The Unmade Bed
ONE The Hollow Patriarchy
AFTER nine hours of labor, nine hours of a new person ripping her way into the world, my wife asked for an epidural and then the iPad so she could send a note to work. In my state of protective exhaustion I suggested that the time should probably be just for us and for the little body whose head was working its way through the birth canal. But it’s hard to argue with a woman who’s eight centimeters dilated. Besides, why not send the note? Soon enough the baby would be with us. The pause between the epidural and full dilation was the most calm we would know for months. Everybody is in the thick of it, in the mash-up of work and family, the confounding blur of everything, instantly, at once, the way life happens now. Why waste a moment?
While my wife and I waited for the baby to arrive—she on the iPad while I tried not to stare at the puddle of blood beneath her on the bed—we were waiting in a totally new reality than had greeted any generation before us. We barely noticed; the
moment seemed utterly natural, despite its novelty and the slight tang of absurdity. The hospital was full of the gentle pings of the latest, most reassuring technology and the low murmur of sympathetic nurses, but no veil of hygienic modernity can disguise the brutality of what goes on there. My wife’s vagina was on a raised platform for all to investigate, and she was still running Toronto Life. What was the note? A cover negotiation? A better lead to the second paragraph of some story or other?I
This quiet moment, utterly personal, was the result of a grand, very public revolution. A woman with a big job delivering a baby while her husband watched would have been inconceivable fifty years ago. Of all the grand political fantasies of the twentieth century, the various ideologies that dared to reconfigure humanity, and came and went, leaving behind the fetid stench of their failed utopias, only feminism has left a tangible legacy in everyday life. Even its limited successes have had vast consequences. Only now, only a generation after the major legal and political victories of the movement, are we reckoning with how vast, and often how hidden, those consequences are. Every aspect of life—financial, sexual, cultural, domestic, political—is undergoing unprecedented adjustment. The most lowly questions—Who will do the dishes?— run together with the grandest: Who will run the state?
The reach of lowly or grand questions seemed remote from the hospital room where Sarah and I waited for our daughter.
Nothing we had read mattered much one way or the other. The crisis was cosmic. Even love, or whatever other name you might care to give it, seemed a half-dreamed precondition to this moment, the arrival of a new soul. I could not stop looking at my wife—her hair, tucked behind her ears, glistening with the sweat of effort; her eyes scouring the screen in concentration. Sarah was iconic of the rearrangement we are living through, an absolutely contemporary but also ancient human condition: She was a mammal shaping the world.
* * *
I live a quiet life. I have a wife and a son and a daughter and a job and a house and a mortgage, and in the middle of all this quietude I am also in the middle of a world-shattering revolution, one of the most profound reevaluations of humanity ever undertaken, the redefinition of a core human distinction that has been in place for thirty thousand years. I am living the hopeful and uncertain fate
of men and women in the twenty-first century.
Economics is the vehicle of that hope and uncertainty. The reality transforming the developed world, and to a lesser extent the developing world, is the rise of women to real economic power in the middle class. All the other changes—the changes that prepared the way for my wife on the iPad in the delivery room—follow in its wake. Companionate marriage, among other things, is an outgrowth of women earning a living.
Female professionals were one of the great novelties of the twentieth century. They define the economic order of the twenty-first.
Since 1996 American women have earned more bachelor degrees than men. In 2012 they started earning a greater number of doctoral degrees as well. Of the top fifteen growth industries in the United States, twelve are dominated by women. The most recent Pew study of the state of the American family revealed the result of all that change: in 40 percent of all households with children under the age of eighteen women are the primary source of income. That ratio has risen continuously since 1960, when it stood at a mere 10.8 percent. It will not be long before the typical American breadwinner is a woman.
In a marketplace shifting rapidly to the manipulation of information, women have dived in headfirst, while men have watched timidly from shore.
The pay gap survives, but ebbs. In 1980 women earned 64 percent of the median hourly wages of men; by 2012 the rate was 84 percent. Among those under the age of thirty, the rate is 93 percent. It’s not the scope of the improvement that’s impressive, but its continuity. The economic reality for women just gets better and better. The wage gap in the nations of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), of which the United States is a member, has declined from 19 to 15 percent between 2000 and 2011. Women have increased their workforce participation in almost every country in the developed world since 2000. In the great middle, the twenty-first century will belong to women.
A formidable contradiction is starting to emerge as women close the economic divide, though. Economic equality should not be confused with parity; an increase in income or workplace participation is not the same as power. Men still
hold the top jobs by an overwhelming margin. Women earn, but they do not as yet own. Just 172 of the 1,645 billionaires on
the Forbes list in 2014 were women, and only twelve of those were self-made. The same gender divide at the very top remains ferociously persistent. Men have more say across a range of fields; for instance, they make up 76 percent of full professors in the United States and 66 percent of doctors and lawyers. And even though women have made significant gains in those last two professions—4 and 6 percent in a decade, respectively—at the peak of their earning, female doctors make two-thirds what male doctors do, and female lawyers are only 16.8 percent of equity partners at major U.S. firms. In the top tech firms women make up 15.6 percent of the engineers and 22.5 percent of leadership. Although it ranks sixth in the world, U.S.
female board membership is a measly 12 percent. In supposedly liberal Canada, where I live, it’s 6 percent, a national disgrace.
We inhabit a hollow patriarchy: the shell is patriarchal, but the insides approach the egalitarian. The contradiction generates strange paradoxes. Even women with servants and houses and powerful jobs, who possess hundreds of millions of dollars, consider themselves victims. And they’re right.
