In her controversial new book, “The End of Men,” journalist Hanna Rosin makes the case that traditional gender roles are entirely outdated and the American household is more reliant on working women than ever before. Read an excerpt.
Steven and Sarah Andrews moved into this Northside Pittsburgh neighborhood even before the cops had chased away the dealers who colonized the stoops. The beautiful old row houses are a steal, and the neighborhood, known as the Mexican War Streets, holds hidden treasures. Sarah gave me a tour one summer morning on her way to work. Although she was seven and a half months pregnant, she walked and talked so fast, I could barely keep up. She pointed out, across the street, one neighbor’s visionary garden crowded with lush plants and flamingoes and a cityscape on his wall made of tiny figurines; down one alley is an asylum house festooned with the Chinese poetry of a grateful refugee; then the famous Mattress Factory one block away. The Andrewses are surrounded by eccentricity and renegade behavior, but that is not, in the long run, what attracts them. In this urban drama the Andrewses play the gentrifiers, and what they want is a settled and safe life for themselves, their twenty-month-old son, Xavier, and the baby to come. Sarah leaves most mornings just before eight, about an hour before Steven and Xavier make their way downstairs to have breakfast (which many mornings Sarah leaves for them on the kitchen counter). A sociologist taking a brief history of their relationship might mistake them for “marriage naturalists,” meaning the old style of couple that just stumble into marriage and life without all that much thinking and planning. They met in high school outside Columbus, on the set of a production of Ordinary People; they spent the downtime backstage playing cards. In fact, however, Steven and Sarah, who are thirty-seven and thirty-two, are consummate “marriage planners,” the current reigning model among the professional class.
Since their fortuitous early meeting, they’ve planned everything: the exact timing of each pregnancy, how long Sarah will work at what job, how much money she will make. They haggle over the minute details and individual demands like two executives in a negotiation. They actually possess a piece of paper called the “Master Plan,” in which each partner lays out his and her duties and responsibilities, year to year. At the moment Sarah’s role is to “feed the family” and “make big money,” which means that after graduating from law school she took a job at a law firm working eighty hours a week. In return she got to have a kid a year before Steven wanted to. Now he goes to law school at night, and during the days he takes care of Xavier and acts as “mediocre house dude.” Steven likes this phrase. He repeats it often, like a job title—almost as often as he repeats that Sarah is a “superstar.”
“I told her no way I can be like my mom, or like she would be,” he told me. “I’m just the mediocre house dude.” This is what the contract requires of him: He keeps the kid “reasonably happy and mostly fed and the house mildly clean.” He might be able to pick up things around the house occasionally, but no laundry, and no cooking meals. Steven could pass for a Brooklyn hipster with his band T-shirts, lack of a clean shave, and black Keds. (Yes, Xavier, whom they call X, has a matching pair, although most of the time he seems to prefer to be naked.) But Steven is also good with his hands, not because he adopted some retro working-class “shop class as soul craft” ethos, but because his dad was an actual shop teacher and taught him how to fix and build. Steven’s most notable quality is that he knows his own limits, which makes him a lot less defensive than some other guys might be in this situation. “Women seem to be able to multitask better than men,” he says. “If X is busy for ten minutes, Sarah will go do the dishes and start the laundry. I don’t transition like that. A toddler kills my productivity. I don’t multitask.”
I spent a couple of summer afternoons hanging out with Steven and Xavier and a friend visiting from Italy. As often happens in the presence of toddlers, time passed in a haphazard way. Xavier moved some branches from one side of the garden to the other. Steven tried to pull some weeds, but it was too hot so he gave up. Unlike most moms I know, Steven did not try to organize the time into tidy quadrants. There was no snack time, no music hour, no walks to the park, no time-outs or “use your words.” Xavier had a rash and Steven acknowledged that “it must burn,” so he filled up a bucket of cold water, told him he was a “tough guy,” and suggested he hop into the bucket. (I never would have thought of that.) When Xavier’s cloth diaper got dirty, Steven sprayed it and left it in the sink. (In the contract his duties here stop at “smearage containment,” but Sarah, who insisted on cloth diapers, has to launder them.) A few hours in, it was time for lunch, or maybe a nap. Once Sarah tried to show Steven a website where he could meet other house dudes in the neighborhood. “Why would I do that?” he told her. “I’m not gonna make friends just because some guy has a kid his age. I’m not into that.” The great majority of days, Steven and Xavier don’t leave the house.
