“Even in this day and age, are some jobs just so demanding that they unofficially require a stay-at-home spouse, or one with a less-taxing or more flexible job? To advance in your career, would it require that your spouse scale back his or her work, or vice versa? Or would just having more money to pay for more help be the key?”
The Wall Street Journal’s Rachel Emma Silverstein posed the above question today, in their blog, The Juggle after a reader sent in an e-mail noting that, “many careers or companies still unofficially “require” that top achievers have a stay-at-home partner (usually a wife) to get ahead.” While Silverstein treated this inquiry as if it were as novel a question as when Columbus first prophesied that the earth is round, the truth is, this is a crucial part of the wage gap. The fact that the wage gap is, well, gaping open, should tell you that the answer is not a simple one.
Part of it is a paradox. To have enough money to be able to outsource those parts of your life that you do not have time for (now that you are devoting 60, 70, or even 80 hours a week to work), requires a significant amount of effort at a lower level. CEOs, top surgeons, financial wizards, and others who are so in demand that they work most of their waking hours become so demanded because they proved themselves by performing Herculean tasks when they were mere mortals. This begs the question of how they were able to accomplish these tasks at those lower levels if they could not afford to pay someone to ferry their children to and from school, someone to take care of their aging parents or clean their house. If they could not afford to pay the higher prices for groceries to be delivered, or a financial planner to handle their taxes, or even their checking account, or an event planner to plan their child’s bar mitzvah party. How did they manage to function as human beings before they proved their mettle and were elevated to a position that afforded them the ability to pay for these things?
For those who are single, and childless, the demands on their time outside of work, are generally less. If they live alone they have the same rent or mortgage costs, home repairs and renovations, etc., as any couple living in a home, but they do have the luxury of ignoring dirty dishes when they get home too late, or eating a steady diet of frozen dinners – at their desks – without affecting anyone else. But what about single parents? The study, ” Thanks for nothing: Income and labor force participation for never-married mothers since 1982 ” released this year by Matthew McKeever (Mount Holyoke College) and Nicholas A. Wolfinger (University of Utah) found that, “despite substantial gains in education, employment, and other individual characteristics generally associated with prosperity. These results affirm the ongoing role of family structure in shaping American inequality.” So, it would seem, single mothers simply do not ascend to these top-of-the-world positions.
This leaves the rest of America – those married (or in “committed relationships” that function similarly). Two working adults could function much like a single adult does, without children. But when children come into the picture, so do sick visits to the doctor, and emergency calls from the school. There are birthday parties, pick up by 5 (though the “good parents” of course don’t force their progeny to suffer the indignity of “after-care”), summer vacations and winter break, not to mention snow days, homework problems, and all the other time consuming efforts that raising a child entails. We might be able to hire someone to clean our house, have groceries delivered, and even pay a nanny for a great deal of those children-related tasks, but, leaving aside our desire to be part of our children’s lives, how do we get to the position that pays enough to afford these services? We sacrifice. Or, more specifically, one spouse sacrifices their career. They come late to work so they can put their children on the bus, or they leave early to make it to the orthodontist. They take positions based on how close their office is to the kids’ school, and put in as little overtime as possible, if at all. By the time their spouse has made it to the top dog position by putting in dozens of hours of overtime each week, and as a couple they could afford to take the burden off of the other spouse, it is too late for that spouse to “make it big” in their field. Michelle Obama is probably the only professional spouse to be in a better place professionally as a result (and do you really think Barack Obama would have made it to the ultimate “top” position as a single parent? Doubtful).
The family paradox is not new, but adding a wrinkle are aging parents requiring care while their children are still working. Here again the single person is at a disadvantage, because they do not have a spouse wiling to sacrifice their time to care for the parent. On the plus side, though, it is possible that the single person will have made it “to the top” and be able to afford excellent eldercare by the time it is needed. The single parent now facing caring for their own parents is even more disadvantaged because they have never made it to the salary point that would allow them to pay for their parent’s care. They may have never made it into a position requiring huge amounts of overtime, but if they have a parent requiring constant care, they are still facing a hardship, which puts them in an even worse position to pay for their own retirement and eventual care. The married couple once again sacrifices one spouse for the other’s career – and if they have already done this routine when they had children, it is probably the same spouse. This person will go from childcare to eldercare, possibly with a break in between, or an overlap.
So yes, becoming the top in your field – whether it is law, medicine, politics, finance or any other – requires that you either have a spouse willing to sacrifice their career for the sake of yours, or sacrificing any semblance of family for yourself.
What do you think? Do you think that there is a way for both spouses to thrive in demanding careers? How? Comment to discuss!