Women in the upper reaches of power are limited in ways that men simply are not.
The hollow patriarchy is political as much as it is economic. According to the World Economic Forum’s “Global Gender Gap Report 2014,” female representation in the world’s democracies averages a mere 20 percent. The percentage of women in elected
office in America makes for depressing reading: in 2013, 18.2 percent of seats in Congress were filled by women, and an even 20 percent of seats in the Senate. Only five governors are women; only twelve of the largest hundred cities in the United States have women mayors; only 20.8 percent of state legislators are women. The figures for women in other elected positions, attorneys general and so on, are roughly the same. And while female political participation is growing and has grown almost every year since 1979, when only 3 percent of members of the U.S. Congress were women, it is growing with painful slowness. At the current rate of expansion, women will reach political parity in Congress fifty-five years from now. And the situation is much the same in all the other Western democracies. When it comes to political power, “some countries are moving in the right direction, but very slowly,” Saadia Zahidi, head of the World Economic Forum’s Gender Parity Program, noted in an interview before their 2012 report. “We’re talking about very small and slow changes.”
Various men’s movements, the most prominent of which is the National Center for Men, have emerged purportedly to provide a counterweight to feminism, but they are promoting an inherently absurd proposition. Power is still in the hands of a few men, even though the majority of men are being outpaced in the knowledge economy by every metric. The contradiction rolls both ways, inside and out. Masculinity grows more and more powerless while remaining iconic of power.
* * *
I began living the hollowness of the hollow patriarchy rather abruptly on the afternoon of April 12, 2007, in Prospect Park in Brooklyn. My wife called to say that she had been offered the position of editor in chief at Toronto Life. If she accepted the offer, she would be the first female editor of that publication, and at thirty-three, by far the youngest editor in chief in Canada. Her hiring represented, in its own small way, a generational shift.
And yet Prospect Park in the spring is not a place you want to think about leaving. The apricots were blooming. Relaxed families and groups of friends formed patchwork tribes over the rolling greenery of the East Meadow. Those urbane kids you find only in New York, the ones who know how the world works from about the age of four, chased dogs like kids from anywhere. I was thirty-one years old in 2007. Sarah and I had a beautiful son who was starting to walk; my second novel, Shining at the Bottom of the Sea, was about to come out, and my day job was teaching Shakespeare in Harlem, safe in the harbor of the tenure track at City College after five miserably lean years in graduate school. The call was an abrupt interruption to a carefully planned, painfully won setup. As a couple, as a man and a woman, we were faced with a stark choice: New York or Toronto?II
My career or hers?
I knew as I looked around the park that I belonged there. I belonged with my students in Harlem. I belonged with my New York publishers. My mind raced for a way to avoid the personal and professional disaster that moving back to Canada would entail. Could I stay here and visit my wife and son on the weekends? Could I convince my wife she could find work in New York, even though she didn’t have a visa, even though she’d been offered her dream job? All my imaginary schemes collapsed as soon as they formulated because I knew they were really modes of mourning in advance for my lost futures, all the New York selves I would never become. City College paid me a little more than sixty thousand dollars a year, and my wife would make nearly double that in Toronto. Good hospitals are free in Toronto. Good schools are free in Toronto. This is what they call a no-brainer. Perhaps that was what was most upsetting about the decision to move back: that there wasn’t
much deciding. It felt like something that was happening to me, to us.
We left New York at the end of summer, and I restarted my life in the enlightened confusion of the new reality. Sarah and I took, in microcosm, the journey men and women in Western democracies have taken. She rose; she was responsible for the family’s financial well-being; and she was a boss, with all the pressures and complications that accompany that role. As for me, I went from having about as traditional a marker of authority as you can find—a tenure-track professorship—to carting my son around the play spaces of Toronto before and after day care, on weekends when Sarah was still wrestling with her new responsibilities, and in the evenings when she was expected to show up at the self-important Toronto parties where nothing ever happens. I was suddenly my wife’s husband.
* * *
Sarah obviously is an exception, even a pioneer, with all the usual bullshit that goes with that title. An elderly reporter, profiling her for a newspaper story, discovered she had a child and asked, panicked, “Where is he now?” As if Sarah just happened to forget his existence.III
In part the hollowness of the hollow patriarchy derives from the strange, almost unaccountable fact that gender politics at work and at
home have diverged so widely that they now appear to be from distinct cultures. In the 1950s the patriarchy at work and the patriarchy at home were of a piece. The father was head of the household because he provided for the family, and the boss was head of the company because he provided work that provided for the family. For the overwhelming majority this mode of integrated patriarchy has disappeared. The days of Dad working all week and then, having fulfilled his duties, playing a couple or three rounds of golf on the weekend are ancient history. The new model of an equal household is triumphant. A 2008 Pew Research study titled “Women Call the Shots at Home” found that 43 percent of women made more decisions at home than their male partners did, and 31 percent of male and female partners equally divided decisions. (This bit of good news contains a further conundrum: Is making decisions at home a form of power? Would women’s power in fact consist in
making fewer decisions at home, in having less control?) There is no patriarchal “head of the household” in most households anymore. The family has changed and is changing further, while at work patriarchy remains intact and functional, surviving as a kind of lazy hangover, like daylight savings time or summer vacations.
