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The Battle of the Sexes Isn't Over

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The "battle of the sexes is over," declares a groundbreaking report, "A Woman's Nation Changes Everything," published recently by Maria Shriver and the Center for American Progress. The report claims it has been replaced by "negotiations" between the sexes over work, family, home management, child care and elder care. This report focuses on how government, business and society must change to catch up with the gender transformation of the American workforce now that "women are half of all U.S. workers and mothers are the primary breadwinners or co-breadwinners in nearly two-thirds of American families."

From that vantage, yes, the battle of the sexes is over. In our country, at least, there no longer is question about women working outside the home. Frequently it is an economic necessity. But the notion that there is no battle of the sexes over division of labor within the home?

PC nonsense. When the issue is division of labor between dual career couples, often it's all out war. In fact, this subject may have surpassed other major sources of marital strife--infidelity, addiction, abuse, emotional inaccessibility. It also may help explain recent poll results indicating that women find themselves more powerful but less happy.

The battle results from a confluence of factors. First, the typical dual career family has too much to do and too little time to do it--even when blessed with hired or family help. Second, women are biologically destined and sociologically primed to carry more of the load at home. The situation once was, "men go to war, women have babies." Now men and women alike go to war both on the battlefield and in the boardroom. But only women can have babies, and this sacred capacity is far more life changing for women than for men. It takes experiencing the intensity of pregnancy, childbirth and nursing to know this--just like it takes going to war to know its impact (here men are the authorities since their superior physical strength usually means they're the warriors).

At first, career women and men both tend to embrace the tilted situation at home. After all, it is nature's way. But this embrace is also a set-up for the imbalance to continue longer than necessary. When this happens, women start to feel something is wrong--often vaguely, at first, but with growing strength. If the imbalance persists, over time women may reach a breaking point as they find themselves overwhelmed by the kids/work/home juggling act. Concomitantly, they feel caught between guilt over wanting to be "good enough" wives and mothers versus resentment over carrying more than their fair share.

Meanwhile, men typically feel fierce pressure to "make it" career-wise in a highly competitive world--arguably a societal pressure still more pronounced for men than for women despite cultural shifts. Compared to their tethered wives, men have had relatively more freedom to pursue their careers. But their load too has vastly increased with the advent of family responsibilities. When wives complain about the imbalance at home, they object, pointing to their unique pressures. They also may view women as bringing misery upon themselves by trying to do too much or being too particular about how things get done. Who cares if we use Christmas napkins in July?

The process is subtle, but its corrosive effects are real. The script, whether expressed or not, goes something like this. Husband: "I've got a career to develop for the sake of this family, and you don't give me credit for what it takes. And compared to other men, I do so much more at home." Wife: "Wait a second. You've had tons more protected time at work than me. And it's not fair to compare yourself to what other men do at home. What about other women?"

In essence, women feel they've hit a "glass ceiling" in the home, pulling for an adversarial instead of a collaborative relationship over collective aspirations, goals and principles. To men's bewilderment and dismay, women's anger over the impasse may prove a complete libido killer--sex becomes one more burdensome "task" instead of a loving source of emotional and physical replenishment (i.e., it's not as simple as, "honey, I'm too tired").

Danger lurks if couples don't find a way to wage this battle well. The solution to these inevitable conflicts is not easy, even if social policies improve as advocated by the Shriver report. A few brief suggestions. Women, make a "honey-do" list, and stick to it. Take the extra time to delegate. Or, better still, keep both parties honest by composing the to-do list together, then divide and conquer. Men, have empathy for the challenges career women face, and recognize it is in everyone's best interest to achieve an equitable distribution of labor at home.

Fight fair in the battle of the sexes on the home front, and you'll reap plenty of rewards--including good sex between the battles.

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