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Balancing Act

Time for working couples to do some math at home

Heidi Stevens

Balancing Act

October 6, 2013

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When women initiate arguments at home, 80 percent of them are over division of labor.

And speaking of initiating, two-thirds of all divorces after age 40 are initiated by women.

These statistics, plucked from research by social historian Stephanie Coontz, appear side by side in the newly rereleased book "Getting to 50/50: How Working Parents Can Have It All" (Viva Editions).

"Those aren't unrelated, are they?" I asked "50/50" co-author Joanna Strober.

"No," she said. "They're not unrelated. Women are angry."

As if housework isn't killing enough of our joy. Now it's killing our marriages?

Not if Strober and co-author Sharon Meers can help it.

"Couples win from standing in each other's shoes, committing themselves equally to raising their children and breadwinning for a family," they write. "Mothers work without guilt; fathers bond with their kids; children blossom with the attention of two equally involved parents."

No less than Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl "Lean In" Sandberg offers an unqualified thumbs up in the book's foreword.

"I devoured this book when it first came out, stopping constantly to read passages out loud to my husband," she writes. "This book changed our lives."

The premise may have seemed radical a few decades ago. But when women make up 47 percent of the American workforce and mothers serve as breadwinners in 40 percent of American families (according to the Pew Research Center), are we really that far from a 50/50 model?

Sandberg cites a 2009 survey from the Journal of Family and Economic Issues that found only 9 percent of people in dual-earner marriages share housework, child care and breadwinning evenly.

That's pretty far.

"Men and women need each other in all spheres of life," Strober and Meers write. "In one generation, we've seen the vast improvements that come from men and women sharing the stage in the workplace. Companies large and small … perform better when more women are included in their ranks. At the same time, our children, our marriages, our family life all gain a lot when men are truly engaged at home."

Genuine, lasting progress is going to require change from both genders.

"Taking on more than your share as a parent will skew the division of labor, interfere with your husband's experience as a parent and shrink the common ground you have as a couple," Meers and Strober write. "Resist the urge to take over and do it all."

"A lot of women say, 'Well, my husband helps,'" says a woman named Sara who's interviewed in the book. "What do they mean 'helps'? It means that the women still feel accountable. You really have to let go of ownership."

No one, Strober says, wants to come home to a CEO. Be partners.

"Men want a different deal too," according to Strober. "This generation of guys doesn't want to be the sole breadwinner. They want to be in a relationship that allows them more flexibility at work and the ability to see their kids."

The authors have spoken at companies and business schools for more than a decade. They know the culture and the challenges. But they're convinced 50/50 can — and should — be done. They cite research by psychologist Janice Steil showing men and women attach equal importance to their careers and are equally likely to believe family comes first.

"The challenge is what wives and husbands believe about each other," they write. "Wives, on average, overestimate how much a husband values his career, while husbands underestimate how much his wife values hers."

Of all the fascinating points in this book, that one grabbed me the tightest. Are we just not talking enough to each other?

"It's easy to be guided by these unmonitored beliefs," Steil told the authors. "So maybe the best thing a couple can do is open a dialogue."

Let's start initiating that.

hstevens@tribune.com

Twitter @heidistevens13