What’s fair in an egalitarian marriage?

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.

Dear AMG,

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?

Send your query to askmormongirl@gmail.com, or follow askmormongirl on Twitter.


Filed under marriage

12 responses to “What’s fair in an egalitarian marriage?

  1. Geoff S

    As per usual, excellent insight from Joanna.
    I wonder about how equal the relationship is. This sounds like a man who thinks that he is completely equal in the sharing of planning and responsibilities. However, how is the family being run?…According to the husband’s wishes and desires. It seems likely that most of what happens in the home is the husbands choice.
    I think it’s good to seek out counsel from wise people like Joanna on this issue, but in the end what she thinks or what I think is much less important than what the wife thinks. She has made herself abundantly clear.
    How about giving her idea a try for three months? If it doesn’t work she’ll always be able to find another low paying job for which shes over qualified.

  2. I think it’s great that you want to have a feminist perspective and a marriage of equals. I also admire that you’re looking for ideas on how to put that into practice. So that you can know where I’m coming from in my comment, I’ll tell you that I’ve been married to my husband for about 2 years, and our first child is 4 months old. I have a graduate degree and have been working since before we were married and have always made more than my husband. My husband has been in graduate school for the past year and a half and will (probably) make more than me when he’s finished. To me, in an ideal world husbands and wives are equal partners who find fulfillment and become who God wants them to be through substantive participation in childrearing and meaningful experiences in the workforce.

    First, I think it’s futile to try to make marriage/family “equal.” It’s unrealistic to think that we can divide up tasks and time so that no one is doing more than the other (especially when you throw in pregnancy/labor/breastfeeding!). Even with the best intentions, sometimes one person is going to be doing/sacrificing more than the other. This has been hard for me to accept, but I’m pretty sure it’s true.

    Second, as I said already I admire your desires to share responsibilities in your family, but it kind of sounds like that might not be what’s actually happening. For example, if your wife feels like it’s necessary to vacuum once a week and you don’t, she may feel like you’re not willing to be an equal partner in housework. And she may really want the opportunity to use her “skills and interests” and do something meaningful in her job, but you also say that her job “is far below her skills and training” and that she wants to quit.

    I agree with the suggestions to talk about your and your wife’s needs and wants. Maybe you can arrange things so that you can spend more time at home and your wife can pursue employment that she’s actually excited/happy about (and is she really working almost half as much as you (assuming you have a 40-hour workweek) but only making 10% of the family income? That hardly seems worth it if it’s not the job she wants). Or maybe you can try to find opportunities to earn more (or reevaluate your budget) so that you can have the financial situation you want and your wife can spend more time at home. Whatever you decide, I hope that you’ll both feel like your needs are being considered and that you can come up with something that both people feel is fair (if not perfectly equal).

  3. utah_guy

    You’ve chosen equality, but equality isn’t necessarily the best approach, in my opinion. We’re all blessed with different talents and interests, so those should be maximized. Playing different roles as husband/father and wife/mother doesn’t mean either of you is inferior to the other. It seems that your wife feels she could serve the family better at home than in a job (regardless of any possible religious reasoning behind it), so I can’t see why she shouldn’t do that. It may also enable you to play your own roles better. Forcing equality on yourselves might be a little like asking a fish to run a marathon or a cheetah to swim. We’re just suited for some things better than others and there’s nothing chauvinist about acknowledging that.

  4. JJL9

    Equality does not mean that you have to have the same responsibilities. Men and women are different. That doesn’t make one better than the other. It means that we are simply different. It’s a good thing, not a bad thing. Would it make any sense to suggest that in the interest of equality the husband should carry half of the babies to term in his belly and give birth to them and breast feed them? I think not. It’s not an issue of equality. It’s an issue of the eternal nature of the man and the woman.

