For your reporting, you spoke to college-aged women, unemployed men and married couples. What was the most enlightening experience for you?
I think the hookup culture at colleges. I am about a decade older than these women. Just getting a glimpse of how women talk, how raunchy they are, how determined they are to keep up with the boys, and why that is important to them, was a real revelation to me.
I was also really surprised to learn how deeply these changes, which I had thought of largely as economic, had seeped into intimate relationships. What a profound difference they make in the very fundamental act of falling in love, choosing a partner, getting married and maintaining harmony in your household.
Marriage is an obvious place to look for the impacts of this social change. What changes are you seeing in how people perceive marriage and how marriages work?
In the college-educated classes, marriages are stronger than ever. They have this model that I call “seesaw marriages.” Each person in the marriage has a shot at being the breadwinner at any given moment, which means no one feels really trapped. Women don’t feel like they are absolutely dependent on men. And, men don’t feel trapped in the way that men felt in the 1950s and ‘60s, in the strong, shove-it-down-your-throat breadwinner era, because they feel like they can have a creative outlet and it is okay for their wives to earn more money at some point.
For the not college educated or the partly college educated, it is very, very different. Their marriages are basically falling apart. Far fewer people are getting married. A lot more children are born to single mothers. And, I think this also has to do with women’s growing economic independence. This is the category that I call “ambiguous independence.” In some ways, it is pretty good. Women are not dependent on men who might abuse them. They are not trapped in marriages. They have some degree of economic independence. But I call this independence “ambiguous” because these women are raising children by themselves, working and going to community college. That is very exhausting and probably not the best family structure around.
How has your research and writing on this topic impacted your own marriage? I know your husband, Slate’s editor David Plotz, has called the book a "mixed blessing."
It has changed the way I think about my marriage. We don’t often think of our marriages happening in a particular era or moment. You just think, I fell in love. I got married. But what I realized, in being with some of these other couples, is that I do come from a feminist era. I expect equality, and I will get upset if my husband doesn’t do certain things. I would never stay home full time because I feel like I have to prove something by working. And I would never let him do nothing domestically.
The younger generation operates so much more cleanly. Now, it is: who is better for this particular role at this particular time? They remove a lot more of the gender stereotyping from these roles than I have.
Men, as you describe in the book, are sort of mired in this transition. As a mother of two sons (and a daughter), do you have any advice on how to raise boys to better adapt?