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Stay-At-Home Spouse Myth

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My job is just too demanding, just too complex for me to manage without a spouse or significant other at home taking care of the house and kids. We can't both work and play meaningful roles at home.

There's a school of thought out there that two parents with high-powered jobs just isn't workable, and a front page story in the New York Times published last month followed this line of thought when it comes to big jobs on Wall Street.

According to the article, more and more women bankers apparently have spouses who stay home taking care of the kids and housekeeping:

In an industry still dominated by men with only a smattering of women in its highest ranks, these bankers make up a small but rapidly expanding group, benefiting from what they call a direct link between their ability to achieve and their husbands' willingness to handle domestic duties. The number of women in finance with stay-at-home spouses has climbed nearly tenfold since 1980, according to an analysis of census data, and some of the most successful women in the field are among them.

Unfortunately, articles like this add fuel to the wrong assumption that if you have a tough job, one that makes lots of demands, you shouldn't think you can meet the job's requirements and also do right by your personal life.

The story is making a mountain out of a molehill; not to mention giving yet more credence to this as a solution to the issue of work-life fit.

If you look closely at the graphic that comes with the article it says this type of arrangement among Wall Street's women is still a serious rarity: They remain less than 2 percent of all married women in finance.

Two percent!

That means 98 percent of women in finance are somehow making it work with out a man at home cooking up the bacon.

The problem with spotlighting trends about changing family dynamics that aren't really trends is that they take away from the "new truths" about how work and family life is organized, as Avra Siegel, deputy director for the White House Council on Women and Girls, put it at a recent symposium at the Department of Labor marking the 50th Anniversary of "American Women: Report of the President's Commission on the Status of Women, 1963."

The report, commissioned by President Kennedy, offered a snapshot of what women in the workplace faced, and proposed action items to help better the lives of women, who represented only about one third of the nation's workforce at that time. (Women now make up about half of the U.S. workforce.) It also assumed very traditional gender roles at home, which is why it says:

Women can do a far more effective job as mothers and homemakers when communities provide appropriate resources and when they know how to use such resources for health, education, safety, recreation, child care and counseling.

Yet, our research at the Families and Work Institute finds that actually, gender roles have changed dramatically. Men are increasingly doing caregiving.

And, in part because it is harder for men to feel "permission" to play this role, they are also experiencing work-life conflict in greater numbers today than women.

But our research also shows that men with spouses who stay home do not experience a huge drop in work-life conflict. In other words, either/or thinking doesn't have the payoff many people hope it does.

Percentage of men reporting some/a lot of work-life conflict by relationship status

So, maybe it's time to start focusing on the successful working parents out there who found ways to hold demanding jobs and raise their children; yes, even in the high-powered world of finance.

Janet Yellen, the newly minted Federal Reserve chief, and her Nobel Prize economist husband, George A. Akerlof are a great example.

Yet another article the New York Times shares the 30-year old work-life tale of Yellen and Akerlof:

When the economists Janet L. Yellen and George A. Akerlof hired a baby sitter for their son in the early 1980s, they decided to pay more than the going wage. They reasoned that a happier baby sitter would provide better care.

Here we have two very successful individuals, forging a path to nurture two successful careers and a family.

Mary Barry, General Motors' new CEO, and her husband, who is a management consultant, are another example.

We all have a tendency to think that our jobs are so important, and so consuming, that there is no way to do them without making huge sacrifices on the home front. We are stuck in "either/or" mode. But our research shows that those women and men who are able to prioritize both work and personal life, those we call "dual centric," are more successful, less stressed, and feel better about all aspects of their lives. The key is to develop a 'both/and' mindset. If you have been successful in doing so, we would love to hear your story.