Women, work, wedlock: how much promise, how much burden?

Chrissie married at 23, a year out of her Midwestern state university. Art was two years older. He met her while she was working in the public relations office of a major bank -- paying off some of her debts, buying a car, sharing an apartment with two women from school. They were both extroverts, and their new-found love made them almost giddy.

His job in data-processing was routine but well-paid: For the first time in his life he felt he could afford some of the amenities -- theater tickets, an occasional weekend of skiing, new stereo equipment -- that even his parents had struggled to justify.

Her job was engaging and exhausting: a constant flow of press releases and newsletters, all produced on deadline with no secretarial support, and with a beginning salary (she thought) well below the responsibility she carried. Sometimes, when the work mounted, she looked longingly at a friend of hers from high school, the apparently contented mother of two little boys. Chrissie had always loved children.

But she told herself that she had little to complain about. And for the first several years, their marriage was first-class -- not without turbulence and tears, but generally warm and companionable. Art was promoted into managerial responsibilities, although his easygoing nature made him almost diffident about his progress. Her talent was quickly recognized, and her salary increased in such great leaps that it began to exceed his.

But along the way her workload almost doubled. So they rarely met any longer for a box lunch near the downtown fountain. Her weekday evenings disappeared into the vortex of her work, while he watched television or went to the local YMCA to work out.

And after a while, they found they were talking less. She found him increasingly closed-mouthed and felt he was growing more critical -- not exactly about her work, but about little things. One weekend they discussed divorce.

What was there to hold them together, anyway? they asked themselves.

Art suggested they should have a child -- something in which they both could share. Chrissie felt cornered by the thought. Yet she sensed that if the marriage were to last, she would have to be the flexible one.

Six years out of college, Chrissie is home with her daughter. They had agreed that she would take six months' leave, then look for a student to be a live-in housekeeper so she could go back to work. But the six months has stretched to 18: However much she misses the camaraderie of her work, the child has become an all-compelling presence to which she is drawn by both love and a sense of duty.

But it has not been easy financially. Her salary had produced almost all their disposable income, and they have both had to deny themselves the amenities that had once been so commonplace.

Meanwhile, Art has again been promoted and is able to spend even less time helping with the child. Their periods together are rather self-consciously carved out of time that each feels might better be spent doing something else. But he remains courteous, even compassionate; and she remains levelheaded.

``It's just that I never have anything to say, because nothing much has happened,'' she thinks sometimes. ``I have an elite education, and I am employed almost as a menial. But even that isn't it, exactly -- there is nothing higher or more meaningful than raising my child. So why do I feel so confused?'' CHRISSIE and her husband are fictions -- based on hours of interviews with real couples. The struggles they face, however, are very real. Of the many changes that have overtaken marriage in the last three decades, researchers generally single out one that is of paramount importance: the changing relationships among women, marriage, and work.

So complex is this triangular issue, in fact, that most observers have difficulty determining cause and effect.

Have shifts in women's views helped open up the workplace -- and thereby changed marriage?

Or have changes in the institution of marriage pushed women out into the work force -- and changed their attitudes?

Or has the economy put such pressure on marriage that it has drawn women out of the home and into employment?

One thing is sure: During recent decades, the increase of women in the work force has paralleled the changes in marriage. According to United States Census Bureau data, 43.3 percent of US women worked outside the home in 1970; in 1984, 53.6 percent.

Recalling early periods of her 40-year marriage, Patricia Cox of Palos Verdes Estates, Calif., says: ``We were more or less expected to marry, raise families, nurture, and be a sort of backup system for the family -- and I didn't find that to be onerous.''

But things are different for her son. He would like to get married, she says, but he finds that he and the women he's interested in are absorbed with their careers. ``Trying to get a day or evening when these two busy persons can meet is extremely difficult,'' she says, adding that ``it's hard to build a relationship under those circumstances.''

Not only are women working, but they are earning more. ``In the last few years,'' says University of Chicago economist Gary S. Becker, ``the earning power of women has risen at the fastest rate probably in our history, compared to that of men.''

And that, apparently, can lead to disruptions in marriage. Professor Becker cites studies indicating that ``families are more likely to break up when women earn more compared to men, than in families where the women are earning less then men.''

Chrissie and Art ran into just that pressure. They resolved it by a wholesale readjustment that included childbearing. On the one hand, their flexibility may have saved the marriage: Successful marriages, say most observers, are built on the ability of both partners to change, adapt, and grow.

On the other hand, however, the weight of the change fell almost entirely on Chrissie's shoulders. Having a child meant, in effect, an entirely different career for her. It affected his habits very little.

The challenge she now faces -- the confusion about her purpose -- is not peculiar to her. Social historians say it's part of a long-term trend toward parity between men and women, whose modern manifestations can be traced to the Industrial Revolution.

Early in the 19th century, as Western nations moved from agrarian to industrial economies, the kind of work done by the wives began to change. They had once helped in the fields and around the farmstead -- raising the children who would become valuable farmhands and, later, sources of support for their aging parents. With industrialization, the role shifted: Women came instead to be charged with keeping up the domestic side of a household supported by the earnings of husbands, who worked outside the ho me.

Side by side with this development came several others. There was a steady flowing of responsibilities (for education, care for the elderly, and so forth) away from private and home-based structures and toward charitable or state-supported institutions. And there was an influx of labor-saving devices into the home -- resulting in fewer domestic demands on a woman's time, and fewer specialized skills (like darning or making butter) that she alone could do and that could not be purchased outside the home.

The second major shift grew out of the first: Married women, increasingly free of all-consuming domestic duties, entered the work force.