The hollow patriarchy transcends mere culture; its process is driven by underlying economic realities. The rise of women is an aspect of globalization itself, and not the smallest. The “Shanghai husband” is a recent specimen of the burgeoning Chinese cities and is, more or less, what I became seven thousand miles away in Toronto. Shanghai husbands cook. They clean. They take care of the babies. They don’t earn very much. “Many men joke fondly of their status as a Shanghai husband, oblique homage to the pleasures of domesticity,” James Farrer wrote in Opening Up, his study of sexuality and market reform in China. In a 1999 episode of the Chinese television matchmaker show Saturday Date, the father of one of the female contestants approved of such a domesticated man for his daughter: “I myself am a Shanghai-style husband. I believe he also will be a Shanghai-style husband. I believe he has real feelings for our daughter. He will take care of her.” These types emerge despite the obvious and ingrained sexism prevalent in China today, with state-run campaigns against “leftover women” (unmarried women twenty-seven and older), 117.7 boys for every 100 girls as of 2012, and no criminalization of marital rape. The Shanghai husband is a corollary of the Shanghai wife: the supertough, supersmart woman who kicks the shit out of foreign competition.
I only wish I could have been as relaxed about my condition as my Chinese counterparts.
Idiosyncrasies of culture don’t alter the basic economic trends at play. Insofar as any country participates in the globalized economy, it encounters the hollow patriarchy. The rise of the global middle class is the rise of women. Modernity is irrevocably feminist. Insofar as a country prospers, it prospers by way of women. In 2006, an OECD study demonstrated what common sense tells us: The countries where women flourish are the most stable, the most technologically advanced, the most peaceful, the richest, the most powerful. They are the countries that people in the rest of the world want to move to. Patriarchy is damn expensive. That’s why it’s doomed.
Exactly how expensive is patriarchy? A 2013 report from the
International Monetary Fund described the labor market divide as a macroeconomic burden of the first order: “Raising the female labor force participation rate . . . to country-specific male levels would, for instance, raise GDP in the United States by 5 percent, in Japan by 9 percent, in the United Arab Emirates by 12 percent, and in Egypt by 34 percent.” According to a
Goldman Sachs study conducted in 2008, in the BRIC and N-11 countries (Brazil, Russia, India, and China and the so-called next eleven major economies), narrowing the
gender gap in employment “could push income per capita as much as fourteen percent higher than our baseline projections by 2020, and as much as twenty percent higher by 2030.” These forces are slowly but determinedly under way. Investment bankers are counting on them.
Politicians who are considering the role of women in the workplace and in society should recognize that they are asking themselves the following question: How poor do we want to be? Japan has recently announced some of the clearest and most direct attempts to smash the hollow
patriarchy, both from above and from below, not because of a major ideological realignment or a widespread cultural shift but because of brute economics. Japan is patriarchal. Married Japanese women overwhelmingly stay at home. The country ranks a miserable 105 out of 136 in the 2013 Global Gender Gap Report. Roughly 1.2 percent of board members are female. In an attempt to budge these deep cultural imbalances Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has called on every Japanese company to have at least one female member on its board. And he has announced the building of 250,000 new day care centers. He is not undertaking these policies because he has suddenly realized that women are people too. He has realized that, given Japan’s negative population growth rate and long recession, the country cannot afford to lose the productive efforts of its women.
The rise of women is a byproduct of capitalism, not of an intellectual movement or political activism. Feminism as an ideology has cribbed an emerging economic reality as a triumph of professors and activists. The rise of women is not a resistance to injustice; it is an unintended consequence of the internal logic of capitalism. Countries that insist on separating women from men for cultural or religious reasons are paying an immense price for it and will continue to fall behind as long as they maintain that separation. I suppose any country, any culture can waste its
money on whatever it chooses. But keeping women down is a very expensive luxury.
Not that we should exaggerate the current state of the advancement of women. One hundred million women in West Africa have undergone
genital mutilation—roughly six thousand a day. Amartya Sen’s estimate of the number of “
missing women of Asia,” the girls who do not exist because of the cultural preference for sons, is a hundred million. The ratio of boys to girls at birth in India and China remains the same as it is in the Western world, 1.05 to 1.06, but the ratio of men to women is 0.94. The girls die off because, unlike the boys, they are denied access to food and medicine.
Boys receive more education than girls in more than seventy-five countries. In global terms, we are by no means postfeminist. We are very much prefeminist.
Just as the majority of people in the world use firewood as their primary power source, so questions of gender relations, globally, are rather more basic than the contradictions in this book. The definition of domestic abuse, the use of sexual crime as an instrument of war, whether men have the right to rape their wives—these are the gender politics of most of the planet. Not that the discrepancy between the status of women in the first and third worlds means that the rise of women in the rich democracies is irrelevant. It is a vital instruction. The patriarchs have learned its lesson better than anyone. The liberation of women is the primary marker of modernity and prosperity. Therefore those who wish to be rich and modern will actively promote women. Those who justify their poverty
by calling it tradition begin their assault on the future through the bodies of women. In the United States the first sign of traditional values is the restriction of women’s control over their own bodies: the same groups that describe abortion as genocide actively discourage sex education or the promotion of contraception. Women’s flesh must first be controlled: that control is synonymous with the old ways.
* * *
The economic underpinnings of the new reality between men and women shouldn’t make us politically complacent, as if gender equality were going to take care of itself. The opposite: it shows how wasteful, how needlessly destructive keeping women from power is. The stakes are as high as they can be. How are we going to shatter this hollow edifice? How can we hasten its collapse?
