Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Portraits from a Feminist Marriage [Libby]

Long about 10pm, my husband and I see each other for the first, uninterrupted time all weekend. It’s Sunday, and we have spent yet another weekend parenting separately.

Stanley Greenspan has envisioned a “Four Thirds Solution,” as a way of parenting which avoids outsourcing childcare. In Greenspan’s world, the parents each work slightly less than fulltime. Then, they carry flexible schedules so that the children are able to be raised at home under the careful and watchful eye of their parents. In theory, this is a terrific solution, probably the pinnacle of feminist ideals. Everybody works, everybody parents, the kids turn out to be wonderful and well-adjusted people, everybody’s happy. Not a bad thing to work for.

The reality of the vision is a little more difficult to work out. Let’s put aside the problem of finding employers who are willing to let professionals work just 30 hours per week. In our situation, I work a traditional, 40 hour work week, Monday through Friday. My dear husband, a professor, teaches classes two days a week and spends the other five in various stages of work. Most of his day is spent waiting for me to reappear and take over so he can get five or six hours of work in before calling it a night. On the weekends, when I’m home, he works for 12 hours straight, writing articles, finishing books, grading, prepping for class. The kids get Mom and Dad as primary childcare providers (a very good idea considering they’re our children), and we each have productive work lives. Yet, even this arrangement requires the use of grandmothers to manage the two weekdays where our work schedules overlap. If, in the good feminist marriage, both people pursue the areas that interest them and attend to the children with equal care, then marriage itself is the thing that gets hard to manage. When in the world do we see each other long enough to do more than swap children?

So this is the breaking point: the place where reality intersects with ideals and the reckoning begins. This is when the real issue becomes not whether or not the needs of each person can be balanced, but which person’s job can be exchanged for a larger hand in the parenting and how maintaining a healthy marriage fits into that. Working helps us shape our self-image as much as any other role we assume. But how we fit into our personal relationships defines us more. Negotiating the terrain between mother/manager/wife feels heavy. Now matter how feminist I think I am, traditional feminine ideals still shape the expectations I hold for myself: that my family and my husband are markers of the kind of wife and mother (read: person) I am. “Worker” fits into this is more contemporary territory.