What hap­pens to a mar­riage when the wife is the bread­win­ner? In this case, as Amy Sohn writes, it can mean the best of both worlds.

Harper’s Bazaar (Malaysia) - - Contents -

Rewrit­ing the rules of do­mes­tic bliss

Re­cently I was at lunch with a friend, a mother of two who is sup­port­ing her fam­ily as an edi­tor while her un­em­ployed hus­band fig­ures out his next move. She men­tioned that al­though he had al­ways been a ca­pa­ble cook, he spent more time in the kitchen now that he was home. And she liked that she didn’t have to worry about mak­ing din­ner any­more. “What about you?” she asked. “Do you cook?”

“I’m try­ing,” I said. “I did a cou­ple of weeks ago. Pork-shoul­der stew with po­lenta. To my great sur­prise, it was de­li­cious, but then I got busy and didn’t do it again for the rest of the month.” She laughed. ‘‘‘I’m try­ing?’’’ she said. “You sound like a guy. A wife could never say that. They can’t try to cook din­ner for the fam­ily. They have to.”

“But I am the guy,” I said. “The cook­ing isn’t my re­spon­si­bil­ity. It’s his.” I have been “the guy” for all nine years of my mar­riage. My hus­band is an artist who, from the mo­ment our now seven-year-old daugh­ter was born, has been her pri­mary care­giver. When she was an in­fant, we all flew from New York to Los An­ge­les three dif­fer­ent times so that I could pitch ideas for tele­vi­sion shows. I used a costly elec­tric Medela breast pump so he could feed her in the ho­tel while I was in meet­ings, do­ing char­ac­ter de­scrip­tions and sea­son arcs. It is said that the mother is the cen­tre of the fam­ily, but for my daugh­ter’s first year of life it was the pump.

Now that our daugh­ter is in school full­time, my hus­band, whose in­come is 10 to 20 per­cent of what I make, does the school run. On week­days he makes us all break­fast, gets her dressed, packs her lunch, shut­tles her to play­dates, and shops for gro­ceries while I work at a lo­cal writ­ers’ space. He makes din­ner for her and a sec­ond din­ner for the two of us and gets her ready for bed. On week­ends he vac­u­ums and mops, and he cleans the bath­room. He was the one who toi­let-trained her and taught her to swim and read. On top of all that, he reads ev­ery­thing I write (ex­cept this).

In re­turn, what do I do? The laun­dry.

Just like Don Draper, I want a mar­tini when I walk through the door, a spouse who has sex with me when­ever I ask ... But it turns out that in 2013,

no one is al­lowed to be like Don Draper.

Within a gen­er­a­tion it is likely that more house­holds will be sup­ported by women than men, Liza Mundy as­serts in her re­cent book, The Richer Sex. Mar­riages like mine are the mar­riage of the fu­ture. So here’s a re­port from the trenches. For the most part, it works. When my in­come is high, I take plea­sure in be­ing the one who makes money. I like treat­ing him to plays or lay­ing down the credit card at ex­pen­sive meals out (which only both­ers him when we’re with my par­ents). And I like that he is sup­port­ive of my ca­reer. When I land a big book ad­vance, he says, “You’ve done it again,” and I feel lucky to be mar­ried to some­one who wants me to do well and doesn’t have any com­pe­ti­tion is­sues.

As a re­sult of ev­ery­thing he does at home, I feel free of the anger and re­sent­ment that so many other women feel to­ward their clue­less, work­ing hus­bands. When a mother at the play­ground says that her hus­band “can­not even wash a dish,” I sit qui­etly be­cause if I told her the truth, she would hate me. Some­times, dur­ing an en­er­getic game of “Blame the hus­band,” I con­fess, “Mine balls his socks and throws them down the hall­way,” but the truth is I don’t mind. He straight­ens up con­stantly, he whips up din­ner for 10, he cleans the toi­let. What do I care about his socks?

Our ar­range­ment also ab­solves me of a lot of worry about my child. Be­cause of the fo­cused at­ten­tion he gives her, she’s turn­ing out to be a bright, happy, and mostly well­be­haved girl. And since she has the ben­e­fit of a par­ent care­giver, as op­posed to a paid one, I don’t feel the guilt that I might if she were with a nanny all the time.

On week­ends I make up for the time I can’t spend with my daugh­ter by tak­ing her on ex­cur­sions. I crave my days with her. We have marathon bond­ing ses­sions, and be­cause I am not the ev­ery­day par­ent, I am the de facto “fun” one. Once in a while she calls me “Daddy” by ac­ci­dent, but I tell my­self that it’s a nat­u­ral con­se­quence of her spend­ing more time with him. (And to be fair, she some­times calls him “Mummy.”)