The equality of women is spiritually and practically a flourishing of human potential. The hollow patriarchy keeps women from power and confounds male identity. It serves nobody’s interests. And yet it may be harder to unravel than older modes of sexism. The struggles articulated by The Second Sex and The Feminine Mystique and The Female Eunuch were broadly oppositional: women against men, young against old, feminists against the existing power structures. The hollow patriarchy demands the negotiation of complex contradictions by men and women together, an infinitely thornier, more difficult process requiring compassion rather than force, empathy rather than outrage. Life between men and women is becoming less
a battleground and more a labyrinth from which we need to thread a way out. The assumptions girding our lives are giving way. We need rearrangement rather than revolution. Rearrangements are quieter but they can be more profound. For one thing, the rearrangement of our moment is not just a woman’s movement; it involves changing men and women together. For another, the rearrangement requires a more difficult and more nuanced politics than the gender wars of a previous era.
Revolutions require loud voices and slogans. Rearrangements require considered decisions, taste even. That’s the bad news. The good news is that revolutions mostly fail and sometimes rearrangements work out.
* * *
The hollow patriarchy changes the nature of sex and domestic life and the raising of children. It infiltrates our dreams and our clothes and our music and our food. And, in the distance, though not the near distance, a reevaluation of the nature of power itself is coming. But before all those grand gestures, all those important overturnings of the nature of society and the gender roles it nurtures, there’s the day to get through.
I enjoyed my time with my son when my wife couldn’t be home. Long walks in the park (nodding to other dads), naptime (wasted online), a spot of lunch (grilled cheese and chicken noodle soup, or macaroni and cheese), cuddles (the best), snacks in the park (absolutely no nuts), nap (again wasted online), more walks (smiling less this time), more snacks (raisins and crackers),
whiskey and water (for me), Dora the Explorer (for him), dinner, a hasty phone conversation with my wife about what was going on in the world of real people (not that I cared anymore), then bed (alone or together).
To hold a baby is to hold what matters: the point, the hope. Child care is restless labor; the total intimacy shared with another lump of flesh is no compensation for the utter loneliness of spirit that accompanies it. Driven from task to task, from moment to moment, everything in life seems adrift but also pressingly urgent. Leave your kid eating cereal while you run upstairs for a book, and he’s shoved three Cheerios up his nostril and you have to suck them out, spitting the soggy snottiness into an unwelcoming palm. Check your email at the playground, and your son has run to squat in the road over an unfortunate worm that has modernistically dried in the middle of traffic. Pick a quarter off the street, and the kid is suddenly standing on the roof of a car. Ask yourself at the end of the day what you have accomplished and the best answer you can come up with is that not everything has completely fallen apart.
There remain the pressures of vanity and status. In downtown Toronto the school system is run by Vietnam-era draft dodgers and people who openly call themselves socialists—the progressiveness tends to expand into an unbearable holier-than-thou-off in Toronto—so I expected open-mindedness. But while Sarah and I were living out the new codes, the old codes remained very much in effect. The reaction to my unemployment and fatherhood-centricity was sharply divided along generational lines. Among Boomers classic gender stereotypes
prevailed. I had become “the woman” and my wife had become “the man.” Mine was a case of straight emasculation. Boomer men—and these were good guys, guys who considered themselves forward-looking, guys who had lived through real progress, who had seen the whole reality of men and women overturned in their lifetime, who had helped bring about the overturning—would vibrate with suppressed head shakes of disbelief. And the women, kind women, women who were not hateful, women who had steeped their radicalism in the tempering waters of real life, would smile with amazement, eyes glinting with the cruel pleasure that takes its fullest flavor from righteousness. I was a living embodiment of patriarchy overcome, and they had contributed somewhat to my secondary status.
Among people my own age the reaction was subtler. By no means is my own story extraordinary. Well over half my male friends have wives who make more money than they. Our family story nonetheless possessed a species of limited glamour. To
academic competitors and colleagues the fact that I had given up a tenure-track appointment was like the charge of the Light Brigade: glorious economic suicide. To others, giving up New York for anything, even wife and child, verged on the inconceivable. Most friends and acquaintances roughly in my age group at least understood the nature of the decision. They knew it had nothing to do with politics or virtue or even my relationship with Sarah. Hopping from city to city is part of twenty-first-century life, and sometimes one person in a marriage has to make sacrifices. Nonetheless I had become an addendum. One
of the lessons the contemporary marriage is teaching a lot of men—
women have always known it—is that sacrifice is real. At first I thought through leaving New York that way, that I was doing what
women had always done, sacrificing their career for their family and their partner’s success. Another tormented thought pursued me: Would I have destroyed my careerIV
for my husband if I had been a woman? If Sarah had had a tenure-track job in New York, would she have given it up?
The low point for me was a family dinner with my parents. They had their own new order to face up to, one in which their beloved son, whose expensive and seemingly ludicrously decadent education in various abstruse literary questions, they had supported and nurtured until it had miraculously ended in a real-life job. Which he had promptly abandoned. My father, who no doubt meant well, compared our situation to those of other academic couples he had known. “Every big career needs a wife,” he said. So I was not just my wife’s husband; I was my wife’s wife. And to my father.
was also broke, one of the more precise terms in the English language. In giving up my middle-class income I found out how vulnerable you really are when you rely on somebody else financially. Let all men and all women heed the obvious lesson: Financial independence is all of independence. These were the dark days. Every marriage has them. “We’ve been married for twenty-five years,” I remember my dad saying at my parents’ anniversary. “Happily for twenty-two.” I cannot recall exactly what Sarah and I screamed at each other, but it was about money. She had made promises about money she could not keep.V
And I felt my powerlessness about money. We screamed at each other because screaming would change nothing. We were angry because we loved each other, and love and money had placed us in circumstances outside our control. Anger is its own form of intimacy. It kind of made it worse that I couldn’t imagine divorcing her. Love was another way I was trapped.
