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What Happens When Men Are in the Kitchen and Women Go to the Office

Women in the Office, Men at HomeThe family breadwinner earns people’s respect, whether the working parent is a mom or a dad.

At least, that was one of the take-aways from Sunday’s cover story of The New York Times, “Wall Street Mothers, Stay-Home Fathers,” by Jodi Kantor and Jessica Silver-Greenberg. The dozens of mothers interviewed, executives at major investment firms and banks, said that they found themselves taken more seriously in the workplace because of their role as the sole financial provider. In the words of the authors, it “dawned on [one mother] that the presumption men had often benefited from — that they would not be diverted by household demands — was finally applying to her too.”

Because their husbands are at home caring for the kids and tackling the domestic duties, these women are able to wake up as early as 4:45 AM for a long day at the office, make dinner arrangements with clients at the drop of a hat, hit the gym to relieve stress after work, and jet off on business trips. (One mother said that she spends a week and a half of each month traveling for the job.) While the men at home reported the deep emotional satisfaction of bonding moments with their children, as well as — you guessed it — boredom, loneliness, and the frustration of being disrespected by their peers.

Seeing as the article focuses on a wealthy community on Long Island, I imagine these dads must be swimming against a pretty intense social current. While they’re at home doing chores and organizing playdates, the other guys down the street pull in millions of dollars a year. As one man put it, “there’s usually a long pause” after he introduces himself as a stay-at-home dad. Others said they go undercover, identifying themselves as either retired, or artists.

Women have it easier than men in this regard, at least in many parts of the country, because they’ve created support networks for themselves — coffee klatsches, Mommy and Me classes, listservs, and meet-up groups for new moms. Men are doing the same in cities (like the huge NYC Dads Group), a trend that I expect will slowly spread to the ‘burbs and small towns.

Besides their friends and neighbors, men face parental sexism exists even at an organizational level. As the article put it, “Every man interviewed said that many school notices, invitations and Girl Scout troop updates were still sent to their wives.” One man reported being excluded from a school committee, with the organizer telling him, “My husband wouldn’t be happy if you’re in my house with us.”

Welcome to the 1950s, with a twist! Which is why, on Slate, Jessica Grose says this arrangement isn’t progress, it’s just the same old story with the roles reversed. One partner goes off to provide financially, while the other stays home and handles the nurturing. Some brave new world, eh?

It’s true, we can be critical of them for not changing the culture from the inside so that working parents can achieve a better work-life balance, and we could lose hope and wonder if it’s even possible to affect a change in corporate culture. But before we spiral down into darkness, let’s put things into perspective. While the number of women on the boards of Fortune 500 finance companies has nearly doubled since 1995, we’re still only talking about a female population that comprises 19% of board members.

And it’s only in the past few years that we’ve begun to hear dads talking about the challenges they face at home, both in articles like the one in Sunday’s NY Times, and online in blogs. Indeed, a contributor to my anthology of male novelists writing about fatherhood, When I First Held You, just told me that in the ’90s, a similarly themed book came out with a much darker spin. The tales in When I First Held You confront the scary, challenging part of parenthood, but the dads all speak with heartfelt love for their kids, and are engaged in their upbringing and development.

Gender stereotypes are shifting. A man can be The President of the United States, and a good father. While women can achieve executive status and be mothers. As I wrote earlier this month about meaning and happiness, we shouldn’t have to live our lives in extreme terms: Either all career or no career. Rather, there should be a happy medium, where both women and men can experience fulfillment and happiness at home and in the workplace.

We’ve only just begun to move in that direction.

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