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Embracing the Gender Divide: Eight Essential Considerations for Families

We’ve heard it time and again: Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus.  But how true is this sentiment?

Esteemed psychologists Jean Baker Miller and sociologist Carol Gilligan—who were at the forefront of gender studies in the 70s and 80s—conducted a number of studies to examine the fundamental differences between men and women.  Their results revealed striking differences between the genders, particularly in terms of how women and men react to crises: Women are much more prone to respond with compassion by immediately assisting those who have been injured despite personal risk, while men initially respond by setting their emotions aside, assessing the situation, and looking for ways to reach concrete results.  Ultimately, it was discovered, women favor cooperation over competition and search for the most peaceful solution available; men, on the other hand, aim for tangible outcomes even if it means that others might suffer.  Furthermore, they demonstrated that women thrive at multitasking while men possess an innate gift for remaining focused for long periods of time—a direct result, it was speculated, of women staying behind to care for the children while men went out to hunt.

History has played a large role in reinforcing these differences.  Masculine qualities—shrewdness, competitiveness, and logic—have taken on greater value than inherent feminine traits over time.  The beginning of the 20th century and the advent of industrialism magnified this: Women were relegated to the household while men were allowed to develop government policies and the guidelines of society.  When women reemerged in the labor market in the 50s and 60s, they found it impossible to apply their inborn values and traits: They’d joined a workforce that respected ruthlessness and results over community and cooperation.  The differences between men and women were widely and deeply felt.

Fast forward to the 21st century.  The essential differences between men and women that were ingrained in our society long before continue to linger.  Imbalance between the genders persists.  Women, on average, are paid less than men.  Fewer women than men serve as executive board members at large companies.  And that disparity extends to many families.  It’s true that now, more than ever, men are receptive to and encourage shared duties.  But when it comes to raising the children and managing the household?  Women remain primarily responsible.  And with that, resentment stirs and troubles arise even in the most loving, nurturing, and stable relationships.

From what I’ve observed, read about, and experienced, problems typically emerge when children come into the picture.  If a family requires full-time help—and many do—women are more likely than men to renounce their careers to fill the role.  In response, men work harder in an attempt to make up for the loss of income and the cost of having a child, which inadvertently leads to less quality time with their families.  Women, instinctively aware of the necessity of building and cultivating communities and providing children with a warm, pleasant, and nurturing home life, neglect themselves to ensure that these needs are met.  Lacking the balance they might have found between life and work had they kept their careers, many women pour their efforts into projects and activities related to their children, which, for some, further diminishes their handle on their identity.  Envy of the success and fulfillment their partners have attained in their professions breeds more frustration for women.  Domesticity overwhelms them.  Bitterness eats at them.  And men, in turn, at a loss of what to do, often turn silent and emotionally distant.  Exasperation reaches an acme, and either the couple splits or they continue to exist in a state of persistent misery.  Joint interests, mutual goals, and love may have brought a couple together, but refusing to acknowledge and understand the biological, historical, and societal differences between them puts their relationship in danger.

There are several ways to avoid falling into this predicament.  Couples should take the eight following steps:

1)   Determine what’s important to each of you before starting a family.  Define how you will split household, childrearing, and work responsibilities to guarantee fairness.

2)   Realize that, as a mother to a newborn, who will require around-the-clock care, you will be forced to give less to certain endeavors.  Realize, also, that your child will become more and more self-sufficient over time, and that it’s only temporary.

3)   If it’s determined that the man will focus on his career and will serve as the primary breadwinner, then steps should be taken to ensure that the woman retains a sense of self.  This might mean hiring a babysitter twice a week, or taking a weekend day to herself.

4)   Acknowledge, as a couple, that new moms are at risk of post-partum depression; they’re also at risk of experiencing fragmentation and diminished self-confidence when they put their careers on hold.  Recognizing the possibility of this places couples in a better place to prevent it.

5)   Understand that we live in an intellectual-based, competitive society, where the inherent feminine traits that are essential to motherhood are considered inferior to accomplishments directly related to the benchmarks of success, including wealth, social status, and professional accomplishments.  Women who dedicate themselves to raising children—a role that isn’t rewarded monetarily—must learn to rely on their own strength and sense of accomplishment to feel validated.

6)   Recognize, reward, and embrace your differences.  Realize that where one of you falls short, the other excels, and use this to your advantage—as a couple, as parents, and as individuals.

7)   Utilize compassion, and communicate frequently.  The less a couple communicates, the more disparate and irrevocable their differences feel.  It’s far better to endure an uncomfortable discussion at the onset of a problem than it is to allow it to fester and grow.

8)   Reach a compromise that will enable both of you to express your unique gifts while caring for your children, your work, your social life, your hobbies, your community, and, perhaps most importantly, your relationship.

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