“Discordant Expectations in Marriage”

Here’s one way to explain the dilemma: Men and women have “discordant expectations in marriage.”

Now you may assume I’m about to expound on the frequency of divorce and rationale behind it, but that isn’t the case. In fact, the reference to discordant marital expectations is drawn from a New York Times column on Harvard MBAs and the gender gap.

In “Even Among Harvard Graduates, Women Fall Short of Their Expectations,” Claire Cain Miller addresses a study of HBS alumni and its findings.

To some of us, they aren’t a surprise.

Specifically, I am referring to this:

Men generally expect that their careers will take precedence over their spouses’ careers and that their spouses will handle more of the child care, the study found — and for the most part, men’s expectations are exceeded. Women, meanwhile, expect that their careers will be as important as their spouses’ and that they will share child care equally — but, in general, neither happens.

Generational Change? Not Necessarily

This was certainly true in my marriage (with children). I may not be a Harvard grad, but it seems to me that my high-octane MBA experience is applicable. Although I had invested more than a decade in my career by the time I married, it was quickly clear that my job and aspirations were “less important” than my husband’s, certainly as far as he was concerned. It was also assumed that I would defer to whatever choices were required to support his climb up the ladder. And for 10 years, I did.

My bottom line?

I am dismayed at the apparent perpetuation of these mismatched expectations as described some 20+ years after my own (ill-conceived) vision of married life. That life entailed maintaining a full-time career while carrying a disproportionate load of home and child-rearing responsibilities. And I know I’m in good company!

Referencing the study data, Ms. Miller writes:

Nearly 7,000 alumni answered survey questions about career and life goals… Male and female graduates… said they wanted meaningful, satisfying work and opportunities for career growth, as well as fulfilling personal lives…

Fifty-seven percent of men were in senior management positions, compared with 41 percent of women, and fewer women than men said they were satisfied with their careers.

Recipe for Frustration

First world problem?

True that. But considering the influence our corporations wield over daily life and political life, wouldn’t more female leadership be welcomed by many of us?

I also found the following figures striking, as they are more extreme than I would have thought.

Among the male graduates:

About 80 percent expected their spouses to do most of the child care, and that happened for 86 percent of them.

As for their female counterparts – again, remember these are Harvard MBAs – the survey reveals:

Half of the women expected to handle a majority of child care, but nearly three-quarters said they ended up doing so.

Don’t you think that’s a recipe for frustration? For dissatisfaction not only at work but in marriage? Don’t you think that division of labor at home (with interruptions and divided priorities) impacts one’s career options? Does this inequity arise in part out of the fact that men typically earn more? To what extent are societal pressures kicking in?

Marriage Is Tough Enough…

We understand that marriage can be challenging, and marriage with kids – even more so. Typically, we don’t realize the extent of the changes ahead until we’re smack in the middle of them. However, some of us (reasonably) anticipate that we will share more of our domestic responsibilities. And if we have in fact pursued advanced degrees with associated professional aspirations, persistence of the gender gap is especially demoralizing.

Or, as The Times article succinctly notes with regard to male and female MBAs:

… their diverging paths are explained in part by discordant expectations in marriages.

I wonder how many two-career couples (with kids) might be nodding their heads. And this is not to lay all the blame here – nor does Ms. Miller or the survey – but to make the point that assumptions about female “choice” to stay at home or work fewer hours are not necessarily a given – in what isn’t so simple a picture.

There is a great deal more of interest in this article, and I recommend it.

Parenting Is Problematic for Dads, Too

Naturally, there are exceptions to the rule, and most of us are glad to see them. Note, too, that Ms. Miller writes on the stigma for fathers who take their paternity leave, which is another example of ways in which our culture has yet to embrace domestic realities.

Still, it remains remarkable (to me) how we seem to be making progress in some areas of social change – acceptance of gay marriage, for example – while we don’t acknowledge the pervasive mid-century mindset that lingers when it comes to women. Add an ample dose of workplace stigma with regard to parenting (in general), insufficient infrastructure (childcare, education) to support families, and our idealized misconceptions about marriage – and no wonder “discord” is the name of the game when trying to manage work and “life.”