When Stay-at-Home Husbands Are Embarrassing to Their Wives

We simply haven't evolved to the point where a househusband is considered desirable

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There was big news flash splashed across the front page of Sunday’s New York Times: superachieving moms on Wall Street have househusbands! The article pointed to a tenfold increase (since 1980) in the number of women in finance with stay-at-home spouses, allowing them to achieve success without the distractions of domesticity and child rearing.

That formula shouldn’t surprise anyone. And I don’t doubt the uptick in the number of households where husband and wives are exchanging roles, but this arrangement isn’t really new. The real news is that until recently, no one wanted to admit it.

I’ve been covering the elite echelons of big law firms for over 10 years, and I can tell you that many of the women who make it to the top of the heap often have a man at home who’s shepherding the kids around town, planning the meals, and otherwise keeping the hearth fired up. Indeed, you can go to any number of big firms in New York City where there’s a modicum of female partners (the national average for female equity partners has barely surpassed 16%), and the buzz among the associates is that those women in power are either unattached or married to men who stay at home. “They seem to belong to some sort of househusband club,” said one associate about the female partners with kids at Davis Polk & Wardwell. They just didn’t like to talk about it.

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I sensed that reluctance when I did a story on female partners at big Wall Street firms with househusbands a few years ago. Though three couples were happy to speak to me on the record about their arrangement, many more bowed out about going public. “My husband and I talked it over, and we’re not comfortable with the scrutiny,” said one partner.

Often, successful women are loath to admit that their husband is really the one minding the home. “He has primary responsibility for the kids, but he also works on the side,” explained one partner about how her husband spends his time. But when pressed about what type of work the husband does, the reply is often vague. “He’s doing consulting” is a popular explanation.

All of this points to our entrenched ambivalence about changing gender roles. Men in these situations often feel alienated, particularly if they are surrounded by stay-at-home moms. But the power moms with the stay-at-home husbands are just as uneasy, often more embarrassed than proud that they’ve upset the traditional order.

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We simply haven’t evolved to the point where a househusband is considered desirable, much less normal. But the publication of the New York Times article suggests that this atypical arrangement might be more palatable if the wife makes an outrageous amount of money. In one instance, the husband put the brakes on his architecture career when his banker wife started to make twice his earnings. At that point, “the solution seemed obvious.”

What remains to be seen is what happens when the economics are not so “obvious” — when women work at more pedestrian, less lucrative jobs. Given the unease about reversing gender roles when there is a superearner in the equation, I’m not sure we’re ready to have June Cleaver go to work and Ward Cleaver stay home with the boys after all.

Chen is the creator and chief blogger of the Careerist and a senior reporter at the American Lawyer. The views expressed are solely her own.