    • Agreed. I think that in so many ways equality is conflated with sameness. My wife and I have different preferences, strengths, and abilities (which is not to mention things like I’m just not able to get pregnant or nurse a baby, and I do just happen to have much better mechanical skills than she; I fix the cars, she nurses the baby). In schools, homes, and workplaces, we so often see equality and sameness as indiscriminate. I think that what WFH should work for is finding an arrangement where both feel that they share the workload evenly but each is happy with their share of that.

      For another example, we have no dishwasher. I absolutely *hate* washing dishes by hand. My wife feels the same about cleaning the bathroom. She doesn’t exactly look forward to doing the dishes, but we’ve decided that we feel it’s fair enough for her to wash the dishes and I clean the bathroom and put away the dishes once they’ve dried. Equal? We feel so. Same? Definitely not.

  5. summer

    I don’t know, something stinks here. For one, the writer seems too invested in demonstrating how modern, logical, hardworking, and fair he is, while subtly suggesting that his wife is easily overwhelmed and being a bit of a baby. I agree with Catherine that, were he the domestic powerhouse seems to suggest he is, his wife would probably not feel so stressed.
    Something else bothers me–he acknowledges that his wife’s feelings of stress are real, but that her reasons for feeling them really are not. It “feels” real to her, but it’s all in her mind?
    I feel like this husband is more interested in getting others to validate him and tell him that he’s right; , that he’s a great guy, and that his lucky wife should be willing to do whatever he asks (because he asks so very little of her!) WFH, much of women’s work is invisible, even when done in plain sight. Do you, your wife, and/or your religious community have an expectation of beautifully dressed children, daily cooked-from-scratch meals, a perfectly decorated home, Martha Stewart-level crafts and DIY projects, handmade scrapbooks, large and involved holiday and birthday parties that compete with the wealthiest or most creatively gifted members of your family or ward, frequent involvement in the classrooms of each of your children, that she ferry them between music, dance, sports, mommy and me classes, that she be thin, health-conscious, well-read, charitable, pious, fashionable? The truth is that the religious and community expectations of her likely DO require the attention fo a full-time mom, and you’ll both have to agree that secular accomplishments and income are more important than having a family that is perfectly in step with your religious community. Having a mom that works 18 or 88 hours requires that some things (many things) are sacrificed to that goal. What are you willing to give up?

  6. utah_guy

    Another thing that came to mind. Marriage was never meant to be fair. If you have that expectation, you’re going to be disappointed. What happens if your wife becomes disabled and can only do 5% of the family’s work? If you’re willing to give 100%, regardless of how much she is giving, you’ll very likely be in a great place. Anything she offers will be a bonus.

  7. Mama M.

    So she has to settle for your standards–in not getting the house cleaned, the garden weeded and the kids’ practicing done, and also rise to your expectations of working outside the home? It doesn’t sound like a win-win for anyone. If you are doing what you want to do–that is, having the kind of job you’ve chosen and the income (or lack therof) that comes with it, she needs to be able to do the same (staying at home taking care of her family). When you “settle” for less (income), you will gain a lot more in terms of her peace of mind and contentment.
    She grew up believing that she would stay at home and take care of her family, and your trying to gain “fairness” isn’t going to change her upbringing or the counsel of our modern-day prophets.
    There is no such thing as totally fair, no such thing as a perfect marriage, no such thing as truly sharing the responsibilities 50/50. The only thing that really works is when two people are able to be more concerned about the happiness and well-being of their companion than they are of their own selves, and when both people are able to accomplish this is when the magic happens.
    Good luck! and continue to pray for the happiness of your wife and for you to blessed with how to help her find that.

  8. Mitch

    From his comments I hear WFH respects his wife as a peer, a smart capable contributor whose (outside of the home) work he’s proud to hear about from her and mention to others. Wondering if he worries that her job is one key piece of not only their mutuality but also his sense of her as a peer. He may worry that for her to leave that work, or even just fail to appreciate it, would be a step for them toward a different traditional kind of marriage in which he see her, and himself, differently. I empathize with his feeling that the work we do influences how we know who we are, even if that’s perhaps too middle-class a value. I also feel for his discomfort at stating his deeper worries (if I’m right) because of how that might suggest less appreciation for special categories like a woman’s role in the home that are protected I their shared church culture.

