The Unsteady Rise of the Power Mom and the Diapering Dad

“The most important career choice you’ll make is who you’ll marry,” Sheryl Sandberg, the ubiquitous Facebook COO and author of the “Lean In” book (and social movement), famously tells women.  She advocates marrying someone who will do 50% of the “second shift,” freeing women to go full force in their careers, and allowing those stubborn low numbers of women in leadership positions to finally rise.

IF A MAN DOES ALL THE WORK THAT A WOMAN TRADITIONALLY DOES, as my stay-at-home husband happily does, IS THE PROBLEM SOLVED?  Did I manage to reverse the gender roles and be the “father” who goes to work?  Fresh out of law school, I expected to.  But, it wasn’t so straightforward.

Eight years after the birth of our twin daughters and two years after the birth of our third daughter, my husband has truly been the hands-on parent. We have never had anything resembling a nanny; in fact, I hired our first 4-hour-a-week babysitter this year.  He did it all himself through the twins’ rocky beginning after two months in neonatal intensive care, through their terrible twos and threes.  He has never asked me to come home earlier, or do any household chores.  I am slightly embarrassed to say that I am not entirely sure how to work our washer/dryer – I find my laundry folded on my dresser.  And yes, our apartment is pretty clean and our twins are pretty good kids due in large part to his excellent parenting.

FOR MY FIRST FEW YEARS AS A LITIGATOR, I DROVE MYSELF CRAZY WITH GUILT.  If I was not billing hours for the firm or seeing the twins, I was doing something wrong.  I turned down almost all non-mandatory work or social events in the evenings.  I had to make it to every pediatrician appointment.  The twins took the earliest “gym” class offered in our neighborhood so I could attend some of it and run to work late.  I felt compelled to squeeze in a few drop-ins on their “mommy and me” preschool, although all I remember about it is answering e-mails on my BlackBerry and the vision of my husband, his six-foot-four-inch frame looking out of place crouched by the play kitchen amongst the moms and nannies.

Eventually I realized trying to do all this while working full-time as a big firm litigator was tearing me apart. I needed (wanted) more time with my kids.  I swallowed my ego, and asked for a reduction in my hours (and pay) at the firm to 80%, which made it slightly easier on me emotionally and physically, though not financially.  This was something that, pre-twins, I would have never thought I would do.

Anne-Marie Slaughter hadn’t written her seminal piece in The Atlantic yet, but I could have been someone who comprised her “experience”: “[T]he proposition that women can have high-powered careers as long as their husbands or partners are willing to share the parenting load equally (or disproportionately) assumes that most women will feel as comfortable as men do about being away from their children, as long as their partner is home with them.  In my experience, that is simply not the case.”

Jessica Valenti says it is just social norms, hardened over generations, that make us feel this way, not biology, and I wanted to agree.  I reread The Feminine Mystique to remind myself about “the problem with no name” that plagued preceding generations.  But we are 50 years removed, and I was certainly not taught that a woman should stay home and take care of the kids.  It made that uncomfortable feeling Slaughter talks about all the more difficult to deal with.

In the PBS documentary Makers, Abby Pogrebin, the daughter of Letty Cottin Pogrebin, who co-founded Ms. Magazine with Gloria Steinem, said she was clearly not prepared for the “ambivalence of motherhood and having a career.”  As a child in the 1970s, Abby starred in the feminist TV special “Free to be You and Me.”.  But as an adult, she asked: “I am free to be a mother and I am free to have a career, but how do I reconcile both?” She is well-educated and ambitious, but motherhood took her by surprise. “I don’t think my mother ever really laid out how complicated that was going to become.  So when I hit it, and pretty much every friend in my life did too, I felt like I had been hit by a truck and I hadn’t been given the tools to respond.”  Legal scholar Joan Williams calls it “the maternal wall” and says women hit it before they hit the glass ceiling.

The first time I TOLD THE PARTNER IN CHARGE OF MY DEPARTMENT I WANTED TO REDUCE MY HOURS, HE SAID, IMMEDIATELY: “ARE YOU STILL SERIOUS ABOUT YOUR CAREER?”  I defended myself to him– of course I am, my husband is home with my twins, you have been happy with my work, I am responsible, I enjoy being a lawyer– it all came tumbling out as I tried to stay poised.

That moment haunted me.  My colleagues thought that the question was callous and sexist.  The hours I worked at the firm over the next few years were what most would call “full time.”  But DIDN’T WORKING EVEN SLIGHTLY LESS THAN MY COLLEAGUES MEAN THAT I WAS ON THE “MOMMY TRACK” and that I was less serious about my career?  It is not typically something a father would do to help a stay-at-home wife.  I did not want to sacrifice my career; I just wanted to change the traditional career arc to ease my motherhood conflict.  Pogrebin is a successful writer now; it seems she was able to make a career while giving in, at least a little, to the “maternal imperative.”