Though our “deal” is what makes our fam­ily work, there are com­pli­cated as­pects of our role re­ver­sal. For one, there’s the sex. Like many men, I get less sex than I’d like. I want it on de­mand, with no fore­play, three or four times a week, and I am like a man in the way I ask for it. I have all the sub­tlety of Paul Rudd in Knocked Up: “Want to have sex?” But af­ter a long day of child care, my hus­band is of­ten tired. He says he’d want to have sex more of­ten if I was nicer.

“Try to be more ten­der,” he says. “What’s ten­der?” I think. “I’ll feel more ten­der af­ter we have sex.” Our so­lu­tion is to do it dur­ing the day when our daugh­ter is at school. Some­thing about her ab­sence from the apart­ment frees him up.

For an­other, the re­la­tion­ship be­tween my par­ents and my hus­band is some­what strained. My fa­ther worries that I mar­ried a slacker. He’s from a gen­er­a­tion where the men had to pro­vide, and he can’t quite ac­cept that our di­vi­sion of re­spon­si­bil­ity ac­tu­ally suits us well.

My mother, mean­while, is jeal­ous of my hus­band’s pro­fi­ciency in the kitchen. When he makes an amaz­ing chili or bakes home­made pizza, she eats ev­ery last bite but sel­dom gives the chef a com­pli­ment. If a daugh­ter-in-law cooked the way he does, they would trade recipes. But be­cause my mother is be­ing up­staged by a man, it seems she doesn’t like it.

It can also be hard to shoul­der the eco­nomic bur­den for an en­tire fam­ily. I of­ten won­der whether men ex­pe­ri­ence the same level of stress that I do. Dur­ing one fi­nan­cially chal­leng­ing pe­riod, I came home early to find my hus­band play­ing gypsy jazz gui­tar. He had a pay­ing gig ap­proach­ing, but I couldn’t help call­ing a dad friend. “He’s prac­tis­ing gui­tar in­stead of try­ing to sell his paint­ings!” I cried. “I know what you mean,” he said. “My wife just started pot­tery classes.”

But per­haps the most chal­leng­ing as­pect of our “deal” is the im­bal­ance of re­spon­si­bil­ity takes its toll on him. “You never cook!” he says. “Why can’t you do it once a week?” Feel­ing de­fen­sive, I use the same lines as my girl­friends’ banker hus­bands: “It’s not that I don’t want to help out. I don’t have the time. Some­one has to pay the mort­gage.”

Even as I say the words, I recog­nise their ridicu­lous­ness. It turns out that I don’t re­ally want to be the guy. I want to be the guy circa 1964, like Don Draper on Mad Men. Be­cause I make 80 per­cent of the fam­ily in­come, I want to do 20 per­cent of the house­work. I want my bread­win­ner sta­tus to ab­solve me of any task I don’t en­joy, like un­load­ing the dishwasher or tak­ing out the trash on a cold night. Just like Don Draper, I want a mar­tini when I walk through the door, a spouse who has sex with me when­ever I ask, and a child who goes to bed when I tell her to. But it turns out that, in 2013, no one is al­lowed to be like Don Draper. In the mod­ern, egal­i­tar­ian mar­riage, ev­ery­one has to pitch in re­gard­less of in­come and ev­ery­one has to do some drudgery. No one can put his or her feet up on the cof­fee ta­ble dur­ing the witch­ing hour. My ther­a­pist, who says he of­fers me the same coun­sel he gives his male pa­tients, tells me to give up on hav­ing any per­sonal time at night. “It’s not go­ing to hap­pen,” he says. “Put the lap­top away when you walk through the door. Get your ‘me’ time on busi­ness trips.”

So nowa­days, when my hus­band asks me to clear the din­ner ta­ble, I get off the couch and say, “No prob­lem.” If he walks into the kitchen and says, “It looks like a bomb went off,” I say, “I’ll do the dishes.” I tidy the liv­ing room for an hour af­ter he and our daugh­ter have gone to bed. I give her baths on week­ends, even if I don’t spend nearly as much time as he does de­tan­gling her hair. And I try to cook a cou­ple of times a week. It makes my hus­band grate­ful. He com­pli­ments ev­ery meal I make like it’s fourstar. “You’ve been hid­ing your skills from me all th­ese years.” The com­pli­ments mo­ti­vate me to cook more.

The old saw is “Happy wife, happy life.” I agree with that. It just took me nine years of mar­riage to re­alise he’s the wife, not me.

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