When it comes to raising daughters, we spend a lot of time focused on their heads, rather than their hearts. We agonise about developmental milestones and school choice. We fret about screen time and tie ourselves in knots over affording and scheduling extra-curricular activities.
We are right to care about our daughters’ education and associated career prospects. But when it comes to making the most of those opportunities, one of the biggest influences on a woman’s life – straight women in particular – won’t be her level of educational attainment. It will be her partner.
Countless studies show that one of the worst things a woman can do for her career is to marry a man. And this isn’t just about motherhood either. As a study of Harvard Business School graduates found, it’s not children that cripple women’s careers, it’s husbands.
Married and male-partnered mothers do more domestic work and child care, and have less leisure time, than their unpartnered sisters. Careers of wives also tend to take a backseat to the careers of husbands.
If he’s not willing to take on his share of parenting and domestic work, or if his desire for control and ego makes him insist of being the primary breadwinner, then all the educational achievement in the world won’t count for much.
But it’s not just career progression that makes me worry about my daughters’ future choice in partner. It’s also knowing that their choice in partner can be a matter of life and death. One woman a week on average is killed, and one in four women have experienced emotional abuse, by a current or former partner.
Given the extent to which a woman’s success, physical and emotional security, happiness and health is determined by her choice in partner, it’s amazing that we don’t spend more time preparing them to make that decision.
I can only recall one conversation my mother had with me about choosing a partner and it pretty much boiled down to lowering my expectations. After a boyfriend had treated me badly my mum said, “A man will never put you first, my darling. You better get used to it.”
Fortunately, I chose a husband who genuinely supports my career, and believes in domestic equality (in practice not just in theory). But it was more good luck than good judgement. I didn’t know what criteria to apply to select a good husband.
Essentially, I got lucky but I know of many women who did not.
Over the years I have watch friends and acquaintances have children and then become stressed,
frazzled, and resentful at their husband’s refusal to share the domestic load. In many instances, he insists that his career take precedent over hers. This is not to mention the often-low level, but unrelenting physical, emotional and financial abuse that some of them endure.
We shouldn’t leave partner choice to chance and just hope that our girls dodge the inequality bullet.
We need to prepare them for one of the most important decisions of their life.
I’m not saying that we all do a Mrs Bennett and worry about marrying off our daughters to make a most advantageous match. I’m talking about helping our girls understand what’s most important when selecting a partner.
This means debunking the Prince Charming fairy tale, to help them realise that so much more life happens after the honeymoon period than during it. We need to help them understand that kindness, respect and equality are foundations for a relationship, not just nice-to-haves.
Just as parents look out for “teachable moments” to reinforce values and academic lessons, I look for opportunities to talk about partner choices. For example, when I was watching Marie Kondo’s Tidying Up series on Netflix, I talked to my nine-year-old about the domestic inequality in their relationships.
I pointed out that, prior to a Japanese expert and a film crew showing up, some of these men primarily left the domestic work to their wives and even got frustrated with their wives for not doing it well enough.
We talked about how a partner needs to share domestic work and how they also need to listen to their wives. I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that I reckon these men’s wives had probably mentioned it a couple of hundred times before. But they didn’t listen, or didn’t care about the inequality.
I told my daughter that if a partner doesn’t believe in – and demonstrate – equality then he’s not worth having.
Of course, it is not my decision who my girls choose for their partners. They are free to live their own lives, make their own mistakes and learn their own lessons. But, as with every other aspect of their education, my job as a parent is to give them the tools and as much information as possible for them to draw upon if they choose.