What if women no longer took it for granted that marriage was a good thing? What if they had the freedom to choose whether they wanted a relationship, and for how long? What if women learned to subject matrimony to cost-benefit analyses, and reduced potential husbands to performers of discrete, defined tasks?
We are already there, according to some recent books – at least for women who can be financially independent. The only questions, really, are what new configurations the shifting relationships between the genders will take, and whether any of them will make women happy. All this and more in a review essay by Sandra Tsing Loh in the October issue of The Atlantic. As usual, Tsing Loh is cutting edge, brutally honest about herself, and her thinking, from a Torah perspective, tragically outrageous. As usual, her writing may be an excellent bellwether of cultural trends just a few exits ahead on the freeway, trends that will impact the way all of us think, unless we are sealed off hermetically from the greater surround.
Tsing Loh (TL) opens with a one-liner from The Times of London in 1868, in opposing property rights for married women: “The proposed change would totally destroy the existing relation between husband and wife.” She then proceeds to show that this prediction was stunningly accurate.
On the one hand, she cites Mary Eberstadt in Adam and Eve After the Pill. The changes wrought by the emancipation of women have been accompanied by “ ‘the paradox of declining female happiness.’ She cites a 2009 study…which …found that despite educational and employment advances, women were reportedly less happy than they used to be.”
Not everyone is unhappy about female unhappiness. It is offset by an “exciting new social order,” according to Liza Mundy, in her The Richer Sex: How the New Majority of Female Breadwinners Is Transforming Sex, Love, and Family. TL reports: “In 2012 America… women are better educated than men (women earn the majority of bachelor’s and graduate degrees); an escalating number of single women younger than 30 earn more than their male peers; and nine of the 10 U.S. job industries with the most projected growth are women-¬dominated.” Even though a 2010 survey shows that when women earn 60 percent of a family’s income, the couple is at increased risk of divorce, surely a brighter tomorrow will greet us when all this new stuff sorts itself out. Women will become the majority of breadwinners, while men will do the chores at home and learn to love being soccer Dads.
Pondering all this with a few of her divorced friends plus one who has not quite shaken the husband-as-permanent-fixture habit yet, TL opines that any consideration of the future of male-female alliances must take into account the four chief functions of males, as seen by women. They translate into four different male service providers:
Mr. X: the financial partner. Not necessarily the financial provider—he’s more that calm, intelligent partner with whom to navigate the tedious finan¬cial technicalities of life….This man will typically be the father of your children. You will feel that you chose correctly, never mind that you are no longer married.
Mr. Y: the feelings guy. He is all about the glass of chardonnay proffered with soulful active listening at the end of the day. “Pampering”—a vague enough word—may ensue…This is a complex role; while it falls to Mr. Y to provide amorous rela¬tions…for some—most?—women, it would be enough, or even preferred, for Mr. Y to function as the gentlemanly squire…
Mr. Z: The Brawny paper-towel man. This Mr. Fix-It wheels out the garbage cans, repairs the electronic garage-door opener, resets the computerized and (why?) tankless water heater.
Mr. Q: the cheerful intern. Mr. Q executes whatever tiny tasks you assign, without argument—he accepts a stack of envelopes and addresses them, picks up the dry cleaning before noon, is on call for 24/7 emergency carpooling, and, best of all, when handed a grocery list, returns with—get this—that grocery list’s exact items…
The problem, of course, is that no one man can possibly be all four of these people. Mr. X is notoriously bad at processing feelings, Mr. Y is notoriously bad at fixing things, macho Mr. Z hates to be micromanaged, and Mr. Q does not actually exist in real life, although in modern marriages, husbands and wives often do treat each other as interns…
TL then goes on to survey the available alternatives to being dealt a full house. She admits that “an excess of money, whether it’s the male or the female who has it, makes a monster of us all—or at least makes one less inclined to endure the cumbersome ordinariness of other people.” Women who earn lots of money as she does no longer have to put up with anything cumbersome if they don’t want to. Yet, she is vulnerable. She still prefers the companionship of a less-talented man than that of a large dog. This can bring her to the limits of her endurance. To this reader, her most memorable words are in her description of the conversation around the dinner table with her male companion, who has returned from a far less stressful day than she:
I made the mistake of asking “How was your day?” and he made the mistake of responding, and as I watched his mouth move, I felt my trigger finger twitch and thought those awful words only a woman who needs a man neither to support her nor to be a father to her children can think: How long until I vote you off the island?
Yet that won’t quite do either. Bemoaning the emotional fetters that stand in the way of true happiness and independence (“If only we could get men down from occupying 75 percent of our emotional life to occupying 25 percent”), TL considers some of the proposed solutions, and serially rejects them all. Keeping men around as dutiful Fridays; making the bread and baking it too (the Japanese model, in which women not only earn the money, but retain responsibility for household tasks); keeping an ex- around as a housemate and partner in domestic chores – but free of any emotional connection – TL finds fault with all of them.
There is one model she doesn’t even consider – not for her, not for anyone, not even as a possible description of the strength of families in a bygone era. In that model, husband and wife remained together not because they needed four hands to survive rather than two. They did not remain in a relationship of convenience for what each spouse provided for the other. They looked (surely not in all, but in many cases) not to what advantages they could receive in the union, but how the two of them would become more effective givers.
“And they shall become one flesh.” Rashi explains that the one flesh is the child that the two produce. Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, zt”l observed that we needn’t necessarily look to the baby born to them as the “one flesh.” By producing, nurturing, raising that child, it is the father and mother who become one flesh. They become fully and meaningfully united by expanding their family. The Jewish marriage, he concluded, is not complete without the birth of a child.
Far be it from me to second-guess him. I will wonder out loud, however, whether he meant if literally or absolutely. There seem to be childless couples who have close and lving relationships, and parents who have produced many children who share little more psychically than their last name. What may be more important than the child per se is what the child represents: that the parents share and aspire to a goal. When a frum couple wed, it seems to me, they commit themselves not only to each other, but to something they both recognize is far more important than they are as individuals. They ready themselves for years of service to HKBH, in Whose honor they bring children into the world. Without escaping their own needs, they become servants of Hashem, intent on adding another shining link to the chain of the mesorah.
Growing up in the Torah world, we learn the importance of words like “avodah,” and the desirability of a male in a household who can bring incisive Torah thought to a family while his spouse provides the lev and the midos of the avos and imahos. We sometimes think that these are high-minded add-ons to the basic stuff of life. It might be a good idea to take stock of the meltdown of the family in the world around us, and the lesser, rather than greater, happiness that it has yielded, as TL concedes at the beginning of her essay. In doing so, we will discover not only the genius of the Torah, but the only antidote to the growing anomie of contemporary life.