Earlier this week, New York Times columnist, Ross Douthat, wrote an op-ed piece about how feminism has made women increasingly unhappy over the last 30 years. Despite being wealthier, healthier and better educated than they were a generation ago, women in post-feminist America aren’t as happy as they used to be. He suggested this may have something to do with the number of women “stuck raising kids alone,” a “depressing” lifestyle that’s much more common among women in the lower socioeconomic class. This hardly explains why so many wealthy women in East Hampton are so miserable, though, Douthat admits. He suggests women’s unhappiness may have something to do with their politics — maybe women “prefer egalitarian, low-risk societies, and the cowboy capitalism of the Reagan era had an anxiety-inducing effect on the American female,” he writes. Um, sure. Or, it could also be the famous “second shift,” Douthat offers, “in which women continue to do the lion’s share of household chores even as they’re handed more and more workplace responsibility.” Hmm, you think? And whose fault is it that women continue doing the lion’s share of household chores? Is it possible that women, who have more options now than ever, are making the wrong choices, creating their own unhappiness?
In a world — and economic climate — when so much is out of our hands, American women enjoy “unprecedented control over their own fertility,” as well as the freedom to partner with whomever they choose. True, gay marriage is still illegal in most of the country, but that doesn’t mean women can’t form lasting unions and partnerships in parenthood with whomever they choose, regardless of sex. And if they never want to partner with anyone or have children at all, they’re free to make that choice as well. So why are so many women ending up in marriages and partnerships that suck the life out of them? In an age when more and more women have careers outside the home, why are so many of them in relationships that continue to foster the archaic idea that household chores fall solely — or even mostly — in their camp?
There’s a letter in today’s Guardian from a 28-year-old wife and mother of two young children. She works outside the home, while her husband takes care of the children full-time. She complains that even while working a “demanding and tiring job,” she still has to do most of the housework when she gets home while her husband farts around on the computer. Married for six years, she wed when she was 22, an age that some might argue is way too young to marry. What if she’d gotten some life experience first? What if she’d fully experienced the responsibility of a “demanding and tiring job” before taking on the demanding and tiring role of wife and mother? Maybe she’d have made some different choices — choices that may have led to a happier home life down the road.
The thing is, while we women are have unprecedented opportunities outside the home and have fought so long for equality in the workplace, many of us lack models of true equality inside the home. While we’re taking advantage of more options than our mothers and grandmothers ever had, we continue to make the same kinds of choices when it comes to our relationships and home life. No wonder we can’t balance it all. If we’re ever to have true equality, we have to start taking responsibility in choosing – and even training — mates who understand and respect the division of labor in a domestic partnership. And we have to pass that responsibility on to our children — to our daughters and our sons.
Change won’t happen overnight, but it won’t happen at all if we don’t make it a priority. While equality in the workplace is as important as ever, it’s time that equality — and mutual respect — at home take center stage. If women indeed want it all — a career and a relationship and a family — they have to be in charge of the balancing act. Regardless of how high a woman can climb the career ladder, if she wants a relationship and family, too, her biggest responsibility is still at home — and it starts with choosing a partner who shares her vision and sensibility of domestic harmony.