Money, power, status and who cooks diner

It seems like we currently allow researchers and their studies to tell us too much about our own lives.

Quite a while ago, I read an article about how retirement is creating a change in marital dynamics among baby boomers. It appears that men are retiring earlier than women, who tend to be a few years younger than their husbands and often delayed working full time until their children were older. Thus, in homes where for years the husband was the main breadwinner, he is now a stay-at-home husband while his wife is out in the working world.

I thought of this recently while having dinner with some of my parent’s friends. The husband retired last year and now oversees the addition of a garage, doing the laundry and making dinner for his wife when she comes home from work. The wife plans on working for another five years before she’s ready to retire.

Though I know many families in which the wife delayed her career and is now working full time while her retired husband does the housework, this mold does not fit my parents. My dependable mother started teaching high school right out of college and 30 years later is retiring this spring. My father worked at various jobs for a decade after college until he figured out what he wanted to do for a career. He didn’t start working as a firefighter until the year I was born and won’t be ready to retire until next year.

Firefighters work 24-hour shifts. This means in any seven-day period, he worked three days at most, leaving plenty of time to take care of me while I was growing up. While most of the other parents on field trips were mothers, my father would often be one of only two fathers who came along. Then, during summer vacation, my mother was off (although she’d occasionally teach summer school) and I got to experience her as a stay-at-home mom shuttling me around to soccer games and theater rehearsals. I consider myself lucky because I got to experience both of my parents as stay-at-home parents and working parents, and it seems like they were more fulfilled as people by being able to experience both roles.

A little while after observing my parents’ friends, I heard a National Public Radio discussion about a study that found successful women are less likely to get married than successful men. One of the explanations given was that despite all the talk of equality, men still want women who won’t overshadow them, and women still want men who are more successful than they are. My first thought was to wonder how success is defined.

My mother has a master’s degree plus 45 credits and usually earns more than my dad, but does that make her more successful than him? They’re both incredibly intelligent people who are dedicated to their families and their communities. Doesn’t getting paid to do work both of them love make them successful, or does success only depend upon how advanced their degrees are and how much money they make?

The power of money has been very much institutionalized in our society, regardless of whether the person controlling the money is male or female (although it’s assumed the person controlling the money is a man). But power has been institutionalized in other ways. Caucasian women are generally more privileged than Hispanic, black, Middle Eastern or American Indian women. An upperclass woman has more influence than other women. I wonder if the pattern of successful women getting married less varies among women of different racial and class backgrounds, or if it’s assumed that success has obliterated the backgrounds the women in the study came from.

In a way, the study wasn’t telling me anything I hadn’t heard before, which is basically that women are going to get screwed over no matter what they do. If they’re successful, they’re not going to get married, which means they’re not fulfilling part of their destiny as women. Because male-female marriage is the only type that’s legal in this country, a woman’s destiny to marry must also make it a man’s destiny to marry. But no one ever studies why there are successful men who don’t get married. It’s just assumed that they didn’t want to.

Maybe the researchers would conclude that the reason my mother is cooking more as she nears retirement is to make up for all those years where she didn’t have time to cook every evening because she was making money and being a community leader.

And maybe the researchers have already condemned me. I might go to graduate school, so their conclusion would be that I’m not going to want anyone who doesn’t also have a master’s degree and makes at least as much money as I do.

Sometimes I wonder if the researchers’ results are already predetermined by the society that created them. Perhaps it’s time to stop relying on researchers to define success and happiness and do what we feel is best for our personal situations.

R.R.S. Stewart welcomes comments at [email protected]