Friday, July 31

Maybe Mom Was Wrong

As I wrote earlier this week, Rhona Mahony’s book Kidding Ourselves has gotten me thinking about my power to bargain with my artist husband. Mahony argues that women will not achieve economic equality until the cessation of the sexual division of labor, in which fathers tend to be the primary breadwinner in their families and mothers tend to be the primary homemaker and parent. Though Mahony does not argue that every couple should evenly split the “second shift” of unpaid labor—she rather envisions a future in which labor is evenly distributed between men and women across society—she does hope to give women the tools to negotiate for a better deal in their marriages.

According to Mahony, marriage is itself a kind of negotiation, which she defines as “any situation in which two or more people are interdependent, have some perceived conflict, can use strategic behavior, and have room for agreement.” Partners cooperate to create value—money, time, security, and happiness—and also compete to claim that value (which is not to say, by the way, that they don’t also share some of that value). In competing for that value, partners can stick tight or make trade-offs between and among interests, needs, and positions, and one partner tends to have an advantage over the other in this competition. In heterosexual relationships, the partner with the advantage tends to be the man, because the man tends to have the better “BATNA”, or “best alternative to a negotiated agreement”. To put it bluntly, men tend to have less to lose by leaving the marriage, which gives them better bargaining power within the marriage.

Before the birth of the Critter, I clearly had the better BATNA than Beckett. Even as a freelancer, I earned more than he did; plus, my potential for earnings are greater, my vocation (unlike his) does not tie me to living in or very near an expensive urban center, and the costs of pursuing my avocation are much lower than his, which include the rent on a studio and the need to purchase expensive paints and other materials. With the birth of the Critter, however, as happens for most women in heterosexual couples upon the birth of a first child, my threat point went much higher. In other words, any threat that I might leave is now much less credible than it might have been before: I am unlikely to leave both Beckett and the Critter, and leaving with the Critter would be way, way, way more difficult than it would be without him. The current economic downturn has also raised my threat point; my income just isn’t what it used to be (whose is?), and for the first time Beckett is bringing home more than I am (though we’ll see where things stand by the end of the year).

Below: The Critter, raising our threat points to new heights, despite having the worst BATNA of all

Despite my newly higher threat point, Beckett is gamely taking on an increasing share in the household work, and often (though hardly always) without my having to make much of a fuss. Maybe my BATNA, and thus my bargaining power, is still relatively good, or at least not that much worse than Beckett’s; maybe he’s just a great guy. But I shouldn’t fool myself. For one thing, by far the majority of the Critter care falls to me—more on that later. And for another thing, we’ve been “dealing with” a good part of the household work by doing it less frequently or not at all, which troubles me (and therefore costs me) a great deal more than it does Beckett.

Analyzing one’s relationship with a beloved spouse in terms of economics and game theory is probably not all that appealing to many (most?) people, but I must confess that I’m taking great pleasure in Mahony’s book and the insight it has given me just to see what changes I want to make and what obstacles might be in the way of making those changes. And anyway, I’m taking the economic analysis of our relationship pretty lightly, because the one thing that gives both Beckett and me a lousy BATNA has nothing to do with either our earning power or the costs of making our art. The truth is, both of us were pretty darn unhappy until we met each other.

Coming soon: commitment mechanisms and Critter care …

Wednesday, July 29

Why I Love a Thunderstorm

More things we like

Because of the cool, dim break from the damp, bright heat. Because I can feel both safe and a little scared. Because of the thrill of being alive to witness such awesome drama: the rumbling, the roaring, the clouds piled high, the sudden crack of lightning. And the rain, the relief of the rain.

Tuesday, July 28

The Third Shift

My mother once told me I should marry rich. Alas, alas; instead, I married an artist.

I have tended to think of Beckett’s artistic ambitions both as in conflict with my own and as a financial burden on our relationship. However, I've been reading Kidding Ourselves, by Rhona Mahony, and am now reconsidering many of my assumptions about my unconventional life. Although marrying an artist has thus far resulted in high financial costs for me, it has also given me unusually good bargaining power, which I am probably not yet fully wielding exploiting using.

But, more on bargaining power later, I hope. I started to write a post about it this weekend, and some 750+ words later I realized that I needed to think things through more thoroughly before posting any conclusions. Meanwhile, I've learned that about a month ago at a conference on human resources, former General Electric CEO Jack Welch bluntly stated, "There's no such thing as work-life balance." Hem. Really? Maybe not if you want to be a CEO, but what about the rest of us? Are we all supposed to work as though nothing really matters but the job? I could say more on this angle, but much has already been said on other blogs, such as The Daily Dish (with Conor Friedersdorf filling in for Andrew Sullivan), 11D, and GeekyMom.

My take on this topic is a little different. First, let's be clear that the term "work-life balance" is a misnomer. Actually, what needs to be kept in balance is the time devoted to paid labor—one's vocation or job—and unpaid labor—homemaking and child care, or the "second shift" that falls disproportionately to women. So plenty of work is being done at home, and really the whole thing is one's life—paid labor, unpaid labor, and, one hopes, some time for leisure. Except that in my case (and in Beckett's case, too) the time for leisure is the time to take care of the "third shift": the artistic work. And so I tend to feel that discussions of work-life balance—or job-home balance, or whatever—don't satisfactorily address my situation. I imagine that I'm not the only woman who feels as I do. For one thing, whereas these discussions tend to assume that one's ambitions lie in the realm of paid work, for me, my job is really just a job. My ambitions lie elsewhere. And for another thing, the balance I must find is between not just the time and attention my job requires and the time and care the Critter and our home require, but also the time and care my writing requires.

Thursday, July 16

The Yellow Light Shining

I sometimes find myself wondering, What if I had not married? What if I had no Critter? My mind then turns to lines from one of Linda Gregg's poems, "Staying After":
Women have houses now, and children.
I live alone in a kind of luxury.
I wake when I feel like it,
read what Rilke wrote to Tsvetaeva.
How I sometimes long for that luxury: a large quiet space for my thoughts, for language, for poetry. While fetching a washcloth for the Critter's face one morning, I marveled at how busy I once thought I was. These days, I am lucky to jot a line or two in my journal, lucky to get to bed before midnight. And far too often my mind is like a puddle and my energy like dead leaves scattered and turning to mud in the puddle. Writes Gregg,
... And even now
I love the yellow light shining
down on the dirty brick wall.
Yes! That's what I want: not to look at the world as though through a muddy puddle, but rather to see the yellow light shining!

But. When I am tempted to wish that my life were otherwise, it is because I have forgotten who I really am. The truth is that in the long years before I met my love, I spent far too many hours wallowing in the muddy puddle of depressed self-pity. And the truth is that I once thought I was busy because I really was too, too busy at a job I did not much like. And the truth is that with or without a large, quiet space for my thoughts &etc., I've actually written my best poetry since shortly after I became pregnant. The yellow light is in fact shining all around me: on the sweaty, napping baby; on the piles of dirty laundry; on the unmade bed.