once dynamic classes past their expiration date . . . .


Rich Women

By WEDNESDAY MARTIN
MAY 16, 2015


WHEN our family moved from the West Village to the Upper East Side in 2004, seeking proximity to Central Park, my in-laws and a good public school, I thought it unlikely that the neighborhood would hold any big surprises. For many years I had immersed myself — through interviews, reviews of the anthropological literature and participant-observation — in the lives of women from the Amazon basin to sororities at a Big Ten school. I thought I knew from foreign.

Then I met the women I came to call the Glam SAHMs, for glamorous stay-at-home-moms, of my new habitat. My culture shock was immediate and comprehensive. In a country where women now outpace men in college completion, continue to increase their participation in the labor force and make gains toward equal pay, it was a shock to discover that the most elite stratum of all is a glittering, moneyed backwater.

A social researcher works where she lands and resists the notion that any group is inherently more or less worthy of study than another. I stuck to the facts. The women I met, mainly at playgrounds, play groups and the nursery schools where I took my sons, were mostly 30-somethings with advanced degrees from prestigious universities and business schools. They were married to rich, powerful men, many of whom ran hedge or private equity funds; they often had three or four children under the age of 10; they lived west of Lexington Avenue, north of 63rd Street and south of 94th Street; and they did not work outside the home.

Instead they toiled in what the sociologist Sharon Hays calls “intensive mothering,” exhaustively enriching their children’s lives by virtually every measure, then advocating for them anxiously and sometimes ruthlessly in the linked high-stakes games of social jockeying and school admissions.

Their self-care was no less zealous or competitive. No ponytails or mom jeans here: they exercised themselves to a razor’s edge, wore expensive and exquisite outfits to school drop-off and looked a decade younger than they were. Many ran their homes (plural) like C.E.O.s.

It didn’t take long for me to realize that my background in anthropology might help me figure it all out, and that this elite tribe and its practices made for a fascinating story.

I was never undercover; I told the women I spent time with that I was writing a book about being a mother on the Upper East Side, and many of them were eager to share their perspectives on what one described as “our in many ways very weird world.”

It was easy for me to fall into the belief, as I lived and lunched and mothered with more than 100 of them for the better part of six years, that all these wealthy, competent and beautiful women, many with irony, intelligence and a sense of humor about their tribalism (“We are freaks for Flywheel,” one told me, referring to the indoor cycling gym), were powerful as well.

But as my inner anthropologist quickly realized, there was the undeniable fact of their cloistering from men. There were alcohol-fueled girls’ nights out, and women-only luncheons and trunk shows and “shopping for a cause” events. There were mommy coffees, and women-only dinners in lavish homes. There were even some girlfriend-only flyaway parties on private planes, where everyone packed and wore outfits the same color.

“It’s easier and more fun,” the women insisted when I asked about the sex segregation that defined their lives.
“We prefer it,” the men told me at a dinner party where husbands and wives sat at entirely different tables in entirely different rooms.

Sex segregation, I was told, was a “choice.” But like “choosing” not to work, or a Dogon woman in Mali’s “choosing” to go into a menstrual hut, it struck me as a state of affairs possibly giving clue to some deeper, meaningful reality while masquerading, like a reveler at the Save Venice ball the women attended every spring, as a simple preference.
And then there were the wife bonuses.

I was thunderstruck when I heard mention of a “bonus” over coffee. Later I overheard someone who didn’t work say she would buy a table at an event once her bonus was set. A woman with a business degree but no job mentioned waiting for her “year-end” to shop for clothing. Further probing revealed that the annual wife bonus was not an uncommon practice in this tribe.

A wife bonus, I was told, might be hammered out in a pre-nup or post-nup, and distributed on the basis of not only how well her husband’s fund had done but her own performance — how well she managed the home budget, whether the kids got into a “good” school — the same way their husbands were rewarded at investment banks. In turn these bonuses were a ticket to a modicum of financial independence and participation in a social sphere where you don’t just go to lunch, you buy a $10,000 table at the benefit luncheon a friend is hosting.


Women who didn’t get them joked about possible sexual performance metrics. Women who received them usually retreated, demurring when pressed to discuss it further, proof to an anthropologist that a topic is taboo, culturally loaded and dense with meaning.

But what exactly did the wife bonus mean? It made sense only in the context of the rigidly gendered social lives of the women I studied. The worldwide ethnographic data is clear: The more stratified and hierarchical the society, and the more sex segregated, the lower the status of women.

Financially successful men in Manhattan sit on major boards — of hospitals, universities and high-profile diseases, boards whose members must raise or give $150,000 and more. The wives I observed are usually on lesser boards, women’s committees and museums in the outer boroughs with annual expectations of $5,000 or $10,000. Husbands are trustees of prestigious private schools, where they accrue the cultural capital that comes with being able to vouch for others in the admissions game; their wives are “class moms,” the unremunerated social and communications hub for all the other mothers.

