Bloomberg News

The Mommy Wars are About Daddy Too

April 20, 2012

The recent brouhaha set off by Democratic strategist Hilary Rosen (who infamously noted that Ann Romney "never worked a day in her life") is telling on an infinite number of levels. All women on both sides of the so-called "Mommy Wars" (and those horribly caught in the middle of the conflict zone) feel a prickly defensiveness, regardless of where they sit on the spectrum.

But here is another reason why Rosen's remark touched a third rail, and it has to do with — let's just put it out there — men's identity crisis.

I don't know about you, but everywhere I go I run into men who don't feel like they have a real place in the world, thanks to the so-called "man-cession." Their eyes are hollow; they struggle for identity. They are all like the guys in Peter Gabriel's searing song, "Don't Give Up," about a man "whose dreams have all deserted," who struggles for work, for identity and a reason to go on living.

Women understand this feeling deeply. It is a cliché that without meaningful work or prospects, we women suffer to the point of hysteria (See: all of Western history and literature, including Downton Abbey, which is all about social disruption.) For millennia, women, threatened by pregnancy and second-class citizenship, rarely worked outside the home; those who did were socially tarred. It's an old, horrible story.

Today in the U.S., the tables have pretty much turned. Like fish without bicyles, women are enjoying more opportunities than ever, and they don't need men to realize their dreams of college and careers. They are putting off marriage and childbearing. They now enjoy a majority in colleges and graduate schools. They are also a majority in American workplaces, though they still generally earn less than men in comparable jobs.

Meanwhile, millions of smart, hardworking men, like all those women before them, feel threatened, their ambitions "disrupted" by technology and displaced by outsourcing. Today, fewer men than women are earning college degrees. One (disputed) study has even asserted that men will actually become extinct one day as the Y chromosome runs out. My own husband — a hard-working, entrepreneurial, visionary videographer disrupted by digital technology — is working to reinvent himself as community activist. (Hey, at least he is not sitting at home in front of the television with a six-pack.) And he is no wimp, but he is aching to re-find his place as a meaningful person in the world.

I think the "man-cession" has caused a seismic shakeup in male/female identity, and it makes everyone profoundly uncomfortable. It helps explain the attacks on Sandra Fluke and the recent, weirdly-recidivist efforts in so many states to deny women access to abortion and even contraception. I think it tells us why the "War on Women" has grabbed serious (and thankfully, sometimes humorous) headlines.

Men increasingly feel identity-threatened and marginalized. Women who feel that they have no choice but to stay home and raise children often feel the same way. So do too many men and women who have no choice but to go out and work crazy hours, when they would rather spend more time with the kids.

Yes, there is a war on, but it's not just a war on, over, or between women. It's an economic and identity war. When people lack self-esteem and feel threatened, disrespected and disenfranchised, they snipe at each other. We become defensive of our world-views — even reactionary. And in the echo-chamber of the current media, which feasts upon our discomfort, we all become stridently unthinking, defensive and blaming.

If I were the CEO of my dreams, I would make sure that women had an equal seat in the boardroom and the executive committee; but I would also work to ensure that all the men and women in my company had the chance to work without killing themselves. I'd offer ample opportunities for flex-time and job-sharing. I'd try hard to see that everyone who worked for me had a chance to rise, to feel important, and, critically, to achieve some semblance of balance between their family and office lives. And if I overheard sniping, I'd nip it in the bud.

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Steve Ballmer, Power Forward
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