Steven most definitely does not think of himself as conducting some new experiment in modern marriage or gender roles. If he read Warren Farrell’s The Myth of Male Power, he would laugh. When we were hanging out on the back deck one evening, Sarah, who has a master’s in theater history, tried to convince him that he was an example of “ post-feminist masculinity.” His response: “I’m gonna call bulls__t on that right now.” To Steven, who has a BS in electrical engineering, their arrangement seems as logical as a simple equation. In 2001 Steven was at a career dead end. He was working as a wireless engineer consulting with companies on where to place new towers, and then the market tanked. As a couple they needed to “diversify.” Sarah was thinking of getting her PhD in theater history, which seemed to him “an expensive way to end up as a barista.” They bred fancy cats for a while. Then Steven suggested she take the LSAT. She did so well that the school offered her a free ride. “I didn’t even know you could get a scholarship for law school,” he says.
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After that things fell into place. It became clear that Sarah was a “great writer” and a “great talker” who could articulate nuanced ideas in a precise manner, says Steven. She aced law school and networked her way into great jobs. “Hey, if you want to win, you put your best batter on the plate,” he says. “I knew I wanted to marry someone who was smart, educated, self-motivated, and a hard worker. I got a massively talented wife who in certain areas bested me.” While she was in law school, Steven decided his goal was to have his wife earn $50,000 a year, but she was offered more than three times that. When I asked Steven if that made him feel bad or less of a man because she was feeding the family, he genuinely did not seem to grasp the logic behind my question: “I could have my wife stay at home and spend my money, or I could have my wife out and making some big money. Hmmm.”
So where does that leave Steven? In theory this setup is temporary, and Steven, now in his third year of law school, is just a few years behind his wife (although Sarah writes his outlines, sifts through his materials, and tells him what he absolutely has to read). After law school he wants to be a plaintiff’s attorney taking on corporations, because he likes the fight. “I have time to figure myself out. I don’t have to rush. Sarah’s got a good job, so I can go after jobs that pay less. I can do more of what I want. I don’t care if I make money. I don’t have to, because my wife is the one feeding the family.” If he graduates on time, he’ll be thirty-eight.
Just before six, Sarah walked in from work, sat down to take off her sneakers, and then got right back up again. It’s hard to describe what happened next without using cliché weather metaphors like “whirlwind” or “storm of activity.” Within minutes Xavier was up in his high chair, his butt now lathered in cream, eating blueberries. Strawberries appeared on the table to be cut for a pie, along with flour and butter. Where was the gelatin? Chopped meat came next, along with corn and some other vegetables, and a cold beer got to my hand. Procuring the beer was Steven’s job, but the rest of the time he sat on the stool and watched Sarah work. She made pie dough and set out a bowl of dried peas to distract Xavier. (“Use your words.”) The chopped meat got formed into burgers. “Steven, in a couple of minutes I’ll ask you to take these to the grill.” She set the table, bathed the baby, laid out the burgers, put together the pie. Did I mention she was seven and a half months pregnant? It seemed as if the rest of us had until that point only been lazily squatting in this house, and now the space reverted to its rightful owner who was whipping it back into shape.
Spending a few days with Steven and Sarah made me realize something about my own marriage. My hunch when I got engaged was correct: Over the years my husband and I have in fact split domestic life pretty equally. We both work, we both cook, we both take care of the children. Because of this I assumed that I had shed most of my attachment to traditional gender roles. But now I realize that I am much more deliberate and reactive than I thought. I would never not work, because that decision is loaded with feminist betrayal. I would never let my husband sit back and drink a beer while I was busy in the kitchen. And my husband would never stay home, because it would never occur to him. What I realized in Pittsburgh was that even our intimate relationships unfold in a cultural moment, and my moment was still not far enough removed from old feminist rage to divest these tiny domestic decisions of that kind of meaning.
