Monday, November 7, 2011

Trading Family for a Career

In the New York Times Article, "A C.E.O's Support System, aka Husband," by James B. Stewart, the author touches on an issue that has become increasingly salient in the public eye. One doesn't have to look far to find an array of women who have sacrificed their personal careers in order for their husband to have a more successful job. For example, Maria Shriver left her job as a renowned broadcaster, and assumed the role of First-Lady of California. Although Shriver publicly discussed the consequences of sacrificing her career for her husband, any outward resistance was not noticeable by the public. The male-centric professional world embraces the image of a hard working, dedicated career man, with a wife to support him unconditionally. A parallel image for women is more difficult to find. Though women have undoubtedly made quantum leaps in the professional world, the gender expectations remain largely the same. The challenge lies in understanding this disconnect- why established career women are chided for failing to be everything to everyone, including mother, professional, caretaker, and nurturer. Men are often only accountable as caretakers, and any additional criteria they might meet is a "plus" but not considered an essential characteristic by society. When men stay at home, traditional roles are reversed and the American reaction can best be characterized as a form of latent schizophrenia that surfaces when conventional gender roles are challenged.

In the New York Times Article, the author describes a couple that has been married for 32 years. The wife is the current C.E.O. of IBM, and the husband is a treasurer and secretary for a more obscure company that affords him the flexibility and time necessary to accommodate his wife's busy schedule. Despite the indisputable success of his wife, this man was still reluctant to talk. Even in the face of unimaginable success that can be attained by only a few, this "stay at home dad" was hesitant to share his story with the general population. Why would a man who has shown the longevity of a 32 year marriage to one of the most successful American women, amassed a fortune, and maintained a stable and respectable career refuse to discuss the details of such a relationship? One might assume that the lingering stigma about the "stay at home dad" lingers somewhere.

I can distinctly remember a family friend whose father stayed at home while the mother worked. Although many people responded favorably to the idea of a loving father who stayed at home with his children, every comment about the father carried with it a peculiar flavor of derision in some way, shape, or form. From an objective perspective, such criticisms were inherently unfair. However, as someone who was engrossed in the conversation about this father, I found myself asking questions about the father's professional capabilities. Did the father choose to stay at home, or was he a push over? Did the father stay at home because he had experienced failures at some point during his career, or was his decision to remain the primary caregiver devoid of any of the other less virtuous motives that I could find to attribute to his decision?

Conversely, when a women decides to stay at home, none of these questions are asked. A stay at home mom is not bombarded with questions about her career choice in the same manner a man is. Although a woman may be judged for her decision to sacrifice a career for a place in the home, the level of judgment and the criteria are vastly different. For women, the question is presented in the familiar dichotomy of working mom versus stay at home mom. The latter category, though heavily criticized, may be celebrated and is often venerated by many traditionalists. Conversely, the criticism and questions directed at a stay at home dad are more of an attack on his masculinity and his decision to assume a role that is typically the province of female mothers. This is where the shortfall in modern society emerges. A parental caretaker is a caretaker, irregardless of sex or gender. Intuitively, most people would not take issue with this statement. However, when it is played out in real life, all of a sudden people react in a much more hostile manner than one would expect in a progressive society.

One important feature of the article that must be acknowledged is that the couple represented in the article is childless. Furthermore, (from what I can tell) they are both White. There are many elements of this family that represent the typical trade-offs that women must make if they want a successful carer. Every component of this couple's lifestyle is imbued with aspects of white privilege that shape and form the economic opportunities available to them. However, this raises another question that looms large. Although we don't know if the wife's decision to forgo childbearing was connected to her job, one may assume that it at least played a small part. If an incredibly successful white woman must relinquish the traditional family structure in order to enjoy a healthy and vibrant career, while men of the same class and caliber can enjoy both a career AND a family, something is still terribly wrong.

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