Published on Mommy Tracked (http://www.mommytracked.com)

Do Only "Good" Wives Stay Home?

I came across this recent book review on Amazon:


"Three timely truths: On average, highly educated wives play a crucial role in their husband’s career success, women who let their husbands take the lead in breadwinning enjoy happier marriages, and couples who focus on common goals enjoy happier and more stable marriages. So, husbands and wives, take careful note of this engaging and important new book."


W. Bradford Wilcox, Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Virginia and Director of the Marriage Matters Project


Before you throw your keyboard across the room, let me explain why the idea that wives play a crucial role in their husband’s success is an outdated fairytale.


The quote I read referred to Megan Basham’s new book, Beside Every Successful Man: A Woman's Guide to Having It All [1]. She’s gotten enviable publicity, with two Today Show appearances, and the book is selling well, so her idea must have some cultural appeal. She uses statistics to argue the following point: when moms stay home, their husbands earn more money, the marriages are more stable, and their family enjoys a more affluent lifestyle.


Contrast this with Leslie Bennetts’ 2007 book The Feminine Mistake: Are We Giving Up Too Much? [2] which also got a lot of publicity. Bennetts uses statistics to argue this point: when moms work fulltime, they are happier and healthier, and they enjoy more financial independence over their lifetime.


So what is the real answer, and why do we care so much?


Here’s what Basham has to say:


"There is a reason this book is titled beside every successful man rather than behind him. It is about taking the best part of the progress women have made and combining it with age-old wisdom to create a more satisfying future for both you and your husband. The wives who were the models for this book are not put-upon ‘little women.’ They didn’t abandon their own ambitions and desires by helping their husbands achieve theirs. Their service isn’t the same thing as subservience."


Now I am all for choice. Each and every woman on the planet has the right to calculate for herself the ideal work/home equation. But I question the validity of Basham’s conclusion that staying at home leads to a husband who earns more money and a longer lasting marriage – and the underlying idea that women should stay home, and should feel good about staying home as helpmeets for their husbands.


Corporate wives are dinosaurs today; employees work so hard that the idea of a wife playing a major role in a husband’s career success is ridiculously anachronistic. (And insulting to suggest that only men with a wife at home thrive at work; individuals, with or without partners, deserve their own credit.) And maybe those marriages last longer because the financially-dependent stay-at-home wives are afraid (rightly so) to suffer the economic consequences of being a single mother returning to the wage level she left many years ago.


What really happened to women I know from business school and the corporate world differs dramatically from Basham’s worldview: women stay home BECAUSE their husbands’ jobs are so demanding. In other words, Basham has the cart before the horse. Women are not staying home to help their partners succeed. They stay home because their husbands are extremely ambitious, driven and focused on work, often to the exclusion of time with family.


As ambitious men quite often marry ambitious women, many upper income stay-at-home moms are well-educated, with a string of impressive achievements on their resumes. These women don’t necessarily want to stay home; theirs is not a conscious "I will stay home to support my husband’s earning potential" decision. There’s no casaul effect: wives at home do not cause men to earn more at work. What I witness is more desperate: "Someone needs to stay home so our children don’t turn out to be psychotic, ill-adjusted, malnourished savages, and I guess that someone has to be moi because he is clearly not cutting back now that we have children."


I suspect we all know the true definition of "having it all." What most mothers want is time with their children and time for fulfilling, financially rewarding work. Most moms, working and at-home, report that what they really crave is a lifestyle that balances economic independence and time with children. The Holy Grail is rewarding part-time work, according to Pew Research data [3] -- no book to sell here. Both Basham and Bennetts miss the critical point that there is far too little part-time work to go around, and that our government, our corporations, and husbands fall far short of supporting women who seek part-time opportunities that would benefit families and employers.


I chuckled to see the books paired on Amazon with Basham’s: The Princess Within: Restoring the Soul of a Woman [4], and What A Man Wants, What A Woman Needs: The Secret to Successful, Fulfilling Relationships [5].


I thought we’d moved past the idea that all women want to be princesses (hey, look what happened to Diana), and that instead of focusing on our needs, we should look to our husbands to fulfill our dreams. But I guess fairytales still sell books.

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