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Steven and Sarah make decisions on a much cleaner slate. They behave almost like corporate partners at a work retreat, taking stock of trends and proceeding from there. Sarah works because she has the “more ready skill set” to succeed as a lawyer, and Steven stays home because in this modern economy “testosterone has been marginalized.” Steven feels entitled to check out on evenings and weekends, and this makes Sarah “tired and sometimes angry.” But it also means X gets the best of all possible worlds because, as Sarah read in a study, a kid with a stay-at-home dad gets more total parenting hours because he gains the father’s time and retains almost all of the mother’s, and ends up with higher test scores. Make sense?
Steven and Sarah were both raised with the usual jumble of gender expectations. They both come from conservative Midwestern families with factory roots. Sarah considered herself evangelical in her young life, and at what she calls her “Jesus camp” she was taught that the Bible ordained a man to be the head of the household and the woman to be submissive. In graduate school she rebelled and wrote her thesis on something about the body and corset restrictions, she can’t remember exactly what. And that’s the point— these feminist constructs are distant memories. On her shelf I saw a book with “Womb” in the title, but it was hidden behind a notebook of recipes. The closest thing I saw to a feminist text was a Working Mother’s Guide to Life sitting in the bathroom, well thumbed through and marked up, with advice on, say, how to pump breast milk at a high-powered job.
Some days Sarah comes home from work and there is poop on the walls that Steven has not bothered to clean, and then she feels like nothing has changed since time immemorial. On those days Sarah realizes one truth about their situation: Steven stays home during the day, but in fact she is in charge of both realms. By deciding to work full-time she has not actually ceded the domestic space, but only doubled her load, although neither of them ever articulates that. This is one of the many ways in which the transition to a new era is not yet complete, in which couples with breadwinner wives hang on to old ways and habits that make the current setup unworkable. The women take on new roles with gusto, while the men take them on only reluctantly and with resistance.
In fact, there is a reigning notion in the Andrews house that Steven is ultimately the one in charge, that if anything ever went wrong, Steven would stand between his family and disaster. The dynamic, as Sarah describes it, seems something like Charlie’s Angels, where Steven is Charlie and Sarah is doing his bidding. “I’m like the planner, and she executes,” Steven says. “ Follow-through isn’t my strength.” Sarah puts it this way: “I almost get the sense of him sitting back and indulgently watching me tinker around in my universe and taking this or that over and him thinking, ‘Isn’t this cool?
Isn’t she being so competent over there?’ ”
This may be a fiction they both perpetuate because women have not yet become accustomed to owning the power even when it is so obviously theirs. It may in fact be a new variation on “provider,” where men preserve the protector aspect of being the breadwinner even when they are not earning the money. Or it may be because the provider role did not just pass on to women, but passed into obsolescence. When men earned the money, women claimed alternate sources of power— sovereignty over the house or the school community or the couple’s social life— so it seems only fair to preserve that system now. Power is diffuse. Maybe that’s a satisfying enough explanation to save men from obsolescence and give them space to invent an entirely new way of being a happy, harmonious family in the age of female power. Or maybe not.
One early evening, just after Sarah came home from work and we were all talking, Xavier took off his diaper and peed in the hallway for maybe the third time that day, which prompted this observation from Steven about the future: “All boys do is pee on things. Nothing good comes from being a man. Women bring good things to the world. I live longer if I have a wife. I have a better, healthier life.” He picked up the discarded diaper and dropped it in the sink, forgetting to spray. “I wanted a little Anne of Green Gables. Someone creative and good. I would love it if the next one is a little girl. Like my wife. A superstar.”
Excerpted from THE END OF MEN by Hanna Rosin. Copyright © 2012 by Hanna Rosin. Used by permission of Riverhead Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA). All rights reserved.
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