Among the more tantalizing facts scientists at the Center for Research on Families at the University of Washington have uncovered is that the more money the wife makes, the more housework she does in proportion to her husband, and it’s not nearly as equitable as when both partners are working. “There’s an association with housework being woman’s work,” says the center’s associate director, Julie Brines. “They’re not going to compound the difficulty by the husband doing more housework.”
Or making them cook dinner. Betsy recalls the first and last time her husband did. “Tom made dinner one night,” she says. “I came to the table and there was spaghetti, in the pot, right on the table. No salad, no bread, no napkin folded at your place. Why didn’t he know about the rest of it? He does know about the rest of it. He’s been eating all his life!”
Once Anna sought a divorce—“You know what my lawyer called him? A parasite”—she, like many other women in her position, was in for a shock. Divorce lawyer Harriet Newman Cohen explains, “The law is supposed to be gender-blind. Therefore, when a marriage is breaking up at the insistence of either the breadwinning wife or the supported husband, the lawyer has to apprise the client that when a big-earner wife comes in, the court bends over backward to be gender-neutral, and it is possible the bum is going to be rewarded for sitting on his hands. You do a flip-flop and make believe she is a guy.”
More often than not, this doesn’t involve alimony. “A lot of men, I’ve noticed, feel embarrassed to ask for alimony,” says Ken Neumann, since they already know their partner’s reaction. “The wife’s idea is, ‘You’re not going to ask for alimony, are you? It’s bad enough I was making more than you.’ ”
The wife’s sense of being the victim of a scam can intensify when children are involved. Even though some freeloaders are excellent fathers, responsibilities for arranging playdates, setting the table for dinner, and soothing children with nightmares inevitably falls to the mother, whether she has a PowerPoint presentation to deliver at eight the next morning or not. “Once you add a child into the equation, the likelihood of resentment is much higher,” observes Barbara Corcoran.
“I wouldn’t mind as much if he’d really been ‘Mommy’ and I’d really been ‘Daddy,’ ” says Anna, referring to the fact that she was forced to cut her husband a check for $100,000 when they divorced—half the amount of the appreciation over the course of their marriage of a house she owned. “But he wasn’t really Mommy. We had full-time babysitting.”
What she remembers with special bitterness was having to return to work two weeks after the arrival of their second child because she was freelancing. As the family’s sole earner, she couldn’t afford to take maternity leave.
Yet even in the best of marriages, where the husbands stay home while the wives go off to work, the women seem unable to avoid doubt over their decision.
“Every day, I ask myself, ‘Will I regret it when I’m lying in my grave?’ ” Jami Floyd admits. The question is exacerbated in the Disneyland atmosphere of Manhattan, where legions of wealthy mothers seem to have carved out quasi-idyllic existences (at least it looks that way from the outside) centered on the rhythms of child-rearing, wraparound babysitting, and frequent lunches and dinners with friends.
“In our circle, there are so many mothers who either work part-time or don’t work,” says Jeff. “When Laura was on maternity leave, I could see her eyes opening.
“She can be a little envious of the relationship I have with our son,” he adds. “There were times he’d say, ‘I don’t want Mommy, I want Daddy to tuck me in.’ It was difficult for her. She felt she was not being a good mother.
“We’ve always made a rule: If we argue, we don’t do it in front of the kids. We had more arguments this year where we have not been able to stop raising our voices in front of them. There were times when I said, ‘I really hope we can make it through this year.’ ”
“It’s hard,” Laura acknowledges from her cab on the way to the airport for a Sunday-afternoon flight to Dallas. “I’d like to spend more time with the kids, but I’m in this crazy, nutso, high-paid job and I’d better go for it. There’s no job security anymore. It’s a struggle with two kids—you can’t take your foot off the gas.”
The combat resulted in an epiphany of sorts for Jeff. “It was a great eye-opener for me to think, Damn! Why doesn’t my wife come home and tell me she appreciates the way I’m unpacking the moving boxes? I probably don’t praise her in a way that she needs itto say, ‘I really appreciate what you’re doing for the family.’ ”
After four years, the stay-at-home experience is starting to wear thin for Kurt Flehinger, too. “He’s a highly intellectual person, and at the park, people want to talk about poop consistency and the shape of the pacifier,” Jami explains. “I think he’s ready to move on from that.”
She also balks each time someone tells her how lucky she is to be married to “a saint.” “While I applaud Kurt’s forward-thinking and out-of-the-box approach to his life, no one ever comes up to a woman who has two children and says, ‘You’re a saint.’ She’s just a mom doing what’s expected of her.”
“It can be mind-numbing,” admits Kurt, who’s thinking of going back to work, much to his wife’s regret. “I love my children, but in terms of stimulating my intellect, it doesn’t do it for me.”
Ken Neumann recently conducted a divorce mediation in which one of the sticking points involved the stay-at-home husband’s wish to have his wealthy real-estate-professional wife continue to rent him an office even though he doesn’t work. “He left his house in the morning with his kid pretending to go to work,” Neumann recalls.“The wife said, ‘You don’t need the office,’ and he said, ‘I really want our daughter to see me as going to work.’ So she said, ‘Why don’t you just get a job like everybody else?’ Children do pick up when the father is a freeloader.”
Anna says that after she and her spouse split and sold their apartment, her 8-year-old asked her why her new apartment was larger and more luxurious than her dad’s. “I said, ‘Because I pay the rent here,’ ” she recalls. “And she said, ‘You do work harder than Daddy, don’t you?’ Kids are not stupid. I work way harder than Daddy.”
Betsy isn’t sure how being the child of a marriage where the mother is all-powerful will affect her college-age son. “I’m curious myself how it will play out,” she says. “He says to me, ‘I’m 70 percent my father, and the 30 percent that’s you is working real hard.’ ”
For her part, Anna has promised to be more tough-minded in her choice of mate if and when she slips back into the dating scene. “I didn’t ask the right questions,” she laments. “ ‘What have you done? Where have you come from, and how much have you made?’ It’s not the kind of thing one talks about. You believe what you want to believe. When you’re madly in love, you don’t really care about that kind of thing. But I will the next time.”