’81, in just their first decade after graduation, 57 percent of mothers spent at least a year at home full-time. One in four stayed home full-time for three or more years. A survey of the women from the Harvard Business School classes of 1981, 1985, and 1991 found that only 38 percent of all women—even if childless--were working full time. And beyond the elite colleges, among white men, 95% of all MBAs in the U.S. work full time, while the number for white women was just 67 percent.

And “full-time” doesn’t mean the same for men and women. Among my 1,500 female clients and many friends, very few are willing to sacrifice work/life balance to work the 60+ hours a week it normally takes to rise to the top of a profession.

Yet women’s groups complain that women are “underrepresented” in the power professions: senior executives, professors, etc., because of a glass ceiling they claim is erected by men.

Of course, there are many ambitious, achieving women who are men’s equals or superiors. But many of my female clients and friends prefer the life of a housewife, perhaps augmented by a pleasant little part-time job, even if it means their husband, whom they claim to love, must work long, hard hours on jobs few women would consider. For example, the vast majority of people who work in iron foundries, coalmines, and other clanging, polluted environments are men. According to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics, 92 percent of workplace deaths occur to men.

Dan, a client of mine (name changed) avoided breathing carcinogenic air, but his life is still at risk. He has two masters degrees in counseling, but in the big city, where it seems there’s a therapist under every rock, hasn’t been able to land a job as a counselor. He has a few private clients, which in total earn him $6,000 a year. He adds $8,000 as a mock patient in a medical school, and at night, Dan, 54, moonlights as a waiter at a large restaurant. He says, “It’s almost ¼ mile from the kitchen to the farthest table, so when I get home at one in the morning, I’m exhausted. But I’m still so wired, I need a couple of glasses of wine to get to sleep. If I’m lucky, I get five hours of sleep before I have to get up again.”

Dan’s wife Denise, a Cornell graduate, is 47 and says she’s a musician. But in their years together, her net income has averaged just $800 a year. When Dan encourages Denise to get a job that pays, she objects:“ But I love being a musician. I’m trying to make a living at it.” He keeps urging her to get a paying job, but after a while, he gives up. He can’t make her get a job.

Meanwhile, Dan continues to drag himself through life like an ox yoked to a plow, a beast of burden. “I don’t know how long I can keep this up.” Statistically, he’s right. Medical science is unequivocal that stress and overwork kills. No doubt, that contributes to their being five widows for every widower.

To be fair, many men prefer their wives to stay home, but often, the impetus comes from the woman. Many women use dubious arguments to convince their husbands that they should have, at most, a part-time job:

It’s better for the children. Yes, on average, kids with a stay-at-home-mom do somewhat better, but that is largely because couples that can afford to have mom staying at home are, on average, from a higher socioeconomic class, which confers many other benefits on the child.

A number of studies indicate that being a working mom doesn't hurt and may even help the child. For example, the most recent study (July 2003) Caring and Counting: The impact of mothers' employment on family relationships by Tracey Reynolds, Claire Callender and Rosalind Edwards, reports, "...the mother's work had a positive impact on their family relationships. The mother's employment provided skills and resources that meant they could meet their children's emotional, developmental and material needs better. Their relationship with their partner was enhanced because they shared the financial burden of providing for their family and had more common interests." Thebook, Ask The Children, is based on in-depth interviews with 600 parents and more than 1,000 children in the third through twelfth grades from diverse backgrounds. Itfound that "having a working mother is not predictive of how children assess their mothers' parenting skills, based on a number of attributes strongly linked to children's healthy development and school success. These include 'being someone I can go to when I am upset' and 'knowing what is really going on in my life.'" This study's results were reported to the public in a cover story in Working Mother magazine called "Hey Moms, Drop the Guilt!" Millions of children with working moms do just fine. What counts most is quality time: reasonably consistent, loving, limit-setting but not punitive parenting, even if it begins after the workday.

Here are links to additional research indicating that, if anything, kids and moms benefit when mom works outside the home:

Lest you think I haven’t practiced what I preach, my wife went back to work full-time, nine weeks after our daughter was born, and she turned out just fine: well-adjusted, voted UCLA’s outstanding undergraduate student, whereafter she got a White House internship, after which she went to Yale Law School, is now a successful attorney and about to marry a wonderful guy.