As was sleeplessness. This story, and all of the psychic turbulence I am describing, should be understood to occur inside the condition of never sleeping more than a few hours at a time because the boy never slept more than a few hours at a time. The mood of desperate exhaustion permeated our lives like a
chemical foulness. The most ferocious effect of sleeplessness is also one of the most difficult to see: insomnia sucks all the hope out of life. Insomnia makes it impossible to imagine that life will improve.
* * *
I remember, as a boy, waking up on a mattress in the back of a station wagon in a hospital parking lot in Edmonton, Alberta. My mother is a physician, who at that time delivered babies, and my father commuted to another city by plane every day. So, when she had to deliver a baby, a few times my mom had to put my brother and me in the back of the station wagon in the middle of the night and leave us in the hospital parking lot. Edmonton, Alberta in the winter is as dark and as cold as cities are allowed to be. Outside the station wagon, it could easily have been minus thirty or forty. But inside it was cozy. I loved the adventure. I didn’t know that it was unusual for children to wake up in parking lots in the middle of the night. Later, I came to realize how my parents had clawed themselves, with single-minded ferocity, into the middle class through many such superhuman acts. Nor was their story atypical. My mother-in-law used to return home from her job as a radio broadcaster, feed two children, put them to bed, and then return to the office for a couple more hours of work. If it was like this for doctors and broadcasters, what must it have been like for factory workers? Challenges was the word my upwardly mobile parents used, I think. Domestic challenges. From my vantage point they seem like domestic impossibilities.
rise of women has always been about assuaging competing demands of the domestic and professional spheres. The feminist movement, along with the rest of society, has assumed that taking care of children is women’s work and a woman’s political issue. The exclusion of men from the discussion of work and life is strange, because in heterosexual relationships the decisions about who works and who takes care of the children and who makes the money and how the money is spent are not made by women alone nor by some vague and impersonal force called society. They are decided by that blackest of black boxes, that repository of social mystery: the marriage.
The Pew Research study “
Modern Parenthood,” which came out in March 2013, found “no significant gap in attitudes between mothers and fathers.” Working fathers are more conflicted than working mothers about work-family balance: 46 percent of working fathers worry about not spending time with their kids, compared to 23 percent of working mothers. The same report revealed the sharpness of changing attitudes toward the family. In the past decade the number of dads in America who stay home with their kids has doubled, up to 176,000. According to census data prepared for the New York Times, that number rises to 626,000 if you include part-time workers and freelancers who are primary caregivers, guys like me. In 2009, 54 percent of fathers with kids under seventeen believed that children should have a mother who didn’t work. In a mere two years that number dropped to 37 percent.
For the Boomers and people older, the relationship between husband and wife, and the decisions about work made by husband
and wife, are questions of power, and therefore political, ideological. Nobody asked me why we returned to Canada when we did. They knew it was money. In my experience, the modern marriage, and all of its decisions, and all the consequences those decisions have on the role of gender, boil down almost entirely to money. The conflict is no longer about the appropriate roles of men and women but the more general problem of the insane productivity demands of the contemporary workplace coming up against hunger for home life. The work-life problem belongs to both genders now. It belongs to everybody who needs money and has children and is subject to time.
The fact is, men can’t have it all, for the same reason women can’t: whether or not the load is being shared fifty-fifty doesn’t matter if the load is unbearable. It will not become bearable once women lean in, or once the consciousness is raised, or once men are full partners, always, in domestic life. It will become bearable when decidedly more quotidian things become commonplace, like paid parental leave and affordable, quality day care.
If men’s voices are absent from the conversation about family, we have, I’m afraid, only ourselves to blame. Those who speak loudest tend to be either members of the aforementioned men’s rights groups or explicit antifeminists who long for a traditional family that bears little resemblance to the current reality. Men are not victims in this story, not helpless witnesses to their wives’ struggles. And yet, while a chorus of women demands maternity leave, only recently, and only in the most progressive companies of Silicon Valley, have men
started demanding paternity leave, and even then only for a few weeks.
A conversation about work-life balance conducted by and for a small sliver of the female population only perpetuates the perception that these are women’s problems, not family ones. If you doubt that such thinking is still pervasive, see the recent op-ed in the New York Times about the effect of tax policy on working families, which contained this sentence: “Most working mothers who pay for
child care do so out of their after-tax income.” That’s right: child care is a not a father’s expense, or a family’s expense, but a mother’s. There are a hundred linguistic gaps between mothers and fathers in the tax code and in everyday life: stay-at-home mothers are parents; stay-at-home fathers are child care arrangements. Mothers are carers. Fathers provide care.
The residual prejudice explains why, despite the narrowing gender gap among millennials, both men and women feel that the narrowing is temporary.
The gender gap for those under thirty is small, but it feels huge. The reason is the undeniable math of procreation: among millennials 59 percent of women but only 19 percent of men think “being a working parent makes it harder to advance in a job or career.” Plus, 75 percent of millennial women and 57 percent of millennial men think that “more changes are needed to give men and women equality in the workplace.” They are obviously correct. Twenty-three percent of American women return to work within two weeks of giving birth. In the United States the National Institutes of Health have rated only 10 percent of child care facilities nationwide
as providing “high-quality care”; most are rated “fair” or “poor.” And in every state the average annual cost of day care for two children exceeds the average annual rent. Not surprisingly, low-income mothers are far more likely to stay at home than are upper-income mothers. Such women are forgoing paid work because they can’t earn enough money to cover child care. Although the situation is much better in Europe, across the twenty-seven countries in the EU, 26 percent of women with a child under the age of three who are working full- or part-time “report that suitable care services for children are not available or affordable.”