Sociologists emphasize that the idea of work for women is nothing new: By the beginning of the 20th century, unmarried women frequently worked outside the home until marriage -- and then worked very hard at home, sometimes taking in boarders or doing housecleaning or washing as a way to augment the family income. What is new, observers say, is the presence of married women -- and, in particular, middle- and upper-income women -- in the paid work force outside the home. THE result is a growing similarity of men's and women's roles. ``In some sense,'' says Thomas Espenshade of the Urban Institute, ``women are becoming more like men in terms of their labor-market skills'' -- while men now ``have microwave ovens that [they] can operate just as easily as women.''

Becker, describing the resulting effect on marriage, uses the metaphor of international trade. He notes that each partner in a marriage, like two nations trading with one another, brings a ``comparative advantage'' to the marriage -- a particular speciality that benefits the other partner.

``If you have two countries that are too similar,'' he says, ``they're not going to be trading with each other, and they don't gain much from each other. Similarly, husband and wife: If they're too similar, what are they gaining?''

``As men lose their comparative advantage in the market work,'' says Dr. Espenshade, ``and as women lose their comparative advantage in home production, it makes less and less sense for these two people -- a potential husband and a potential wife -- to specialize and form a trading partnership.''

French sociologist Nadine Lefaucheur puts it this way: To be a baker's wife -- which, traditionally in France, is a role that carries with it certain carefully defined duties within the family and the community -- ``you have to be the wife of a baker.''

``But to be a social worker,'' she adds, ``you don't need to marry a social worker -- you need a diploma.''

Her point: One of the forces that tends to hold the baker's family together -- the identity of the marriage role with the economic role -- has disappeared as education replaces marriage in determining women's place in society.

The result, say researchers, is not an inevitable increase in divorce. It is, however, a shifting of the foundations on which marriage is built -- and a changing sense of the bonds that hold it together.

How do these developments affect Chrissie and Art?

The trend toward similar roles for men and women has provided Chrissie with an education, a profession, and an aspiration for experience in the world beyond the home -- all of the things that a century ago were reserved almost entirely for men. At the same time, however, it has blurred the distinction of roles that once made it easy for men and women to recognize the ``comparative advantage'' that each brought to a marriage.

At bottom, then, the questions that Chrissie asks herself are fundamental and probing: ``Why did I marry, anyway?'' and ``What's the real value of marriage?'' A century ago, these questions would not have raised themselves with such force.

The result: a whole new set of strains on marriage.

Is this Chrissie's problem alone? Not at all, say many observers. They note that the trend is still in the making and that so far it has affected women greatly and men comparatively little. It has yet, for example, to provide Art with a way to share in the homemaking and child-raising with his wife. Nor has it provided him with a job that honors his desire to do so.

``We're in a tough transition in the long run,'' says John P. Kildahl, a clinical psychologist in New York with years of experience in marriage counseling. It is a transition, he feels, that pits the new-found feelings of equality against age-old traditions about what constitutes the proper role of men and women at home.

``I think the men have to adjust to this,'' he says. ``They just have to acknowledge and accept the fact that what they're going to get from the woman is intimacy, but not necessarily service. They used to get service, and they're not getting it.''

So will Chrissie and Art's marriage survive? Will he, like a small but growing number of men, begin demanding that his work leave him freer to help raise the children? Will he turn down promotions that would remove him even further from the family? Will he put his own career aspirations aside, agreeing to stay home for a few years while she goes back to work? Or would that place limits on his future earnings that would produce additional economic hardship for the family -- and cause severe strains on his own sense of self-worth within a society that values competitiveness?

Or will he find new ways, within the scope of expanding professional demands, to increase his attentiveness to and affection for his wife and family -- by demanding not external changes in the workplace but internal changes in his character and expectations?

On the other hand, will she (again, like many career-women-turned-mother) find increasing satisfaction in her homemaker's role -- despite years of upbringing in an educational system that has prepared her for everything but that? Or will she find innovative ways to combine child-raising with a career -- perhaps by working at home, or part-time work, or full-time work that shares the homemaking more fully with Art?

Finally, are there shifts in public policy that could help them? Should America, like Sweden, move in the direction of universal day-care for preschool-age children? Should Chrissie, like most of her European counterparts, receive a substantial child benefit payment from the government? Should legislation give her the right to demand a part-time job from her former employer?

Or would such policies, by slowing the economy, produce additional problems for her family -- and intrude too much on the family's freedom of choice in raising children?

Whatever road Chrissie and Art take, say most observers, one thing is clear: They need to take it together, in complete agreement on their purposes and goals.

``If the couple both truly agree about [the wife's role vis-`a-vis the workplace], it will work,'' says Miriam Reitz, a Chicago marriage therapist with years of counseling experience. The people who don't agree on the rules in the first place, she says, are ``the folks who have trouble.''

G. William Sheek, a minister who is a former director of the Office of Family Education and Human Sexuality for the National Council of Churches and the author of a newly published book titled ``The Word on Families: A Biblical Guide to Family Well-being,'' agrees.

``I think the institution [of marriage] itself is being seriously challenged by healthy dynamics of relationships,'' he says. ``Had we had a clearer understanding of what makes most people feel human and loved in relationships, then we would have established marriages on a different base.'' Instead, ``we've had to go through a whole societal uproar and . . . be challenged through the women's movement.''

That challenge, in fact, is cited repeatedly by marriage professionals as the major force for change in marriage in the last several decades -- both for better and for worse.

On one hand, says Manhattan marriage therapist Jessie Turberg, ``The emancipation of women has put a lot more stress on the marriage -- women who are flying all over here and there, mothers who are not there. It certainly requires a good partner and a good housekeeper.''

On the other hand, she notes that ``women taking a stand for themselves has worked in many [cases]. I think in some cases it has strengthened the marriage, it has enabled the family to do things that they might not have done otherwise.''

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