WHILE their husbands make millions, the privileged women with kids who I met tend to give away the skills they honed in graduate school and their professions — organizing galas, editing newsletters, running the library and bake sales — free of charge. A woman’s participation in Mommynomics is a way to be helpful, even indispensable. It is also an act of extravagance, a brag: “I used to work, I can, but I don’t need to.”

Anthropology teaches us to take the long and comparative view of situations that may seem obvious. Among primates, Homo sapiens practice the most intensive food and resource sharing, and females may depend entirely on males for shelter and sustenance. Female birds and chimps never stop searching out food to provide for themselves and their young. Whether they are Hadza women who spend almost as much time as men foraging for food, Agta women of the Philippines participating in the hunt or !Kung women of southern Africa foraging for the tubers and roots that can tide a band over when there is no meat from a hunt, women who contribute to the group or family’s well-being are empowered relative to those in societies where women do not. As in the Kalahari Desert and rain forest, resources are the bottom line on the Upper East Side. If you don’t bring home tubers and roots, your power is diminished in your marriage. And in the world.

Rich, powerful men may speak the language of partnership in the absence of true economic parity in a marriage, and act like true partners, and many do. But under this arrangement women are still dependent on their men — a husband may simply ignore his commitment to an abstract idea at any time. He may give you a bonus, or not. Access to your husband’s money might feel good. But it can’t buy you the power you get by being the one who earns, hunts or gathers it.

The wives of the masters of the universe, I learned, are a lot like mistresses — dependent and comparatively disempowered. An abyss that separates her version of power from her man’s.



Mounting Evidence of Advantages for Children of Working Mothers

MAY 15, 2015


Nearly three-quarters of American mothers with children at home are employed. That fact doesn’t necessarily make it any easier for mothers to drop a toddler at day care or miss school plays. The mommy wars might seem like a relic of the 1990s, but 41 percent of adults say the increase in working mothers is bad for society, while just 22 percent say it is good, according to the Pew Research Center.

Yet evidence is mounting that having a working mother has some economic, educational and social benefits for children of both sexes. That is not to say that children do not also benefit when their parents spend more time with them — they do. But we make trade-offs in how we spend our time, and research shows that children of working parents also accrue benefits.

In a new study of 50,000 adults in 25 countries, daughters of working mothers completed more years of education, were more likely to be employed and in supervisory roles and earned higher incomes. Having a working mother didn’t influence the careers of sons, which researchers said was unsurprising because men were generally expected to work — but sons of working mothers did spend more time on child care and housework.

Some of these effects were strong in the United States. Here, daughters of working mothers earned 23 percent more than daughters of stay-at-home mothers, after controlling for demographic factors, and sons spent seven and a half more hours a week on child care and 25 more minutes on housework.

“Part of this working mothers’ guilt has been, ‘Oh, my kids are going to be so much better off if I stay home,’ but what we’re finding in adult outcomes is kids will be so much better off if women spend some time at work,” said Kathleen McGinn, a professor at Harvard Business School and an author of the study, which is part of the school’s new gender initiative, to be announced Monday, for researching and discussing gender issues.

“This is as close to a silver bullet as you can find in terms of helping reduce gender inequalities, both in the workplace and at home,” she said.

Other researchers are less confident that the data has proved such a large effect, because it is difficult to know whether a mother who worked caused her daughter to work, or whether other factors were more influential. “The problem is we don’t know how these mothers differed,” said Raquel Fernandez, an economics professor at New York University who was not involved with the Harvard study but who has also studied the topic. “Was it really her mother working who did this, or was it her mother getting an education?”

Either way, the new study is part of a shift away from focusing on whether working mothers hurt children and toward a richer understanding of the relationship between work and family. A 2010 meta-analysis of 69 studies over 50 years found that in general, children whose mothers worked when they were young had no major learning, behavior or social problems, and tended to be high achievers in school and have less depression and anxiety. The positive effects were particularly strong for children from low-income or single-parent families; some studies showed negative effects in middle-class or two-income families.

Sons raised by working mothers were significantly more likely to have a wife who worked, one well-regarded study led by Ms. Fernandez found. The men might have preferred to marry a woman who worked, the researchers concluded, or were better partners at home to working wives. “If you want to work, the best way you might find a supportive environment for that is to marry a man whose mother worked,” she said.

Many studies have found that parents’ attitudes toward gender roles and work greatly affect their children’s attitudes. The Harvard study, which is unpublished, is broadly consistent with their findings. It goes a step further, by showing that working mothers influence not just children’s preferences, but their behavior.

Ms. McGinn said parents seemed to be serving as role models. “This is our best clue that what’s happening is a real role modeling of skills that somehow conveys to you, ‘Here’s a way to behave, here’s a way you can cope with the various demands of work and home,’” she said.