You can probably relate: you’ve worked all day, picked one kid up from daycare, got the other to soccer practice, came home and “assembled” dinner, managed a quick bath for both kids at the same time with your husband helping, read stories, and then got called back to your oldest’s room three times because she’s scared of the thunder. As you crawl into bed yourself, your husband has made the bed the way you like it and sits eagerly eyeing you as your head hits the pillow. “Do you have any energy for me?” he asks sweetly. Once he hears the answer is “no,” he is miffed and begins scrolling on his phone with heavy sighs. This is marriage from a woman’s point of view.
Heterosexual marriage is about 4300 years old and in those four millennia, the basic structure has remained the same: one man taking one woman (later in some cultures, more than one) to bear his children and tend to the hearth. Marriage became a sacrament in the Catholic church in the 9000s, which may have elevated women’s position by adding male fidelity to the deal. The institution of marriage has stood the test of time, but does it still benefit women?
When looking at traditional marriages, take couples married anywhere from the 1900s to 1980s, the slant was perhaps slightly in men’s favor, but the benefit was mutual. Through marriage, women gained financial stability, someone to father their children, protection, and companionship. Men gained someone to have children with, someone to tend to the home, and companionship. Sacrifice makes sense in that context: for a 1950s or a 1970s woman, you enter into a lifelong commitment because it allows you to be the center of your family without other pulls on your time and energy.
Women began to enter the workforce en masse even after marriage in the 1970s, culminating with the largest percentage of women working outside the home in the 1990s according to The Brookings Institute. Women’s place in the workforce has remained strong since then and two income families are the norm in today’s ultra productive economy. Although this progression is the fruit of tireless feminist labor, it may not be the endgame Betty Friedan dreamed about.
In most households today, women work full-time, contribute to 60% or more of the household duties, manage the kids’ schedules, sports, schooling, and are tasked with being the emotional hubs of their family units. Men, while also grappling with changing roles, can’t know the hidden work that women do on top of what they can observe in the household. They don’t know the social organizing we do for our kids— arranging playdates and figuring out who is coming to the birthday party and neighborhood games on the sidewalk. They aren’t the ones who are in contact with the teachers, who find a professional to do special ed testing, who arrange tutoring, who help with the last part of the writing assignment. They aren’t the ones who listen to fears about a new school, anger at an incident that happened on the bus, or tears about not being included in a group text. There is just so much they can’t know because it is woven into the very essence of what mothers do.
Being in charge of all of the “soft” work — the kids’ emotional lives, schedules, schooling — made sense when women were stay-at-home parents. It is an entire job in itself. But today, on top of our full-time work, it is nothing short of exhausting. The common conversation amongst my mommy friends is the same: I’m tired, my husband complains that I’m always tired. Women often give up good sleep to a snoring partner, or to needy kids, or to work responsibilities that they couldn’t get done because they had to pick up the kids early. The idea of self-care in this environment is laughable. It is almost a cruel joke: take a bubble bath, eat some dark chocolate, spend 30 minutes on a yoga app. And then jump back into the million hats you wear and keep going. Keep going.
But at this pace, something has to give, and our divorce rate is an indication of the result. Women cannot be all of these things and good partners. They cannot be playful lovers, attentive listeners, or fun companions when they are in a constant state of depletion. A husband is just one more person who needs something and women are up to their eyeballs in people who need something from them. The question that forms in women’s heads when they dare have a free moment to ponder is this: what is in this for me? There is something in it for the kids—a two parent household. But is there something in it for women?
The answer to that, of course, depends on the individual—the love and warmth and other intangibles that are derived from the relationship—but the general equation does not work out in women’s favor. Divorce, though costly and stressful, can provide the first concrete “time off” women have ever had (provided their ex-husband has shared or partial custody). Suddenly they have nights alone, weekends to travel or see friends or sleep in. They have a meaningful break. And they gain something else, perhaps more valuable: the ability to get into bed at the end of the evening without any expectations.
Younger generations, who haven’t had the heavy “women should sacrifice” programming, may devise alternative plans: different living structures that support non-traditional families, better government supports for parents, prenuptial agreements that sort out more than the financials of marriage, non-cohabitating relationships, single parenthood, or some other unique fix to tackle the struggles of modern-day marriage. Or they may opt out altogether. After all, marriage has had a good run, but nothing lasts forever.