This week’s query comes from the domain of twenty-first century family life—a Mormon family, in this case, but it could be a family of any faith, really. This thoughtful AMG reader has a lot on his mind. Let’s give him a listen.
I consider my relationship with my wife as a marriage of equals; we both work together to meet the challenges of life as a unified partnership. We share–and have always shared–financial, employment, social, religious, and family management decisions together, and have for the most part agreed in our family’s path. In terms of household management, we both cook, clean, do laundry, pay bills and manage the family budget, shop for food and household essentials, doing yard work, gardening, etc. We share our finances completely (no separate accounts and personal discretionary spending allowances). We both take active roles in the nurture and education of our children, helping with homework, piano lessons, reading together, projects, fun, etc.
I work full-time in a career that provides around 90% of the family income; my wife works around 18 hours a week in a public education-related job that doesn’t pay well and is far below her skills and training, but which allows her to be home whenever the kids are at home and requires no off-the-clock workload. My wife is very good at what she does, and makes important, positive impact in the lives of others through her work. My income allows us to pay for all our bills without going into debt, but it doesn’t allow for much savings for the future; her income helps cover incidental expenses, home improvements, and accelerated student loan repayment.
But my wife often feels like she is unable to meet the responsibilities and expectations of life because of the time she spends away at her job. It is a source of stress for her to work during the day, only to come home and feel too tired to give her best to her husband and children. Additionally, growing up in the Church, she never envisioned a life where she would work outside the home. So, whenever she isn’t able to meet all the demands of family life that she feels she needs to attend to, the guilt for going against the counsel of Church leaders that she has heard all her life creeps in and makes her feel even worse. She has begun to feel trapped by employment, in that she feels like it is an expectation I have placed on her, one that she doesn’t feel is absolutely necessary or the best thing she could be doing. I don’t feel like our family life suffers more when she is working, but perhaps my personality (and gender?) allows me to not get stressed as much when the garden isn’t weeded often enough, when the vacuuming doesn’t get done for two weeks instead of one, or when we miss piano practice with the kids for a day or two. My wife’s stress is real, though, and I don’t really feel like I can just downplay her concerns.
But I sort of do feel that because our kids are at school most of the day, my wife should be making an income for the family the same way that I have that expectation placed upon me. I feel like we don’t live in the 1950s anymore, and just as I am expected (and enthusiastically willing) to assume greater responsibility in the home, I don’t feel like I should be exclusively responsible for providing the income for the family, either. I feel like having both parents work outside the home can bring many material and immaterial benefits: we both enjoy the benefits of the fruits of our labors; we both have an opportunity to make a difference in the world outside our own family; and we both have the ability to interact with other adults on a professional level that provides validation of our skills and interests.
So is my expectation unreasonable or insensitive? Is it wrong for me to assume that in the 21st century, even if adults aren’t obligated to work for the sake of paying the bills, they should feel a responsibility to both provide for their family through gainful employment, and find ways of giving back to society by their expertise? How can I let this go if my wife gets to the point that she feels she can’t work anymore, and how can I help her not feel like she’s let me and the family down by that decision? As a feminist and a Mormon woman, how do you (and anyone reading these questions) navigate the troubled waters of family roles, employment, expectations, and feminism in the context of contemporary Mormon family life?
Wannabe Feminist Husband (WFH)
You sound like a good man, WFH. You’re one of so many good men I’ve watched flex and adapt in terrific ways to this brave new world of family life. I think it’s totally natural for you to try and figure out what’s fair in a twenty-first century egalitarian family.
As I read your letter, I’m thinking back on something I learned when I was working as office help for my dad when I was a teenager. I watched the entire office—from receptionists to executives—come together on a Friday afternoon to finish collating and stapling a set of reports. “Everybody works until the work is done,” my dad said. That, I thought, was pretty cool.
I think healthy gender-egalitarian families work on roughly the same principle: everyone contributes to the best of their abilities and capacities until as many members of the family have as many of their needs met as is possible. We try to be pragmatic, to appreciate the unique contributions and needs of each family member, to set aside external expectations (especially gender-linked ones) as much as possible, to acknowledge real-world limitations, and to have faith that both partners are doing their level best.
It certainly sounds like your wife is struggling with her own balancing act: managing the expectations she was raised with against the realities of twenty-first century family life and economics. You should definitely continue to support her in thinking critically about the pressures she puts on herself and the expectations she buys into.
But what about you? I sense that beneath the language of obligation in your letter—your discussion of what adults “should” be expected to do—are lurking some unmet “wants” and “needs” of your own. If you had to make a list of your top five personal concerns, needs, and stressors right now (not including your wife’s situation), what would those be? Maybe it’s something as simple as needing more exercise than you’re getting, or needing just an hour or two of alone time, or time with friends, or updating your family’s financial plan. Maybe it’s something larger, like dissatisfaction with your job. Take a little time to figure out what you are really feeling, apart from your wrestling with abstract notions of equality.
Each partner in an egalitarian marriage should be able to put his or her needs and concerns on the table. Only then can there be an honest assessment of how the family can prioritize and meet those needs effectively. And I’m betting that if you shift from thinking about what she “should” do to what you “need” to be the best possible parent and spouse and if you come to the table prepared to hear her talk about what she “needs” to be the best possible parent and spouse, together, you will find a way to meet more of those needs than you imagined possible.
Good luck. You’re certainly not alone in trying to work out the egalitarian family puzzle, as my readers will attest—won’t you?
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