I've been looking around at friends' marriages, and wondering what makes some happy and some unhappy. And I keep thinking of Ward and June Cleaver, who have always typified to me the classic American division of male/female roles in a "married with children" relationship. She maintains the house; he pays the bills. They are polite to each other. She is the first line of defense for matters involving the children, but he is the final word, and all defer to him.
One could argue that, at least from the woman's point of view, it's a dreadful division, since she works hard, but he holds ultimate power. What's weird, though, is that the couples I know who have returned to a Ward and June life-style have very happy marriages. Each knows his or her area of responsibility within the relationship, and that seems to take away from, rather than to add to, stress.
The other happy couples I know are those where they've truly mixed-and-matched the Ward and June roles. That is, both work, but both share equally in household management. Each seems to respect the other, and there is a health give-and-take for responsibility. I know only two couples who have achieved this, so it seems to be a real rarity, at least in my circles.
The most angry marriages are those where the man clings to the Ward role, but expects his wife to be both June (household manager) and Ward (breadwinner). These are the households where the woman holds a full- or part-time job, and is also the primary caregiver for the children (when they're not in school), as well as the chief shopper, cook, laundress, and housecleaner. Sadly, this is also the dominant model in my community, and I think it goes a long way to explaining the very resentful women I know.
The problem I'm observing is nothing new. Fifteen years ago, Arlie Hochschild wrote a book called The Second Shift, which examined relationships in which both man and woman work. I haven't read the book since its publication, but my memory is that the women who carried the heaviest load were the yuppie wives whose husbands paid lip-service to an "equal" relationship in the marriage.
What Hochschild discovered is that those husbands -- even while claiming that, just as their wives added the Ward role to their June role, they too added the June role to their Ward role -- were creating an elaborate fiction themselves. Their "equal" role in the house amounted to toting out the garbage once a week, or picking up the occasional milk. Those who laid claim to all responsibilities outside the house's walls (that is, yardwork), essentially mowed the lawn weekly. Meanwhile, their wives, who also held full time jobs, were handling shopping, cooking, cleaning, childcare, and all other miscellaneous stuff.
Ironically, those husbands who were most likely to provide real help around the house were the old-fashioned men who bitterly resented the economic necessity that forced their wives into the workplace. It was they who placed the most value on their wives' work, and were therefore most likely to recognize the women's sacrifice in leaving the home for the workplace. "Modern men," with their views of equality, seemed to see traditional women's work as valueless and were unwilling to sully their hands with it.
It's interesting that, 15 years after I read that book as an unencumbered single, I look around my world and see that the book could just as easily have been written today, 'cause nothing's changed. Apparently Ward and June were on to something....