  9. chris

    As I have loved you. Love one another.

    How did the Savior show he loved us? By bearing our burdens, unto suffering and death, also much teaching, patience, blessings, healing, etc.

    It’s not a happy answer, but if you want to follow the Lord, you have to be willing to take someone’s burdens and carry them on your shoulders. The Lord will strengthen you, and even more importantly, he will bear what you can not. And just inline with that, hopefully your wife can do the same with her own burdens and yours as well.

    Look to the Lord for the pattern to follow. It will always reveal how we can do better, and just as important, reveal how we can be strengthened to do so.

  10. TS

    I could not agree more with the writer. By way of background – I’m a non LDS women who reads this blog because I have family members who are Mormon. I also am the sole breadwinner of my family. Since we have been together for the past 8 years I have supported myself and my husband as I am a fairly well paid professional and he was struggling to find his career path and going back to school.
    I believe that women – even Mothers – should work some amount of time outside the home. Not only for financial benefits but also for the enrichment and empowerment it brings to her life but also the children and family. Having grown up in a very traditional home where dad went to work and mom stayed home with the kids and never had a career, I find that I struggled with not having a professional women role model to learn from or to guide me in my career choices. In addition, I believe that at some point in the future – maybe when the kids are grown or in a financial crisis – the wife will wish that she had not only a “job” but a career. My father always told me from when I was a little girl that I should always be able to support and take care of myself instead of relying on a man because I may never get married or if I do I may not stay married.
    Unfortunately it appears that the readers wife does not share these beliefs. I dont think he’s going to be able to change that or convince her to be happy working outside the home. She has to want that and come to that desire on her own. Pushing her will only lead to her resenting it. I may times wanted to tell my husband to get a job or even a part time job instead of staying home or while going to school. But luckily I bit my tongue and worked through it in my head. And in the end we have a wonderful partnership and I have a very happy husband who has found himself after many years.
    I think you should advise your wife to do what makes her happy and if quitting her job does then so be it. You can always reevaluate this decision in the future. She may even come back to you one day and say she wants to work!

  11. utahcanadian

    There are some wonderful insights and suggestions in the comments above. My main thought is that this husband seems to be overly concerned with his perception that society expects his wife to work outside the home in order to contribute financially to the family. What factors are leading him to this conclusion? Especially when it goes against the counsel of modern-day prophets, is causing such turmoil for his wife, and isn’t really needed? Whenever one uses the word “should”, an expectation is coming from somewhere and its source needs to be identified. His expectations in this regard seem to be keep-up-with-the-Joneses-based, politically-correct secular thinking. It is admirable that at least he doesn’t buy too much into the “status” of the work, since he does recognize her efforts have great social contributions despite their low pay.

    Although General Authorities acknowledge it is not true in many cases, in this one It is clear that her income is truly not needed by the family. As with tithing, the Lord will provide for their needs when they have the faith to act according to His counsels. Strangely enough, she seems to contribute enough by working to cover tithing — many have testified, including me, that it is a simple thing for the Lord to compensate at the 10% rate.

    @TS, this woman does have enough education and work experience to be able to provide for herself and her family if required (albeit at a lower standard of living). It just is not required in current circumstances. In this household economy, her working is extremely inefficient for the amount of money she earns and the time and energy it takes away from what she feels still needs to be done for the family, let alone her negative feelings.

    If she wishes, a woman can still gain many of the benefits of working and contributing to society — “outside the home” — by a regular volunteer position a few hours a week, or through temporary employment or occasional work that allows her to work as the opportunity arises, and as she feels available. In the case of volunteer work, the husband can then feel gratified that his financial support is contributing to society, as well as to his family. By having so many women in the workforce, America has lost a lot of flexibility in providing for humanitarian needs.

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