And even if a child accrues some advantage from having a stay-at-home mom, that advantage is usually more than outweighed by thepressure added to the husband’s life and the lifestyle decrement that comes from the lack of a second income. One such decrement is that men who must earn all the family income are precluded from considering rewarding but not lucrative careers such as teaching, and most jobs in non-profits, the arts, journalism, etc.

Adding to the unfairness, women, on average, are more motivated than their husbands to have children to begin with. The man is often pressured, subtly or not subtly, into parenthood, with all its added financial and time demands.

Taking care of the kids and home is a full-time job. These women stretch homemaking into a full-time job with activities far less beneficial than a second income to the family and certainly to her husband’s health and quality of life: preparing home-cooked dinners most nights, sitting with other moms watching a playgroup when a babysitter could do that, etc.

Being a homemaker is at least as stressful as being in the work world. These women point to their having to deal with a frequently crying baby or claim that being at home is a three-ring circus. But fact is, a significant percentage of many stay-at-home moms' days are spent on low-stress tasks such as supermarket shopping, playing with the baby, making dinner, and chatting with friends while baby is napping.

That life is much less stressful than most out-of-home jobs, which are filled with unpredictable commutes, ever increasing workloads because of the relentless downsizing, bosses with unrealistic expectations, co-workers who don’t pull their weight, and tough tasks, which if not completed satisfactorily can result in criticism or even firing.

I don’t have your earning power. Dr. Warren Farrell’s research debunks the flawed research that claims women earn 79 cents on the dollar. When controlled for hours on the job, performance evaluations, and years of experience, women earn $1.01 for every dollar men earn.

And the reason women have fewer years of experience is that they disproportionately elect to stay home with their children, or even if they work “full-time,” they work far fewer hours than their male counterparts so they can spend more time with their kids or on their avocations. Many more women than men —full-time workers and not-- ensure they have time for yoga, get-togethers with friends, art class, gardening, and visits to the day spa. Since 2000, despite the economic downturn, the number of spa visits nationwide, the vast majority of which are made by women, has doubled!

Women don’t just spend on day spas. They’re, overall, the bigger spenders. Yes, men buy more tools and technotoys but women, even when they contribute little or nothing to the family income, are the predominant spenders: clothing, jewelry, therapy, home redecorating of no interest to the man, etc. Most shopaholics are women. Every expenditure loads additional pressure onto the primary breadwinner, which is usually the husband.

Most of my male clients have accepted their plight of having to work, work, work at unrewarding, even dangerous jobs. Biology, parents, and society have programmed men to be the hunter, the provider, to keep their nose to the grindstone, no matter what. Too many wives only encourage it. Just today, a client of mine who earns more than $200,000 a year as a not-partner attorney at a major law firm, exclaimed, “If I don’t push NOW to make partner, my wife will kill me!”

Usually, the wife won’t kill the husband, but often will divorce him, at least in part because “he wasn't a good provider.” And most courts reward her with custody of the child and a requirement that the father pay child support and/or alimony.

When I ask a male client to step back and think about it, many of them realize that their wives have tried—usually successfully--to subtly or not so subtly coerce them into being the primary or sole breadwinner, the beast of burden. Those women make the above arguments, plus use manipulative techniques such as crying, guilt-tripping, screaming, avoiding the topic of getting a job, and forever promising to look for work but making feeble efforts.

Meanwhile, many men live bleak lives: work 10+ hours, commute home, and drop into the couch exhausted. And their reward: an early grave. Despite obesity being more prevalent among women, there are five widows for every widower. Yet all we hear about is another fundraiser for breast cancer.

If a husband hasn't done so already, he should consider having an open discussion with his wife about work and money. For example:

  • “Will buying a house or having another child put too much financial pressure on us?”
  • “If we decide to make those high-cost expenditures, do we want to put all the financial burden on one partner so the other can stay home to raise the child? Or should it be divided more evenly?”
  • “Should I refuse to work at an unrewarding high-stress or dangerous job?”

The elite colleges should issue the following exhortation to their students, male and female: "As you well know, the diploma you will receive from this institution will open the doors of influence: from medical research to non-profit directorship, from corporate leadership to stewardship of the arts. In accepting one of the precious few student seats at this institution, you tacitly accept the responsibility to society to make the most of that coveted degree. We encourage you to aim high, to use that degree to make the biggest difference you can for humankind. As important as being a good parent is, you don't need an elite degree to do that."

(I changed a few irrelevant details about my clients to protect their anonymity.)

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