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Want to stand by your man? Quit working

Go to work or stay at home? In her new book, "Beside Every Successful Man," Megan Basham takes a new look at an old debate, saying that women who quit their jobs are better able to support their husbands' careers and increase their family income. An excerpt.
/ Source: TODAY books

Author Megan Basham argues that many women today are looking for exit strategies from the working world. But most are unable to stay at home, she says, because of the economic need for the two-income household. In her new book, “Beside Every Successful Man,” Basham says that women who quit their jobs are better able to support their husbands' careers, thus increasing their family income. An excerpt.

What women want and how they can get it
While writing this book, I continually returned to the question “Who is this information for?” Is it for the mother who wants to work less so she can spend more time with her children? (Polling shows there are a lot of you out there.) Is it for the woman whose man is a bit lost professionally and could use some assistance getting on track? (Unfortunately, statistics show your ranks are growing every day as well.) Is it for the woman whose husband is already doing well but would like to know how she can help him do even better? As far I’m concerned, it is for all of you and many more.

Yet, as I started working, I  couldn’t shake the feeling that the very idea of a woman taking the time to learn how to help her husband achieve his best in the workplace was somehow controversial. I had trouble with every chapter I began, sounding, as my husband put it, as if I  were “playing defense,” though I  couldn’t see any legitimate reason why I should. After all, don’t most married people want to see their spouse do well? Isn’t a large part of the point of marriage to support each other’s aspirations? I figured anyone in a reasonably healthy marriage would agree with me. But I knew that didn’t change the fact that by writing to wives in particular I was treading on some very thin cultural ice.

It’s strange that we have come to a place in our society where a wife’s desire to support her husband’s career should raise anyone’s ire. Strange that while we are expected to do everything in our power to give our children a boost in the competitive work world they will someday face, it is not acceptable for us to even entertain the idea of doing the same for our men. I know how some critics will respond: “Yes, but you didn’t write a  gender-neutral book showing spouses how to help each other become more successful. You wrote one for wives.” And it is  true — the fact that I think this topic holds far more interest for women than for men is inescapable. As to why I believe it, I offer you two stories.

The opt-out revolutionIf you’ve ever spent any time watching the E! entertainment channel, you’ve probably noticed that it is to television what fast food is to a balanced diet — cheap, artificial, and with its incessant focus on celebrity gossip, fairly unhealthy. Among the network’s many superficial offerings one of the most superficial is a program called Dr. 90210, a reality show that follows the lives of Beverly Hills plastic surgeons and the wannabe actresses and models who frequent them. It is the kind of guilty pleasure one might indulge in (as I was doing one evening) while trying to get through the boring chore of folding laundry. Suddenly in the midst of scenes about fake boobs and Botox, a serious and timely drama began to play out.

One of the handsome young surgeons on the show had recently married an equally attractive doctor of internal medicine. If ever a pair could legitimately lay claim to the title “power couple,” these two  were it. But something about their interaction suggested that she was less enamored with where their new life together was headed than he was. At times their conversation about mundane  matters — how their day at work went, how to spend their  weekend — seemed to grow inexplicably tense. They just didn’t seem in sync. But as the show progressed, the reason for their disconnect became clear.

In this episode they were engaged in what is usually a very exiting newlywed adventure: shopping for their first home together. Their real estate agent showed them several properties, with one in particular catching the surgeon’s fancy. It had a formal dining room, a gourmet kitchen, and bedrooms to spare, all complemented by a sparkling pool and a glittering view of the Los Angeles skyline. It was as immense and impressive as their collective credentials, and it was located in one of the most expensive zip codes in the country.

Yet instead of reacting the way viewers might expect — by getting caught up in the excitement of potentially owning this palace — the lovely blonde doctor’s jaw was growing tight and her eyes were narrowing in wariness. She watched in silence as her husband surveyed every detail appreciatively and declared it “home.” Later, at their apartment, the mystery of her reticence was revealed.

“I really want it. I think it’s just perfect for us,” he said. “But if we’re going to make the mortgage, you’ll have to keep working.”

“For how long?” she asked, her face looking on the verge of crumpling.

“I don’t know. Indefinitely, I guess.” Her expression indicated that this was not the plan they had agreed on before their wedding day.

“But we talked about having kids. You said you were ready.” At this her voice jumped a panicky octave.

“There’s plenty of time for that.”

“Yeah, if you plan to have kids with another woman there is,” she snorted back. “I’m  thirty-five.”

What struck me most about this exchange between Drs. Jason and Jessica Diamond was that despite how different their lives looked on the outside from my own and those of the women I knew (none of us expected to be buying multimillion-dollar homes anytime soon), their conflict was the same. She wanted to start a family and at the very least cut back to part-time hours; he wanted a lifestyle that usually requires two full-time incomes. Forget the old feminist bogeyman of men forcing women to stay home barefoot with babies; this has become the marital argument of our age. When my friends and I (most of us in our late twenties to early thirties) get together, our talk often involves when and to what extent our husbands are going to help us extricate ourselves from the office, not “Why won’t those Neanderthals let us work more?” Recent headlines suggest that women all over are having the same conversation.

