The latest NYTimes Magazine article tells us that the opt-out generation, the generation of women reaching the first stages of their peak earning potential who then left it all behind them to raise their kids, now want back in.
Is anyone surprised they’re having a hard time getting back in?
I didn’t think so.
Two of them seem baffled as to why they can’t get jobs, and one is resentful that she had to downsize from a mcmansion to a more raffish townhouse she calls an “apartment.” The author does a decent job of talking with husbands, and I actually found their stories more intriguing, because their situations speak to the state of American masculinity for not just the upper classes as well as possible directions for feminism in the 21st century.
One is utterly without shame when he locates the demise of his marriage to his wife getting a part-time job. “Once she started to work, she started to place more value in herself, and because she put more value in herself, she put herself in front of a lot of things — family, and ultimately, her marriage.”
The second husband is fortunately married to a woman who understands the sacrifices he has made for her, sacrifices that she is not able to make for him, financially. “Carrie said the situation was in many ways unfair: she had been able, twice, to live her dreams, with her husband’s encouragement, first as an at-home mother, then as a start-up visionary, while Stuart’s steady job made it all possible. And he had to adjust to the loss of her attention when she first shifted it to their daughters and then to her new job.”
Kuae Kelch Mattox and Ted Mattox making a pizza with their children in Montclair, N.J.Carrie goes on to say that modern living, with jobs and kids and cleaning and parties and all of it, is exhausting. Carrie, like the other women interviewed, resent having to take care of the kids and do the housework and clean up his mess, because, there needed to be a fifty-fifty split of household duties.
The third husband, Ted, is the most interesting, in my opinion. He actually questions the whole 50-50 thing, and in so doing, I think, is actually very close to questioning the entire wage labor, spend every dime you earn to achieve maximum debt dependency that is now business as usual in the U.S. “And Ted had kind of had it. Here he was, he said while coming and going from the kitchen where he was making French toast for the Mattox’s youngest child, earning the household income, helping drive the kids around, pitching in on laundry, housekeeping and cooking, while Kuae, in his eyes, was blithely giving her time away — free — to a volunteer organization. He’s a numbers guy, he said. From his perspective, the numbers pertaining to what he called her at-home “journey of self-discovery” just didn’t add up to be a very good deal for him or any husband whose nonearning wife still expects to split household drudgery 50-50.”
Despite being close to questioning the role of masculinity in creating and sustaining an overworked, overindebted, overspent and overcommitted culture, Ted never makes the leap to saying, “Hey honey, this whole thing is screwy. Let’s both of us work long and hard and save 70% of our income, then let’s leave this wage jobs for freedom.” And if you think I’m screwy for even suggesting this path as option, please go right now, with alacrity, and read the inspiring story of Mr. and Mrs. Money Mustache.
The practice of living well below one’s means and saving every penny you can, ought to be a top feminist priority. Feminists, at least the best of them anyway, understand that wage labor demeans and distorts men. Masculinity becomes a ridiculous trope about earning power and wallet size. But the liberal feminist response to income disparities is to attempt to create more opportunities in a consumerist culture, with the end result that women become a ridiculous trope of The Super Woman.
The NY Times certainly doesn’t question the particulars of indebtedness and possible overspending with any of these women. Because what becomes clear is that more than their children, these women value their upper middle class lifestyles. None of them figured out that maybe the way through was out. Imagine if any of these couples had worked really hard at reducing their expenses and saved 50, 60 or 70 percent of their income?
Yes, housework and school work and home projects and school projects are exhausting, but only after a person has worked 70 hours a week. Those activities aren’t all that tiring in the context of working only ten hours a week or no hours a week. But neither parent really wants to focus on the children or themselves for that matter. It’s better to be distracted with debt, spending, consumerism, facebook, school and whatever else they have in their lives.
These men are working so hard to maintain a lifestyle that is bad for the planet, bad for their kids, bad for their marriage and bad for themselves and their masculinity. What is most important to him, is his job, and what is most important to her, is her lifestyle. Had any couple had the courage to look their unnecessary expenses in the face, chuck them, and really create a life centering around their children, well, I’m sure all involved would have been much happier. A feminism of simplicity suggests this entire model, work, work, work to spend, spend, spend on things like 500 cable channels! and two brand new cars all the time! is utterly ridiculous and entirely beatable.
More tomorrow on Masculinity and the Feminism of Simplicity.∗