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The American Working Man, a Brief Look at the Past

Updated: Aug 3, 2021

Jennifer Senior’s “Why Mom’s Time is Different from Dad’s Time”—an essay that recently appeared in the Wall Street Journal—sparked a flurry of debate that swung between compassionate and incensed.  The piece, excerpted from Senior’s book, All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood (Ecco, 2014), explores the differences between the way women and men spend their time and the gender imbalance that exists in many marriages.  Some readers declared the essay a “rant” and accused Senior of bashing men, feeling sorry for herself, and falling short as a mother. 

Some praised her candor.  Others agreed with her argument wholeheartedly.  As for me?  It seemed like the author had crawled into my mind and articulated the concerns I’ve kept quiet about for years.  What especially resonated with me is Senior’s notion that women often feel fragmented—and are therefore less productive than their partners—because they’re keenly attentive to their own emotions and the moods of the people around them.  Usually the mother, Senior writes, is “more alive to the emotional undercurrents of the household.  As a result, this more intuitive parent feels that the other parent—usually the father—is not doing his fair share, while the father feels that his wife is excessively emotional and wretchedly inefficient.”  When I came to this part of the essay, I thought yesExactly.

The Fragmented Woman

Like Senior, I’m a mother and a wife.  I also endured a challenging childhood that was characterized by chaos.  From an early age, I learned the importance of staying aware of the emotional nuances of the adults around me.  It was part of my survival.  Naturally, this tendency persisted into my adult life, and, like many women, I’m on high alert at all times to everything around me, from my daughter’s low energy and my husband’s bad mood to the slump my dog walker seems to be in, thanks to a recent cold.  I also know when the dishwasher needs to be unloaded and the clothes need to be folded and that we’re out of milk.  If you’re anything like me, you know how difficult it is to complete a project when your mind is partially (okay, almost entirely) focused on what you need to do to cheer up your daughter and get her to eat, soothe your husband, pep up your pet sitter, and make sure that the house is in working order.  Ensuring that your family is happy and healthy and that your home is clean and stocked takes precedence, no matter how important the project might be.

Why Do Gender-Specific Duties Exist?

Besides Senior’s eloquent and provocative piece, you can go anywhere and find a great deal of material on the challenges women face at home and in the workplace and their struggle to maintain emotional and physical health and independence after having kids.  I examine these issues often as well, and in the next few weeks will use Senior’s article to look deeper into the subject.  In the meantime, I’d like to ponder men’s journey to help myself and others understand why, despite the strides we’ve made towards gender equality, the roles men and women assume remain polarized in many families.

To better understand this, it’s important to look back at the history of America.  With the birth of industrialization, families that were accustomed to working together as a unit on farms were split apart when men went off to the factory while women, for the most part, stayed home to take care of the children and household.  Then, the Great Depression hit, and the differences in the roles women and men played intensified.

The American Working Man

“The optimism ushered in by the Roaring Twenties was ushered out by the Great Depression and widespread unemployment in the 1930s,” sociologist Michael Kimmel writes in his groundbreaking book, Manhood in America: A Cultural History.  “Never before had American men experienced such massive and system-wide shock to their ability to prove their manhood by providing for their families.”  Money was scarce.  Jobs were hard to come by.  The threat of unemployment loomed, and the men who couldn’t find steady work felt the repercussions of the ruined economy on a deeply personal level.  “Unemployed men lost status with their wives and children,” Kimmel says, “and saw themselves as impotent patriarchs.  And the consequences for men were significant.”  In response, the figure of the American Working Man emerged—an individual removed the frills of the household and hell bent on proving his worth through his income and professional achievements.

The need for men to prove their masculinity persists today, in large part because of these events and the pressures they continue to feel from society and their families.  That being said, it’s easy to see how the women Senior studied and interviewed for her book feel just as stressed and overwhelmed as men do, only in different ways.  Many couples work similar hours but a vast majority of women also handle the bulk of the domestic responsibilities and childcare when both parents are home.  On top of that, they’re on edge because they’re acutely aware of their children and spouse’s emotional states.  Their attention is often stretched across several matters at once.  Time seems to disappear right before their eyes.  Multitasking becomes essential, even when it’s counterproductive.  “Being compelled to divide and subdivide your time doesn’t just compromise your productivity and lead to garden-variety discombobulation,” Senior writes.  “It also creates a feeling of urgency—a sense that no matter how tranquil the moment, no matter how unpressured the circumstances, there’s always a pot somewhere that’s about to boil over.”

Where Do We Go From Here?

The solution rests in communication and delegation.  Couples need to be upfront about which responsibilities they’ll take on and how tasks will be divvied up, and both must stick to their commitments.  This is easier said than done but certainly feasible if responsibilities are based on preference.  Prefer solitude at the end of the day?  You handle the laundry while your partner helps the kids with their baths.  Do you feel energized in the morning while your husband lags but comes alive at night?  You take care of cleaning up after breakfast while he handles dinner.  And if you have children who are old enough to assist, by all means enlist their help with household chores.  Most of all, be respectful of each other and the emotional and practical weight you each carry, and allow each other time off so that you can both have those all-important tranquil moments.

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