My Wife Is a Chauvinist Attorney, I Stay Home

by Ralph Mustard

After our second child was born my wife and I re-evaluated our job situations. As a government attorney she was making almost $70,000 a year, and I was making $35,000 as a fund raiser for an educational non-profit organization. I am a minister and we could have moved to any one of a number of places where I was offered a job. There my wife could have worked part time and had more time to be with the children (our older child was then almost 7). But she wanted to stay with her job, for very good reasons, eg. job satisfaction, retirement benefits, etc.

Our child care was costing us almost my entire salary, after deducting taxes. It was a job in which I primarily used the telephone to follow up on fund raising solicitations. For me there was virtually no job satisfaction. Since I was almost 50 and had wanted to work from home and be with the children more, it was logical that I should become the child care person. Needless to say, I was not very confident that I could do an adequate job. I had the prospect of several clients and hoped to be able to at least earn my salary, plus save the child care expenses, and come out with a financial and emotional net gain.

The result has been a financial bust, an emotional catastrophe with my wife, and a most wonderful series of experiences with my children. In fact, these have been the most rewarding experiences of my life.

On the money side it’s simple: my clients got me to do lots of work and did not pay. After almost three and a half years I have a very high accounts receivable
and no income. While my wife’s salary really could cover our basic expenses,
our income is now about half that of the middle class in our urban city where the poverty level starts at $28,000. Being only about $12,000 over poverty, we manage to arrange a short fall every month, so that the home equity debt is mounting.

Not one single day passes without me hearing a litany of condemnations for not being a partner who can come to the table with a fair share of the earnings.

With the children I have discovered that I am much more the nurturing grandfather I loved than I am the stern father I feared. Every day, after I pick the children up from school, we have a variety of activities: playing with friends, going to the library for story time, going bowling, golfing, ice skating, or reading together. Admittedly these things are fun.

I make no effort to disguise my delight. It feels as though I am doing exactly the things I most love–this is my bliss.

My child care is my wife’s nightmare. She has no joy, celebration, or even glimmer of happiness in what I am doing with the children. This is usually wrapped in the money gripes: “I wish I could goof around all day and not work. I was snookered with this ‘having the privilege of work’ stuff. Being a lawyer is not such a great thing–there’s lots of pressure and you have to work really hard.”

I am very sympathetic to her complaints. I have sent out hundreds of resumes with cover letters and only got one interview after I followed up the letter with dropping by the office a number of times. Either white males over 50 are dead on arrival or my several career capabilities are down in the market. Naturally my wife expects not only that I will work but that I will be the one who stays home with the kids when they are sick, out of school for the many teacher preparation days, and holidays. She cannot accept the possibility that: –a. I am doing something of value for our family which should in part have the status of work,
and –b. getting a job is not easy for someone of my age.

The situation is painful for my wife and for me, and increasingly for our children who are pushed toward being accomplices in my wife’s anger (she is also going through menopause). Yet it reminds me so much of what I heard from women when I was serving as the minister in a church. The man was uniformly unappreciative of what the wife did at home, complained bitterly about any money she spent, even on the children’s clothes, was constantly wondering what she did all day, and resented the time she spent with friends at the health club/lunch/tennis (confession: in good weather I try and play tennis on a regular basis).

Being male or female no longer seems to be the root of the struggle. The struggle over money and over time with the children is rooted in our human fallibility, as Paul Ricoeur would say, or in our capacity for evil. None of us are who we want to be, and the task of integrating all the broken pieces of our lives overwhelms us. Focusing on the other, the one who is responsible for our inability to do and to be whoever we wish to be is, as Sartre taught us, to externalize the evil in our lives and to then label and blame that which is outside of us. I am reminded of the 12 step process of Alcohol Anonymous, which says (as do some central religious teachings): Attend to your own salvation for you must come to death alone.

My wife wants to feel appreciated; I want to feel appreciated. We had been to therapy on three different occasions for between six months to a year each time. We both know that this is the classical “push/pull” in which both want the same thing at the same time and neither can agree to take turns. It is the dilemma we try to resolve with our children by the age of five. Yet now neither of us cares. The fact that my wife slept with the first child for the first five years profoundly disturbed me; the fact that she is still sleeping with the second child after five and a half years almost has ceased to bother me. I have slept in a separate room for that time. There is no emotional or physical intimacy. There is nothing that I do which merits anything but harsh condemnation, with the singular exception of cleaning out the basement. I have tuned out. We are together because we both refuse to leave, because we both want to be with the children and because neither of us is convinced that divorce is an improvement.

When I first starting picking up the children four years ago, there were almost no men doing the pick up and the women gathered in their chat groups could not seem to figure out what I was doing there. “Are you retired?” asked one. “Do you intend to continue doing child care, or do you plan to go back to work?” asked another. Now there are a number of men doing the pick up, men who work at home as film makers, artists, writers, investment advisers, housing consultants. I have never asked them if it is going well. Men do not talk as easily between themselves as women do. If it was my wife all of the tough stuff would have been on the table in the first ten minutes. I am curious to know if other men are suffering as they attempt to enter a traditional female preserve. Are other women treating their at-home husbands as badly as their mothers felt they were

As my five year old and I got ready to pick up a friend for ice skating on another of our many teacher preparation days, my wife called out as she left the house, insuring the last word:

“Just get a job, bring some money home, then maybe I can have a little time to be with my children!”

I hear her, and certainly will do everything I can to find work. Having my face constantly rubbed in my “joblessness” in front of the kids, especially when it is called laziness, leaves me with the recurring wish to get a job, get my own apartment, file for divorce, force the sale of the house, and require that she pay half of the child care expenses–just exactly what many women in the church told me they wished they could do, and it seems to me to be for the same reason: powerlessness and humiliation.

I have one job prospect which would pay $14,000 after taxes. It would require having both children in after school. “Just take any job,” she exclaims. That’s what I did when I took the fund raising job, just to have an income while the baby was born and she was on maternity leave. I accepted one half of my former salary; now I don’t seem to get one quarter of my former salary. It was only last month my wife and I listened very sympathetically to a mutual woman friend in exactly my situation. She complained about her husband having been so insensitive as to insist that she get a job now that their only child was in Junior High.

“It’s not the same at all,” my wife explained: “Her house looks beautiful, although she doesn’t cook. Her husband brings in real money, over $200,000 a year. You hardly vacuum once a week, all you ever make is pasta, you have to be told to do the children’s laundry, and while you usually do the plumbing jobs, I really hate that crazy electric switch you put in my bathroom.” There seems to be no exit. Where is George Bernard Shaw when we need him?