Musings on I Know How She Does It

Almost exactly ten years ago, I wrote the proposal for the book that became I Know How She Does It. My goal was to do a time diary study of women with big jobs, who also had kids, and hopefully shape the narrative about whether it is possible to “have it all.”

[Spoiler alert: If we define “having it all” as a thriving career, a happy family life, and enough time to sleep and have fun, then absolutely. Yes.]

Anyway, that book noted that the narrative that women simply couldn’t have big careers and functional families (and even the narrative that it’s “best” if mothers do not participate in the workforce) needlessly limited women’s lives. What I keep coming back to in the ten years since is that this narrative needlessly limits men’s lives too, though in some less obvious ways.

Over the years, I’ve observed several situations where a young man has an outsized talent in a field not known for its stability or high pay. The young man gets married, starts a family, and the family decides that Mom should stay home with the kids. The young man decides to pursue something more stable or higher paying in order to support his family.

People can certainly make their own choices, and many people don’t wind up doing what they grew up hoping to do. But it also seems like something of a loss. We all make our choices in context. If the family was surrounded by a different cultural narrative — say, that supporting a family financially is a joint responsibility, and that there’s no evidence that kids “turn out” better based on their mother’s workforce non-participation* — then maybe men would feel more able to pursue career options with less of an eye toward earnings. As it is, when men are the sole earner in a family, or the only one who is aiming to earn a family-supporting income, then even for normal people in normal jobs (where outsized talent isn’t at play), the options are more limited.

When you need to optimize on pay, you sometimes make other compromises — a longer commute, less flexible hours, less interesting work, more dangerous work. Not all high-paid work is terrible by any means, which is a key finding of I Know How She Does It! But pay can be a bigger or smaller factor in decisions. I know many women get frustrated in feeling like they need to compromise on pay in order to get flexibility or a shorter commute; many men experience the flip side of this in situations where they have an expectation to support a family at a certain level, with society telling them left and right that this is what a real man does.

I don’t have some neat conclusion here, and again, everyone can make their own decisions. But I do think one reason for young women to think seriously about their earning capacity is not just to give themselves options, but to give their whole future families options. And broadly, it would be nice if people recognized that the “no one can have it all” narrative can limit men’s choices in life too.

In other news: If you haven’t read I Know How She Does It, I’d love if you’d pick up a copy. I really enjoyed studying hundreds of time diaries — it really increased my desire to do more original time diary research.

*I’ve always been intrigued by this assertion. What does it mean to “turn out” better? What is the endpoint? In general for there to be solid research, there needs to be some sort of objective standard. It’s an interesting thought experiment to think about what that would be.

Photo: From the paperback cover.

4 thoughts on “Musings on I Know How She Does It

  1. Great post! I Know How She Does It is my favourite of your books. And really good point about the harm done to men by this narrative. For the first couple years of our marriage I was not earning a salary that could support a family. My husband felt a sense of relief when I landed a job with an equivalent paycheque to his, and was willing to move to make it happen. I’d love to read a longer piece from you on this topic.

    1. @Karen – thanks! Yep, being a sole (or primary) breadwinner comes with all sorts of pressures. It’s good for both men and women to recognize that, however people wind up divvying up household responsibilities.

  2. I think this is a great perspective, one I think I felt but couldn’t quite articulate. Thank you for putting this to words.

  3. Both my husband and I work full-time plus in healthcare with night and weekend work. Many of my male co-workers have school age kids and stay-at-home wives. My husband and I have to coordinate our schedules to make sure there are no conflicts and someone is at home with the kids. Despite that, I still feel like I have more flexibility if I need to stay longer at work or if I want to do something by myself or with a friend in my free time. It seems like some of the stay-at-home wives make a point of arranging their husbands’ private time in great detail and get all bent out of shape if something changes. Also, their kids seem to be used to much more service than ours. When the wives for some reason can’t chauffeur the kids to school (due to sickness or travel for example) then the dads show up for work a half hour late (or even take vacation) because it would be too much to ask the kids to wake up early or just get themselves to school (we live in a city where walking/ biking/public transportation are available and safe, as is before and after-school care).

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