"Somehow we've even developed the notion that a woman who seeks to meet her husband's needs is subservient (but a husband who fails to meet his wife's needs is a pig)," points out Dr. Laura Schlessinger in her new book, "Woman Power." Its theme is that women have enormous power over men, especially the power to make your average, decent family guy feel miserably inadequate as a man.
I think Dr. Laura is onto something. Don't get me wrong: I know that more men today are more horribly irresponsible toward women and children than ever before. At the same time, never before have the good guys received so little appreciation from women, or affirmation from the larger culture, for their masculine contributions.
Perhaps there is a relationship between these two facts?
In my neighborhood, you see lots of good guys working crushing hours to pay for the nice homes with the good schools, ferrying their kids on the weekend from their multitudinous, highly scheduled, developmentally appropriate activities -- and stopping by to drop off dry-cleaning or pick up take-out along the way.
None of which (in my experience) stops us wives from complaining about their emotional inadequacies, or the difficulties in keeping the little hubby "on task." Career wives or homemaking wives, it seems to make little difference.
Some women routinely treat husbands in ways that, if husbands responded in kind would bring the universal condemnation of all womankind on their heads. You doubt? Pick up a copy of another new book, "The Bastard on the Couch," subtitled "27 Men Try Really Hard to Explain Their Feelings About Love, Loss, Fatherhood and Freedom," by Daniel Jones.
One artist-husband with a high-powered wife notes: "Every day, Gina prepares this list for me, with all the household tasks and details that I am responsible for completing before she arrives home from work that evening." Picking up his son at school, he observes the mothers. "I somehow doubt that any of them are carrying with them a list of chores from their husbands, detailing the various tasks they must perform that day. I would think that any of these women would laugh at her husband if he tried to give her such a list." (Laugh? Only if he's lucky.)
No doubt Gina would rightly say in her defense that the women do most of the things on her list without being asked. But that only highlights the essential dynamic here: As androgyny becomes the theoretical ideal, and sex differences are treated as nonexistent or suspect, women tend to make "parenting" synonymous with "mothering." And most men really just aren't as good as their wives at being mothers.
As one father tried to explain about his "parenting" experience: "Oh, look, the littler person is crying -- which of the five major reasons could it be? Let me go down the list, after I find the list. Where is the list? Meanwhile my wife will have solved the problem. She doesn't have to consult the list; she is the list."
What this gender confusion turns into "in our home," writes another family guy, "is a big Mexican standoff, with the Loved One saying, I'm making more money than my mother ever did! And The Jerk saying, I'm doing way more housework than my father ever did!"
Men marry because a wife and family give meaning and purpose to their lives. What they want, says Dr. Laura, is simple "appreciation, approval and affection from their women."
The problem is not that working wives want more help with household chores, or that all women want husbands deeply involved in family life. The problem comes when a culture of grievance (and the illusions of power it gives) replaces the cultivation of gratitude. Most especially, when appreciation, approval and affection get translated as "subservience" rather than love.
Maggie Gallagher is a nationally syndicated columnist, a leading voice in the new marriage movement and co-author of The Case for Marriage: Why Married People Are Happier, Healthier, and Better Off Financially.