February 20, 2003
Women's Salaries Spark
Family paychecks grabbed headlines this week, with economic data showing a marked narrowing of the average wage gap between men and women for the first time in four years.
That isn't so much because women are doing well as because men are doing poorly. Though women's average weekly pay rose 3.9% last year, men's lagged behind inflation, with a paltry 1.9% gain, Labor Department data show. Nevertheless, the shift brings women's pay to 77.5% of men's, from 76.1% in 2001, ending a period of stagnation.
The long-term trend toward wage equality is good financial news for families. Better pay for women not only rewards female workers, but gives families more choices about how to make a living.
But the story behind the story is that women's growing economic clout will accelerate a seismic upheaval in family roles, with more frequent swapping of breadwinning, parenting and housekeeping duties. Couples who have undertaken such a "gender flip" for economic reasons warn that plenty of advance planning and discussion, ongoing communication and marital trouble-shooting skills are needed to make it work.
Swapping roles suits some couples just fine, allowing each partner to take on the duties he or she likes best. At first, says Andy Ferguson, of Kansas City, his staying at home with the kids "was a very simple question of economics." Before he and his wife started their family three years ago, Mr. Ferguson was a Ph.D. candidate in French and humanities. "My job prospects were truly awful," he says, while his M.B.A. wife's were good. After deciding to stay home, he found he deeply enjoyed nurturing their two preschoolers and tending to the household.
His wife, Tanya Shadoan, a Citibank vice president, is satisfied too. "We're each in our perfectly designed role," she says. She enjoys pursuing her career with no anxieties about child care or about whether taking transfers and promotions will trouble her spouse. Such patterns in a growing number of couples are helping more women reach the executive suite.
But the new economic reality is thrusting other couples too quickly into roles for which they're ill-suited by upbringing, temperament or both, inflicting a kind of emotional whiplash.
When one woman, a Texas attorney, married an electrical engineer, their paychecks were about the same. But hers soon soared while his went south, and the two decided he would stay home with the kids.
They failed, however, to talk up front about their expectations. "His expectation was that he would stay with the children, keep them happy, and I would still be the mom," planning parties and tending to household details, she says. "My expectations were that my husband would be like my mother when she stayed home with us."
Staying home also damaged her husband's self-esteem, the attorney says, and the marriage ended in divorce. "You need to talk real specifically about what you expect the roles will be, and then be really understanding of the difficulties that the other person faces," the attorney advises.
If you take on a role you didn't choose, be prepared to invest energy in resolving tensions. Attorney Christine Moruza still recalls her moment of decision a few years ago after her husband, then the sole breadwinner, lost his corporate job.
They both agreed to look for a job, "and whoever gets one first will go, and the other will stay at home," Ms. Moruza says. "I never should have said that because of course, I got the first job." The setup quickly became permanent as her career took off and she landed a state-court judgeship in California.
She and her husband have both tried hard to make the role swap work, and there have been benefits; their four children have a good relationship with their father. But Ms. Moruza has badly missed staying with her kids. And there was tension over their different parenting methods.
She recommends getting counseling, seeking extended-family support and staying focused on shared values, which helped them "make the best of a bad situation," she says. In their marriage, "divorce was not an option," Ms. Moruza says. Today, her husband works as a substitute teacher, and their children, now 12 through 20, are doing well.
There are early warning signs of trouble. Couples are at risk when they start competing over who's more stressed, says Michelle Weiner-Davis, a Woodstock, Ill., marriage therapist and author of "The Sex-Starved Marriage." She says, "They engage in a contest of who's more burned out? Who needs to be taken care of more?" At that point, couples need to take pains to communicate more, spend time together and rekindle intimacy.
An axiom of family life is that mothers and fathers do best at the roles they prefer and have chosen. A study of child care by relatives shows those who take care of children because they want to -- not because they feel they must -- provide better care, says Beth Shinn of New York University, a co-author of the study. Similarly, a mother who is dissatisfied carrying the breadwinning burden is likely to bring more job stress home, tainting family life.
Also, role-swappers should gird themselves against criticism from others. At first, Ms. Shadoan says, Mr. Ferguson's family was concerned about his at-home lifestyle, asking, "Is this all you're going to do?" Mr. Ferguson advises men to find an at-home fathers' group for support.
In time, though, Ms. Shadoan says, good results overcome such objections. "They've seen that our lives just work. The kids are thriving, he's thriving, and I'm thriving."
Updated February 20, 2003
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