Friday, February 19, 2010

With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility

I just read a scathing indictment of the Abrahamic head of household concept, by implication condemning the Washington Post personal finance guru Michelle Singletary’s fundamentalist Christian way of living. This straight-faced roundup of objectionable paternalistic policies aggravated me—as it was supposed to—but it also amused me. It describes the tyranny of the head of household in great detail. But it does not describe the weight of responsibility that lies on that head.

If you get to make all the decisions, then all the decisions and their outcomes are your fault. With great power comes great responsibility. Modern American men mostly are not under the illusion that women don’t look at them with critical eyes. Far the contrary. They know we are quite capable of analyzing and judging them, and finding them lacking. While I admit there are still plenty of stupid chauvinists around who genuinely believe that women are the mental and moral equivalent of dogs, most men know better. And even if a man is able to totally discount the opinions of his wife and daughters, the condemnation and hatred in his son’s eyes will eventually penetrate his thick skull.

As much as unilateral power over a household sounds appealing, there is terror involved. Men are tormented by their need to measure up to great expectations. Can I get it right? Can I keep my manhood—my job, my leadership role, whatever—and thus my reason for being the head of household? Can I make the right decisions? Can my decisions earn my family’s love? Can I make the world conform to what I need?

Most of the answers will be mixed, and that’s the number one reason to let the decision-making be mixed in a household, too. Whoever you are, you will not always pick the right electrician, or the right career, or the right words to say to your rebellious teenager. It’s a whole lot easier to sleep if your decisions are thoroughly mutual with your spouse. It’s fine to present a unilateral front to the world or to your relatives, but it is better to be a genuine team.

I shudder just as much as you do when employers talk all misty-eyed about teams, because work teams are usually the breeding ground of mediocrity, lack of responsibility, and in-fighting. But a family team has a reason to pull together and to make decisions and take actions that mutually benefit. In many families, if three or four people didn’t work, they couldn’t live in a comfortable home. Would it be better if just one, the father, did all the work, and the rest of the family stayed home and prettied up the place to his directions? No. Would it be better if the father ordered the others to work and to give him their paychecks? Of course not. They would have no incentive to keep working or to improve their job prospects. Or to stay in this household.

Incentive is the other half of the power situation. If one person holds all the power, the other’s incentive is naturally to resist. I can think of no clearer example than the typical situation with nursing home roommates. These are usually women who previously were in charge of their own households. Often women who have been solely in charge for years because they’ve been long widowed. That is the typical life expectancy of the American woman: widowed at 55, dead at 85 or so. These women move into nursing homes and immediately start bickering with their roommates because both of them are used to being the boss of their surroundings. Until and unless they reach a mutually satisfying rapprochement, they continue to fight. The blinds should be open. The blinds should be shut. The blinds should be up. The blinds should be down. The windows should be open. And on and on and on. You would think that at that time of life people would not be fighting for power and control. But they do. It’s a natural instinct.

So getting back to our Abrahamic household, the big problem is that if dad holds life and death power over everyone in it, they will struggle and resist that power. If law and custom won’t aid them, then their struggle simply goes underground, into sly manipulations. Who has not heard about seemingly obedient wives who secretly buy things and then hide them from their husbands? And why do you think that women have had the reputation since ancient times of being poisoners? Because poisoning is an undercover method of seizing power without giving the appearance of doing so.

Life is so much easier if we split up the power and the responsibility. Then men don’t die young from stress-induced heart attacks, and women don’t grow old resenting the men who had power over them. When we share the burdens of living, they truly are lighter. And there are fewer complaints along the way, too. If you pick the restaurant, then you get blamed if the food or service isn’t good. If the decision is mutually arrived at, you don’t. It’s that simple. Choose to share. It’s not only right; it’s the best way to negotiate the bumpy terrain of life.

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