When I was 21, the man I was madly in love with turned to me and said ruefully, "I mean, what can I do that you can't do? I don't know what I'm supposed to be. What's the point of being a guy?" I seem to recall that we were moving boxes, and I was insisting on pulling my weight, the good feminist that I was raised to be. The romance ended quickly thereafter, but his words have come back to me often in the years since. I wasn't raised to be a coquette; I was smart and physically strong, and very competent. The product of Second Wave Feminism, divorce, girls' school and Women's Studies classes, I knew exactly what I was capable of, and I did it.
Except, as I proceeded in my 20s, it wasn't that easy. When I was 25 and chosen to head an all-male team at a successful dot-com company, I could not accept my power. I insisted on sharing authority with a team member who was in reality my inferior. He loved it and often pretended he was boss. My bosses flirted with me, and I never knew whether I should flirt back to get what I wanted, or be indignant. A few years later, I again led a mostly-male team, and again I rescinded power. I simply did not feel up to fighting with the big boys. I decided to quit work and find myself in that ultra-female field, social work. I went to graduate school.
Once I'd given up power at work, I found what I thought was new power in being the perfect girlfriend. It was fun, and it was refreshing. And I felt powerful, because soon I had a big diamond ring and people afforded me a new kind of respect I had never felt before. Freed (temporarily) from the pressures of power dynamics and office politics, more than once I thought, "Being a wife and caregiver is what I was meant for -- this feels right." And my boyfriend enjoyed the dinners and the fact that I did his laundry. I had no problem just dumping my ambition because it had been too hard to fight and, as Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg terms it, "sit at the table." It was just easier to leave. And I didn't even have kids yet.
It became very appealing for me to indulge what I call my housewife fantasy. This indulgence is something I have returned to several times through the years, especially when things felt tough at work. I'm sure these periodic episodes of dropping out of ambition have hindered my career. My feminist foremothers would be upset with me. Yet among my peers, the "housewife fantasy" is common. Why is it that many thirtysomething women, even those with great careers, are still obsessed with being excellent cooks and crafting and keeping perfect houses? This is not an accident. This is ambivalence about women's new roles and our increased responsibility to be breadwinners (almost half of employed women provide at least half their family's income in the U.S.).
Fast-forward five years, and the boyfriend became husband and father. I still do the laundry, but perfect dinners and graduate school gave way to the realities of needing to manage a family and earn a living. Still, the tug between ambition and domesticity remains. What is my role in our marriage? I can be ambitious and seek power and external validation through my career, but do I want to? I have loved being on maternity leave and going to Whole Foods and reading recipes and going to playgroups and such. But that's not my reality, and it never will be. I have to work. I love my work. I resent my work. I feel what men feel when they are breadwinners. By the same token, my husband is fantastic with our kids, and I expect that of him. But I also expect him to be a breadwinner, and he expects it of himself. He also expects it of me, and there's the rub. We both play two roles, and our "home selves" and "career selves" are often in conflict. (Gail Collins captures this feeling beautifully in a recent piece.)
Add to that the fact that both home and work lives are so much more intense. Statistically, our generation spends more time with our children than any previous generation, and that's even with a majority of women working outside the home. We are also so much more parenting-focused than any previous generation, and it may come at a cost not just to us but our kids (Amy Chua, anyone?). There is so much pressure to be a good parent, and I just don't think other generations felt it as much.
At work, we put in more hours than ever. The nine-to-five world is gone, and technology means we're tethered to work no matter where we are. The outrageous cost of living means most young families must have two incomes, which means both parents must constantly juggle home and work demands. It's a whole new world of negotiation when both Mom and Dad are expected to be super parents and super workers.
Young men and women are in the middle of a huge shift in gender roles, and we're the first true group of moms who expect to both work this hard and to simultaneously raise perfect children. Let me be clear: mine is not the first generation in which women work and make meaningful contributions in the workplace. But I do believe today's twenty- and thirtysomethings are the first in which a woman staying home is an aberration, not a normal option. In fact, depending on who you believe, women now will be more successful and make more money than men. That's a lot of change to swallow.
Our society is still so conflicted about this new normal, and I think we are, too, personally and in our relationships. I know my husband is. I know part of him wishes I stayed home and he could have a hot dinner at 7 p.m. every night. As I've said, sometimes I do, too! We are the "shift" generation -- men and women are in the middle of a major shift in roles and expectations. It's very confusing. I am living the second waver's dream, but social and cultural institutions haven't caught up, so we feel as confused as ever. "End of Men" author Hanna Rosin writes:
I came to the conclusion that we have reached this new point in history, where the power dynamics between men and women are shifting rapidly, not by preformed ideology but by connecting the data points: college graduation rates, job projections, marriage patterns, pop culture images. When you open your eyes to the evidence, you can see that so many of our assumptions about the natural order between men and women are no longer relevant.
That may be true, but it doesn't mean we know how to cope with these huge changes. Like my boyfriend said all those years ago, "What's the point of being a guy?" We're in the middle of a gender role reboot, and I, for one, could use some help in figuring it out. I love my work and my family, have no regrets, but know that my feelings are often contradictory and confused. And I know I am not alone. If we don't start thinking critically about this massive shift in gender roles and expectations, there's no way we're going to emerge unscathed.
This piece is cross-posted from www.rolereboot.org, a new non-profit created to explore the changing lives of men and women. Role/Reboot provides content and tools for discussing what it means to be a man or woman today, and a platform for showcasing up-and-coming voices on gender roles and expectations. I am an advisor to Role/Reboot.
Follow Morra Aarons-Mele on Twitter: www.twitter.com/morraam