A lawyer from New Jersey tells the Courier-Post that she dreams of quitting her job and “grocery shopping at noon on a weekday.” She claims that most of the younger women at her firm share her sentiments. In the same story a twenty-nine-year-old  woman — another  doctor — shares that while she enjoys her job well enough, she “hates that she has to have it,” protesting, “I want to be a wife and a mom ... I shouldn’t have to be a doctor.” And in their recent coverage of the so-called mommy wars, USA Today reported on a  thirty-nine-year-old marketing director at an architecture firm who says she aches to be at home with her four-year-old son.

These are only a few anecdotes, but they reflect a growing trend. If you are a mom putting in a forty-plus-hour workweek that leaves you feeling exhausted and homesick rather than fulfilled, you are not alone. Polls from every corner of the country show that women increasingly prefer to devote more of their prime years to caring for their homes and children. In 2005, the research group Greenberg Quinlan Rosner found that only 8 percent of moms want to work 35 or more hours per week. The other 92 percent are split about evenly between desiring part-time jobs and desiring no job at all. The Pew Research Center’s 2007 survey came back with similar findings — only 21 percent of mothers say they prefer full-time jobs, down 11 points since 1997.

And Oprah Winfrey’s informal online poll found that while most working moms say they envy their stay-at-home counterparts, very few of the at-home crowd feels the same. (Lest anyone argue that everyone would say they prefer to work less if asked, most research shows that the majority of fathers, usually in the 75 percent range, favor full-time jobs.) Even young unmarried women who have yet to experience the emotional pull of children firsthand are saying they intend to spend more time caring for a family and less time climbing a career ladder. In a 2005 study conducted among female students at Yale University, 60 percent said they planned to cut back their hours or stop working once they have children.

The only problem is, not all the women who want to take a time-out from their careers, whether that means working fewer hours or not working at all, feel able to do so. The Bureau of Labor Statistics may have found that 1.2 million more mothers are staying home now than did ten years ago, and that millions more have downshifted to part-time work. But they also found that most of them are affluent, well-educated women in their thirties.

In a 2003 New York Times Magazine article titled “The Opt-Out Revolution,” reporter Lisa Belkin wondered why, after forty-plus years of advances in education, business, and politics, women still don’t run the world. Or at least don’t run half of it. Why, she asked, when half of all MBAs are earned by women, are only 16 percent of corporate officers female? And why do only eight Fortune 500 companies have female CEOs? She looked around at her own social sphere, Ivy League graduates with advanced degrees and intimidating resumes who are now at home with their children, and had a flash of insight: maybe women aren’t getting there because they don’t want to.

Belkin found that it wasn’t just that women had begun stepping back from the work force; it was that educated, experienced women — women who arguably have the most to gain from working in terms of status and  compensation — had begun stepping back. What was more, the women Belkin spoke to told her that they didn’t leave work because they ran into a glass ceiling, but because they ran into a “maternal wall.” Once these highfliers had children, the idea of mixing motherhood with the boardroom no longer sounded appealing. And because their Ivy League circles had landed them Ivy League husbands, they could afford to simply “opt out” of  full-time employment.

Unfortunately only those women on the high and low ends of the economic scale typically feel able to opt out. Women on the low end do so because what they would earn as unskilled labor isn’t worth the high cost of child care. For women on the high end of the scale, the cause is obvious. Their husbands’ incomes give them the flexibility to choose what ever lifestyle they want, so they do. But what about the vast majority of working mothers who are simply logging hours at a job (quite a different thing from its elevated cousin, “the career”) but would opt out in a heartbeat if they believed it was financially feasible? Most of the advice for them has been of the moralizing, belt-tightening variety. If you really love your kids, you’ll cut coupons, forgo vacations, and buy your clothes off the clearance rack until you’ve budgeted tightly enough to quit! There’s nothing wrong with following such admonitions, but let’s face it, there is something sort of grimly puritanical about them. That said, they’re considerably better than the lectures many feminist pundits offer, which simply tell moms to shut their mouths, get their behinds back to the office, and stop wanting what they want, as professor Linda Hirshman did in 2006 with her book Get to Work: A Manifesto for Women of the World.

Neither approach, assuming as they do that moms are either indulgent spendthrifts or lazy parasites, offers women the hope and respect they deserve. And both approaches ignore a viable third road that was the natural solution not so long ago. It is a road that our grandmothers and  great-grandmothers trod instinctively. And it is a road that enables a wife who wants to prioritize her time at home over her time at work to use all the wonderful talent, intelligence, and skill she possesses to help her husband get ahead. Not only does this approach offer mothers an exit strategy, it allows them to opt out without budgeting all the niceties out of life. Helping their husband realize his ambitions on the work front is the key that can unlock the career shackles of millions of women who long to realize different, but just as valid, ambitions on the home front.

Excerpted from “Beside Every Successful Man.” Copyright (c) 2008 by Megan Basham. Reprinted with permission from Crown, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.