Here is where, as we approach the end of the gender wars, we approach the limits of feminism as an ideology, because to concentrate on the needs of women is counterproductive. As early as 2008 Great Britain was already seeing the unintended consequences of
maternity leave without paternity leave. “There has been a sea change on maternity leave and flexible work and we welcome that,” said Nicola Brewer, chief executive officer of the Equalities and Human Rights Commission. “But the effect has been to reinforce some traditional patterns. The Work and Families Act has not freed parents and given them real choice. It is based on assumptions, and some of them reinforce the traditional pattern of women as carers of children.” The struggle for maternity leave—the struggle for women—only creates another
gender division, one that employers cannot help but recognize: young women have an inherent disadvantage due to their biology.
Only family leave solves the problem. Only by considering
the question from the perspective of the family as a unit can patriarchy be smashed. As long as family issues are miscast as women’s issues they will be dismissed as the pleadings of one interest group among many. Fighting for the family is another matter. When gay rights activists shifted their focus from the struggle for their rights as an oppressed minority to the struggle to support their families, their movement achieved unprecedented political triumph. It is easy to have a career as an antifeminist. Force the opponents of day care support and family leave to come out instead against working families. Let them try to sell that.
The central conflict of domestic life right now is not mothers against fathers, or even conflicting ideas of motherhood or gender. It is the family against money. How do you hold the family together? Domestic life today is like one of those TV shows that reveal what goes on behind the scenes in show business. The main narrative question is “How the hell are we going to make this happen?” There are tears and laughter and little intrigues, but in the end the show goes on, everyone is fed and clothed and out the door.
* * *
I’m saying this as a man: day care saved my life. When my son was at day care, I could once again lift my head out from the miasma of domesticity. I could once again breathe and look around. I could once again write, and therefore earn. Eventually, David Granger, the editor-in-chief of Esquire, read something I’d written for the Toronto Star and called to ask me if I wanted a
column in his magazine. I could take him up because of day care. Of all the privileges my wife and I possessed, the boy being in a safe place we could afford between nine and five was by far the greatest. Day care is not theoretical liberation; it is the real deal, for men and women.
The most progressive government policy in the past thirty years has been put forward by a male cabinet member of a conservative government. In February 2000 Norway’s secretary of state for trade and industry, Ansgar Gabrielsen, set female board membership rates for companies on the Norwegian Stock Exchange at 40 percent. He explained:
The law was not about getting equality between the sexes; it was about the fact that diversity is a value in itself, that it creates wealth. I could not see why, after 25–30 years of having an equal ratio of women and men in universities and with having so many educated women with experience, there were so few of them on boards. From my time in the business world, I saw how board members were picked: they come from the same small circle of people. They go hunting and fishing together, they are buddies.
When voluntary measures didn’t work, Gabrielsen imposed quotas. The penalties included fines, deregistration from the stock exchange, and dissolution.
The rise of the “golden skirts,” the Norwegian phrase for the new breed of female board members, has had no conclusive economic results so far, one way or another. A 2007
McKinsey report noted that having three women on an executive committee meant that a company outperformed its sector for return on equity by roughly ten percent. But a larger and later metastudy found “the relationship between female board representation and market performance is near-zero.” Norway has not seen that kind of improvement, though there hasn’t been a massive Norwegian financial collapse from the sudden arrival of inexperienced female board members either. Other countries are imitating Norway’s success. France, Italy, Spain, and the Netherlands are instituting their own board membership quotas.
These supposedly women-friendly policies are every bit as valuable to men. The hollow patriarchy cannot be escaped until women hold legitimate power. We don’t need a men’s movement that takes sides in some phony gender war. We need a men’s movement that understands the rise of women is a triumph for the species, one of the most unalloyed political goods ever achieved in human history, and who can acknowledge that this achievement does not require us to be ashamed of our masculinity. What good is a woman without pride to a man? What good is a man without pride to a woman? We need an understanding of gender that is in touch with the way men and women actually live—not in a state of war but in an often tormented, often achingly beautiful journey to intimacy.
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The number of women in positions of power is steadily, though slowly, increasing, and it’s possible that when women achieve a
more substantial number of powerful positions, say a third of the Senate and the House and other bodies of representation, then their status as exceptions will evaporate and their rise to prominence will speed up. It’s also possible that the progress will stall out. But the most likely possibility is more of the same: women underrepresented in political, economic, and cultural high places and increasingly equal or even dominant everywhere else. And the difference will continue to generate more of the turbulence we already live with.
Fury is the natural reaction to the hollow patriarchy. Young women’s frustration at being kept from power is amplified by their obviously demonstrated competence. For at least three generations now women have shown beyond the doubt of any sane person that they can do whatever men can do. They are now better educated. They are evidently more dedicated. So the fact that they are kept from real power is even more bizarre and egregious. Aside from the limitations that the glass ceiling forces on individual lives, which are quite real, the hollow patriarchy renders femininity itself a marker of weakness, injustice, and humiliation. The struggle between Larry Summers and Janet Yellen for who would head the U.S. Federal Reserve—a struggle in which Yellen’s “gravitas” was repeatedly questioned—happened in 2013, not 1963.