To be sure, fathers feel substantial guilt as well about working too much and missing kids’ events – balancing work and family is not just a woman’s issue. They want to make it home for their kids’ bedtime too.  But do they feel a physical need to be with their children the way I do?  One day during the first few weeks I was back at the firm after having my third daughter, I was sitting on a subway headed to court.  A woman sat down next to me with a baby around the same age as mine on her lap.  The baby smiled at me with big blue eyes, and I had to turn away.  I MISSED MY BABY SO MUCH MY STOMACH HURT.  I had never felt something that raw before.

Christina Hoff Sommers argues in The Atlantic that different life choices for men and women may be “a phenomenon not of oppression, but rather of social well-being” – that is, when women are free to choose their own paths, gender differences can be more apparent.  She cites a 2008 study that found the greatest differences between gender roles in the more liberated, wealthier societies – even when both parents worked, the women and men were less alike than when the mother stayed home.

I am not ready to discount the physical process of pregnancy, labor and nursing.  I am the one with the breasts, after all, that were designed to nourish the baby I birthed.  We are not penguins or seahorses– it is the woman who carries the fetus and is uniquely equipped to feed it.

Perhaps the physical need, which may wane as kids get older, was biological and the guilt I constantly felt was imposed by cultural norms?   Maybe those norms could change if more people had a stay-at-home husband.  As a first step, more women with children under 18 now want to work full time (37% in a March 2013 Pew study vs 20% in 2007). But like me, women value flexibility more than men: “Fully seven-in-ten working mothers with children under age 18 say having a flexible schedule is extremely important to them,” the Pew authors said.  “Only about half (48%) of working fathers place the same level of importance on this.”  If, in valuing flexibility, women are perceived as less serious about their careers (a la the big law partner in charge of my department), cultural norms will change at a glacial pace.

I AM STILL THE BREADWINNER WITH A DEMANDING AND CHALLENGING JOB, BUT I NOW HAVE MORE CONTROL OVER MY HOURS as the Editor-in-Chief of a legal publication.  With more autonomy and flexibility over my job, I have tamed most of the guilt that comes at me from both sides.  I know that working outside the home is best suited to my personality, and what I need to be fulfilled.  I can often make my own hours, so I can go to enough school events that make my missing of one a non-issue.  My toddler goes to the same afternoon mommy and me program the twins did.  I don’t make it there much, but I don’t feel as if I need to. We spend many early mornings cuddling and watching Sesame Street together.

While my new work arrangement is more flexible, I sometimes still feel like I did after the partner questioned my career seriousness, that I should be earning more money for the family, and, more selfishly, gaining more career recognition.  And other times I wish I could help the twins with their homework and bake cookies in the afternoon.

Sheryl Sandberg would say I chose the right husband – my circumstances were optimal to step right into a man’s shoes.  But, I found they didn’t fit exactly right. IT’S NOT ALWAYS AN EVEN EXCHANGE WHEN YOU SWAP A POWER MOM FOR THE TRADITIONAL BREADWINNING DAD.  Power moms need to make it work their own way.  Let’s set a new standard for the modern family.

Posted at as part of the Professionelle Talks series in May 2013.
A version was also published in The New Jersey Lawyer magazine, August 2013.


The Unsteady Rise of the Power Mom and the Diapering Dad — 6 Comments

  1. This was excellent. I’m a 31 year old househusband married to a banker. We have made a conscious decision that my wife will be the primary breadwinner and I will be the at home parent. We have been married for 3 years, have a 2 year old son and an infant daughter. I used to work at a bank, but I just quit my job to stay home full time when our daughter was born. Although we are reversing the traditional roles, we are actually traditional people. We plan to have a large family (four kids, God willing), and are big believers that it’s best to have a parent at home, and that it is impossible to be good parents if both spouses have 80 hr/week jobs.

    Unlike our perception of some other families where the wife is the chief breadwinner and the husband “babysits” the kids during the day and when the wife comes home, she does the cooking and the cleaning, I do all of the domestic stuff (just as your husband does). Also, though we’ve only been married for three years, we’ve both planned that an important part of what I do is being proactive in furthering my wife’s career. Her career is my career – our career – and I channel my energy into that too. She, being the breadwinner, is under a tremendous amount of pressure. I’m not. Adn I really appreciate that.

    You began your article by observing that “The most important career choice you’ll make is who you’ll marry.” Well, this is true not just for women but for men too. Finally, I completely agree that we should “set a new standard for the modern family.” Only that standard shoudl also include swapping an at-home dad for the traditional housewife.

    • Thank you so much for the feedback and sharing your story. Sounds like a great set-up, and hopefully more and more families will choose to go that way. It really can be done. I will be writing more about it in the future. Best of luck!

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