By Jamal Simmons
Men don’t know what to do with women. We never have. Great comedies and dramas have been written throughout time about the conflicts that erupt from the misunderstandings that occur between the genders. God must have a fabulous sense of humor, because only a God with a great funny bone would create a world with genders as seemingly different as men and women and require that they negotiate each other’s idiosyncrasies long enough to procreate, keep the human species alive, and -- in the best circumstances -- come to really appreciate each other.
All of these personal differences can become even more pronounced when questions about money and who makes it come into a relationship. Most of the men I know near my age are very comfortable with women working outside the home. They have female coworkers and mentors, and many were raised by women who worked outside the home, at least part-time. Despite the prevalence of working women, a level of discomfort arises when you ask men more complicated questions. For instance: Do you want your wife to work once you have children? Or, how would you feel if your wife made more money than you?
These questions are not just academic. They reflect the reality of an increasing number of men. Due to economic necessity or personal aspiration (and perspiration), many women are staying in the workforce, making additional money and sometimes providing for their families while their partners are unemployed or underemployed. Sometimes the man in the relationship may have a very personally fulfilling career that pays less than her job, like teaching school.
For those fortunate Americans who are able to afford for one partner to stay home, women face a choice. Do I work full-time, parent full-time or do both part-time? For fun I asked a group of women on Facebook if they would be willing to work while their men stayed home to parent full time. Dozens of women replied, and although the survey was unscientific, the answers were quite entertaining. The overwhelming sentiment was “No,” though one woman replied that if her man did stay home, he better be “taking care of business” in the bedroom.
For some men, the desire to provide for a woman who stays home with the kids is strong. I grew up in a family where women worked outside of the home, whether they were mostly single, like my mother, or married, like my aunts. The idea that I would be married and provide for a family alone is fathomable but foreign. Based upon what I’ve seen of my professional friends’ marriages, however opinionated the men may be, while they do get a vote, the women make the ultimate decision of whether to stay home or to work. For those men who have tried to force the issue, the victory was hollow, because women have ways of exacting their price. As an older, married man once told me, “If your woman is happy you may not be, but if she is unhappy you definitely will not be.”
To be fair, for many women the choice is not easy. It is fraught with personal angst and raised societal eyebrows. Are they turning their backs on their maternal duty, or forfeiting the hard-won gains of generations of feminists who sacrificed to give them the opportunity to compete in the workforce?
Many women choose different options at various stages, which requires that their male partners be flexible. That flexibility does not come easily to many men, as the traditional male upbringing involves sports and games that come with rules.
Relationships with women can be much more fulfilling, but there is no rulebook included with the bill after the first dinner date.
I don’t have all of the answers, but the word that my friends offer up most often as part of the solution is communication. Both parties have to let the other know what they are thinking. Women should remember that men are not mind readers, so if the choice you are leaning toward today is different from the one you discussed last month, give him a heads up. For men, it can be tough to express thoughts about these topics without worrying that we sound like misogynists, but we have to try. As hard as these conversations may be, the alternative can only be worse.
Jamal Simmons is a principal at The Raben Group, a Washington, DC public affairs firm. Simmons received his B.A degree from Morehouse College and his Master of Public Policy degree from the Kennedy School at Harvard University. His opinion writings have been published in major national news outlets including the New York Times, and he is a regular writer for The Politico.