For men, or for the vast majority of men anyway, the hollow patriarchy is no more pleasant. They are expected to be powerful while having no agency. At the extremes, lost men decline into racism, neo-Nazism, explicit misogyny. These are the angry white men, subject to so much scrutiny. They are the
ones who think their jobs have been taken away from them, the ones who long for the good old days that never existed. Everyone wants an excuse, I suppose. Everyone wants to play the victim if they can. In most men, however, the state of hollowness creates much more nuanced reactions: self-pity, confusion, light melancholy, the vagaries of an unplaceable, floating collective guilt, a melodramatic vulnerability, or, in the more fortunate, a sense of humor, an ironic sensibility. Mostly the hollow patriarchy produces silence. There is nothing less manly than talking about manliness.
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While my wife was out at various events required by her position in the city, the boy and I had “guys’ nights,” the two of us watching hockey, eating Portuguese takeout with our rude fingers, often in our pajamas. Meanwhile, Sarah ate rubber chicken and listened to endless exercises in self-congratulation, introducing herself and being introduced to the billionaires, police chiefs, CEOs, local celebrities, and the rest of the powers that be.VI
Who was the “winner” and who was the “loser” in this arrangement is entirely a matter of perspective. Like a pagan, I worship what is newborn. I love a baby heart against my heart, breasts swollen with milk, tears, clipped nails, and the smell of
boys who have come inside from out of the snow. I would not trade the nights with my son for any other nights on earth, certainly not for Toronto hotel ballroom galas.
Simple cohort change is bringing a fundamental realignment of family dynamics with it. A
2011 study of millennials revealed that they are markedly more open to new models of the family, but that does not mean family is less important to them: 52 percent believe that being a good parent is more important than having a successful marriage. They have a greater sense of duty to their parents than Boomers or Generation X had to theirs.
Progressive tendencies dovetail neatly with their sense of family obligation. Women are going to have babies sucking their breasts at work.VII
Get used to it. They are mammals who
work. Men are going to leave the office in time to bathe their kids. Get used to it. They are mammals who work. Men even in the highest positions increasingly see time with their children as a nonnegotiable aspect of their compensation. Vice Chancellor
Sigmar Gabriel of Germany, who is responsible for dismantling his country’s nuclear power industry—a big job—decided to take Wednesday afternoons off to spend with his two-year-old daughter. He explained that the time away from his job served the professional function of keeping him aware of reality: “Otherwise we don’t know what normal life is like.”
Wanting a reasonable amount of time with the family is no longer a sign of weakness or lack of dedication; it’s a sign that you’re human and that you’re aware of your humanity.VIII
a sign of selfishness; it’s a sign that you’re a grown-up. To be a mammal and to be a human being is an impossible position, it should be pointed out. No gender politics, no politics of any kind, is going to solve the problem of being a body that wants to be more. No mere philosophy will ever solve the confusion of biology and aspiration and desire that is the massive human mess. Maybe at some point, though I don’t see how, we’ll reconcile being animals with the desire to be something more.
We pretend that family life is achievement and negotiation, a logic puzzle from an aptitude test. We fantasize that life is something built by the person living it, so that we may pretend that our fate is in our hands and that others are to blame for their failures. Control is, at best, a minor aspect of the human condition. Love is something into which we fall. The problem of work-life balance divides life into negotiable responsibilities, but there is no real balance, or rather the balance is a pose that
is hard to hold. There is only falling down and getting up. There is loss and gift.IX
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In the meantime, children keep coming. In the hospital, after a rest that seemed much too long and much too short, the moment of crisisX
rose on its own rhythm out of Sarah’s womb. All the iPads were put away.
Our brief idyll of privacy suddenly filled up with a crowd: a midwife, a midwife in training, a senior surgeon, a junior surgeon, nurses galore. I’ve heard the saying that you’re born alone and you die alone, but nothing could be further from the truth. Birth and death are public spectacles. The suffering joy of my wife as she pushed my daughter out of her was an event, a fascination. I could see, inside my wife, the head of another person.
But the pushing was not working. The head would roll up and roll back. It became clear after two and a half hours that my daughter’s shoulder was catching on the inner crook of my wife’s hip. So the doctors decided to suck my daughter into the world with a vacuum. Cheerful to the point of ebullience, the technicians of the flesh tinkered over my wife’s vagina with what looked like a cheap bicycle pump. They attached. They pulled. They kept pulling while my wife pushed (from inside herself!), and the pulling and the pushing kept pushing and pulling until a lump of bloody life flopped up. A whole new body, a whole new soul, with all that it needs to live, thrust itself out of the womb like a god on a foaming sea of blood. The professionals who had seen it all a thousand times gasped as if it were the first time. A new little girl. In the hygienic roomful of hypermodern machinery, a bunch of apes moaned over new progeny. Life had begun again. I
.?In fact, I was telling the magazine’s deputy editor that I might be offline for a while. II
.?Canada, I believed, would allow me to be an involved mom and have a rich career at the same time, while America, I believed, would have forced me to choose. When we lived in New York I saw what it meant to be a New York mother with a job in journalism. In New York office jobs no one leaves till 6 or 7 p.m. You take the subway to your tiny apartment, switching lines a few times, if the subways are working properly, which means that when you get home your kids are already in their PJs and they’ve had dinner. (A few years later the New York Times published an article about the importance of having dinner with your kids every night. I am pretty sure that the editors of that paper rarely eat dinner with their kids.) Getting your kids into decent schools involves lying, begging, borrowing, stealing. The challenges of New York parenthood often defeat even the toughest Brooklynites, who ultimately end up in Westchester or Montclair or Philadelphia if they are rich enough to afford the move. Why would you do that if you had an alternative? A lesson we learned firsthand: public policy can have a huge impact on quality of life. This is what Steve means by a “no-brainer.” III
