Why Asking the Wrong Questions Yields the Wrong Answers

In a series on women’s ambition, The Atlantic asks “How Much Ambition Can a Marriage Sustain?” The question itself suggests that the answer is a fixed amount that get apportioned across two people in different ways — either equally or with one spouse having much more while the other has much less.

But what if this is the wrong question? What if the question, instead, is “How Can a Couple Build a Life They Both Love?”

The problem with asking how much ambition the marriage can take is that it treats the players like they are sitting across from each other on a seesaw — they can be equal, but then each can only go as high as the middle, or one can be much higher and one is on the ground. This seems like a uniquely unhelpful way to view marriage, right? But more importantly it treats three different states — equal, man up/woman down, and woman up/man down — as if they are the same. But is that so? Are all three of those states essentially the same?

I’d suggest they aren’t. The key reason we all discuss ambition as it relates to marriage is because of the oft-asked question “But what about the kids?” While many (though not all) people tend to believe it’s “okay” if Mom works there isĀ  belief that if both Mom and Dad are working all that time, that would be bad. That seems like a reasonable conclusion. But then it gets murky — is it okay if one parent works “all the time” and the other doesn’t? Does it matter which one? If one parent works “all the time” does that mean the other parent must not work at all to even the seesaw?

What’s interesting to me is that the research on the effect on children if Mom works is pretty clear — they do fine. There is some research on the effect of Dad’s career and it finds that kids do fine with a Dad who works a reasonable amount, but that Dad’s who aren’t around are missed (I know, right?).

If that’s true I think it fundamentally changes the question. Because clearly one parent around “all the time” doesn’t actually make up for one who isn’t around very much. And now we can ask, instead of how much total ambition can the marriage take, how much ambition in either parent can the family take?

For what it’s worth, I think the answer to that last question is “More than most of us think.” If you use your time with your family well and create wonderful and loving memories, those will loom much larger in the minds of your children than the missed dinners or a weekend away for business. Yes, there’s likely a limit to how much a parent can work and still be effective. But that’s true regardless of how little the other parent works, which means the marriage (and the family) can likely sustain ambition in both partners and turn out fine.