Jewish World Review Nov. 5, 2003 / 9Mar-Cheshvan, 5764

Marty Nemko

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Consumer Reports

Driven to an early grave | There are 400% more widows than widowers.

Kevin, 37, is a computer programmer, making $80,000 a year. His wife, Jennifer, stays home to take care of their two-year old. She is pregnant with another child, and eager for them to buy a home. Kevin doesn't like being a programmer, but fears that a career change will mean a salary cut. I asked Kevin, "Is owning a home important to you?" He said, "It's very important to Jennifer." I asked him how he felt about having the second child. He said, half-heartedly, "Okay… Jennifer really wants it." I asked, "When you first called me, you said you feel the stress is killing you. Should you be shouldering all the family's financial responsibilities?" A tear welled in his eye: "Jennifer reminds me that before we got married, I agreed to have two children. She says, and I guess I agree, that to bring our kids up right and maintain a home, is a full-time job. And she doesn't have my earning capacity." Kevin rubbed his head and sighed.

Over the past 17 years, I have been a career and personal counselor to 1,500 middle- and upper-class women and to 500 middle-to-upper class men. Because of the confidentiality of our relationship, I have learned much about what women really think on a number of issues.

Most surprising to me, is that most of the women, including many Ivy League graduates, don't want an income-earning job or will only work under ideal conditions: short hours, in a pleasant work environment, with a short commute. Indeed, an October 28, 2003 New York Times article reported that despite the economic downturn, the number of stay-at-home moms has increased 13 percent in less than a decade, and among working women, two-thirds(!) work part-time. This is true even among our most educated — those who were given coveted slots at the colleges that are supposed to train our future leaders. Among Stanford's class of '81, in their first decade after graduation alone, 57 percent of mothers spent at least a year at home full-time.

One in four stayed home full-time for three or more years. A survey of the women from the Harvard Business School classes of 1981, 1985, and 1991 found that only 38 percent of all women, not just mothers, were working full time. And beyond the elite colleges, among white men, 95% of all MBAs in the U.S. work full time. The number for white women: 67 percent. And "full-time" doesn't mean the same for men and women. Among my 1,500 female clients and many friends, very few of them are willing to sacrifice work/life balance to work the 60+ hours a week it normally takes to rise to the top of a profession. Yet women's groups complain that women are "underrepresented" in the power professions: senior executives, professors, etc., because of a "glass ceiling" they claim is erected by men.

Of course, there are many ambitious, achieving women, the equal of, indeed, superior to most men. And yes, some of the reason some women are avoiding the workplace is lingering sexism, but among my clients and friends, the overwhelming reason is that they prefer the life of a housewife, perhaps augmented by a pleasant little part-time job, their husband's well-being be damned.

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I've yet to see a woman willing to be a manager in an iron foundry, part- let alone full-time. Yet, a number of my male clients, despite being highly educated, have, to support their family, felt forced in this tight job market to take jobs in clanging, polluted environments.

Dan avoided breathing carcinogenic air, but his life is still at risk. He has two masters degrees in counseling, but here in the Bay Area, where it seems there's a therapist under every rock, he hasn't been able to land a job as a counselor. He has a few private clients, which in total earn him $6,000 a year. He adds $8,000 as a mock patient in a medical school, and at night, Dan, 54, moonlights as a waiter at a large restaurant. He says, "It's almost 1/4 mile from the kitchen to the farthest table, so when I get home at one in the morning, I'm exhausted. But I'm still so wired, I need a couple of glasses of wine to get to sleep. If I'm lucky, I get five hours of sleep before I have to get up again."

Dan's wife Denise, a Cornell graduate is 47, and says she's a musician. But during their years together, her net income has averaged just $800 a year. When Dan begs Denise to get a job that pays, she objects:" But I love being a musician. I'm trying to make a living at it." He keeps at her, but after a while, he gives up. He can't make her get a job. Meanwhile, Dan continues to drag himself through life like an ox yoked to a plow, a beast of burden. "I don't know how long I can keep this up." Statistically, he's right. There are four widows for every widower.

Many women use specious arguments to convince their husbands they should have, at most, a part-time job:

It's better for the children.Yes, on average, kids with stay-at-home-mom do a bit better, but that is largely because parents who can afford mom staying at home are, on average, from a higher socioeconomic class, which confers many other benefits. Millions of children with working moms do just fine. Having reviewed the literature, what counts most is quality time: reasonably consistent, loving, limit-setting but not punitive parenting, even if it begins after the workday. And even if a child accrues a small net advantage from having a stay-at-home mom, that advantage is usually more than outweighed by the great pressure added to the husband's life and the lifestyle decrement that comes from the lack of a second income.

It's a full-time job to take care of the kids and home. These women stretch homemaking into a full-time job with activities far less beneficial than a second income to the family and certainly to her husband's health and well-being: preparing home-cooked dinners most nights, sitting with other moms watching a playgroup when a babysitter could do that, etc.

It's at least as stressful being at home as in the work world. These women point to their having to deal with a frequently crying baby or claim that being at home is a three-ring circus. But fact is, much of the stay-at-home mom's day is spent on low-stress tasks such as supermarket shopping, playing with the baby, making dinner, and talking with friends while baby is napping. That life is much less stressful than most out-of-home jobs, which are filled with unpredictable commutes, ever increasing workloads because of the relentless downsizing, bosses with unrealistic expectations, co-workers who don't pull their weight, and tough tasks, which if not completed satisfactorily can result in criticism or even firing.

I don't have your earning power. Dr. Warren Farrell's authoritative research debunks feminist organizations' specious statistic that women earn 79 cents on the dollar. When controlled for hours on the job, performance evaluations, and years of experience, women earn $1.01 for every dollar men earn. And the reason women have fewer years of experience is that they disproportionately elect to stay home with their children, or even if they work "full-time," they work far fewer hours than their male counterparts so they can spend more time with their kids or on their avocations. Many more women than men — full-time workers and not — ensure they have time for yoga, long get-togethers with friends, art class, volunteer work, and visits to the day spa. Since 2000, despite the economic downturn, the number of spa visits nationwide has doubled!

Most of the men I work with hadn't even really stopped to think about what their wives have done to them. They accept their plight of having to work, work, work at jobs they don't like, without really questioning it. Men have been preprogrammed to be the hunter, the provider, to keep their nose to the grindstone at the metaphorical (or occasionally literal) coal mine, no matter what. Many wives, who supposedly love their husbands, only encourage it.

But when I ask a male client to step back and think about it, so many of them acknowledge that their wives have tried — usually successfully — to subtly or not so subtly coerce them into being the primary or sole breadwinner, the beast of burden. Those women make the above arguments, plus use manipulative techniques such as crying, guilt-tripping, screaming, avoiding the topic of getting a job, and forever promising to look for work but making feeble efforts.

Meanwhile, men work themselves into early graves. Despite obesity being more prevalent among women, there are 400% more widows than widowers. Yet all we hear about is another fundraiser for breast cancer.

More women need to hold up their economic end of the marital partnership and stop complaining about gender unfairness in the workplace. It's simply not true.

(I changed a few irrelevant details about "Dan "and "Kevin" to protect my clients' anonymity.)

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JWR contributor Dr. Marty Nemko is a career and education counselor in Oakland, California and hosts "Work With Marty Nemko," Sundays 11 to noon on KALW, 91.7FM. He is co-author of Cool Careers for Dummies and available for private consultation. Comment by clicking here.


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© 2003, Dr. Marty Nemko