.?There are six years between our first kid, born when I was thirty-one, and our daughter because I needed that much time to figure out, practically, how I was going to be a woman with a “big job” while having a second child. During that time I talked to two other female editors in chief who had babies. I took each one out for lunch and, after swearing them to secrecy, asked for detailed accounts of how they managed their brief maternity leaves and how they returned to work and when. I took notes. They both advised me not to take much time off because I would end up working from home anyway, with a baby on my boob, not getting paid—they had learned that the hard way. So I created a business plan: After the baby was born I’d take six weeks off entirely, then go back to the office four days a week (with the proportional 20 percent pay reduction) for the duration of the summer. After Labour Day I’d go back full-time. I wrote it up and rehearsed delivering it to my employers. Then, and only then, did we stop using birth control. IV
.?Some context here. The truth is, Steve was always ambivalent about academic work. He loved teaching and was deeply attracted to the job security that a tenured position provides. But being a professor was never his dream. In fact he told me that writing his PhD thesis was an alibi—something respectable he could say he was doing—when he was actually writing novels. He encouraged me to accept the job at Toronto Life in part because it would free him from academic committee work, marking papers, publishing journal articles no one would read. Most significant, it would give him more time to write. Which is, in fact, exactly what happened. V
.?Toronto isn’t as expensive as New York, but it isn’t cheap. After paying the rent and the bills and groceries, there wasn’t much left over. My salary, which was pretty good, was still just one salary. I regret everything about this chapter of our lives and would do it all differently if given the chance. VI
.?This intense period when I was out three or four nights a week was pretty brief. After a year or two in my job I realized that going out one or two nights a week was just fine. Now I’m home for dinner way, way more often than not. I like it like that. VII
.?Breastfeeding was, to my surprise, a great pleasure for me. My mother, a staunch feminist who spent much of her career as a radio producer, raised me to believe that the La Leche League was a group of deluded hippie evangelists dedicated to making working mothers feel inadequate. Then I experienced for myself the physiological oxytocin-infused high of a milk let-down coupled with the quiet intimacy of providing food through my body to my baby, and I was a convert. With our first kid I took a long maternity leave, which allowed me the time to breast-feed. With our second, born when I had more responsibility at work, I took a shorter leave, hired a nanny, and worked out a system that allowed me to breast-feed: I worked in the office in the morning (with a short break for a midmorning pump while I checked email on my phone), then I’d leave after lunch, drive like a lunatic across town, breast-feed my baby at about 2 p.m., then work the rest of the afternoon on my laptop at a neighborhood coffee shop and be home for a late afternoon, predinner feed. I now view the success of this crazy system as one of the great accomplishments of my life. I managed to have a baby and breast-feed her until she was seven months old while maintaining a job that I love, all roughly on my own terms. I am aware that even the chance to attempt this feat is a privilege not available to most moms. VIII
.?An old college friend of mine who is a doctor told me recently that she is the “flex parent” in her marriage, a term I had never heard before. She works part-time in a medical clinic and has arranged her schedule so that she can be at home for her school-age daughters. Her husband is also a doctor, but his career is hospital-based and he works more hours per week than she does and has less control over his schedule. One of the best things about our lives in Toronto is that Steve is the flex parent. His work is no less important and no less demanding than mine (in fact he’s on his laptop working constantly), but he can work anywhere at any time, which means that when one of our kids starts puking at school at 11 a.m., he can pick him up without causing havoc in an office. Christopher Noxon, the husband of the superstar TV writer Jenji Kohan, calls that role “the domestic first responder.”
Anne-Marie Slaughter, in her book Unfinished Business, says she was the “lead parent” when she worked in Washington and her husband was in charge of her kid’s day-to-day activities—playdates and dentist appointments and afterschool lessons. But what is the term for my parenting status, where I am the queen of the calendar and stay on top of the day-to-day needs of the kids—booking sleepovers, buying the shoes, scheduling camps, sewing up holes in Halloween costumes, hiring the babysitters for our evenings out—while Steve is the available one, who executes the plans and does more than his share of pick-ups and drop-offs? IX
.?The two loveliest presents Stephen has given me (in a lifetime of lovely presents): When I was in my early twenties I was struggling to write a magazine article about my beloved high school music teacher who was arrested and imprisoned for being a pedophile. I was working in a corner of our condo that was badly lit, and Steve bought me a simple silver desk lamp. He was saying You can do it, I believe in you, this is important, your career is important. A few years after I returned from studying Judaism at a yeshiva in Jerusalem, Steve bought me a tallit, my own prayer shawl. Steve’s not Jewish, so to figure out how to buy the thing he had to consult my mother and travel with her to a super Jewish part of town and have lord knows what type of uncomfortable conversation with the store clerk. He was saying Judaism is essential to you, I get it, and not only will I help build a Jewish home with you, but I will encourage this thing that matters to you. X
.?Not a word I would use. In fact I was thrilled when my labor contractions started. Our first kid, six years earlier, was medically induced before my body was ready to go into labor—which resulted in thirty-six hours of fruitless contractions, many interventions, and ultimately a c-section. When my contractions started this time, I was past my due date, hoping to avoid a second c-section, and extremely eager to go into labor naturally. The rhymthic tightening around my abdomen was a source of joyful anticipation. I had a hard but happy vaginal birth. The baby was born at 2 p.m. and by 5 p.m. I was home, with all four grandparents drinking bubbly wine. Come to think of it, the whole thing was about as far from a crisis as I’ve ever experienced.