Gender roles are changing and dissolving all around us; so should the questions we ask. Men and women should simply do what works.
“You must be the most politically correct man in America!”
Nearly two decades ago, one of my wife’s male colleagues uttered these words upon meeting me during her medical internship. His traditional sensibilities had trouble fathoming what kind of emasculated dolt could tolerate her as a wife. Like most professional women, she has had to navigate her share of sexist experiences, and she must have offered him one too many of her progressive rants.
Yes, my wife would qualify as an Alpha woman, and we’ve been married for nearly 20 years. We met in college and dated for six years before marriage. We also have two daughters, so when I saw the recent book by Dr. Sonya Rhodes and Susan Schneider titled The Alpha Woman Meets Her Match: How Today’s Strong Women Can Find Love and Happiness Without Settling, I couldn’t resist a read.
The book features an Alpha/Beta Personality Questionnaire with 100 questions that enable couples to compare where they fall on the spectrum. It was fun though not surprising to learn my wife is high Alpha and mid Beta, while I am high Beta and mid Alpha.
Rhodes explains that Alphas are generally independent, assertive, and self-assured, but can also be overconfident, controlling, and stubborn. Betas tend to be mellow, collaborative, and team-oriented, but can also be nonconfrontational, too laid-back, and too noncompetitive. (There is often much overlap on the spectrum for both genders.) Rhodes declares that a high Beta like myself “will partner well with a strong Alpha, since you can hold your own.”
So far, I would agree, though our travels along the Alpha-Beta spectrum have been complicated. You might say we both started as Alphas, and while she has remained an Alpha, I have become more Beta over the years. I had won several academic honors in college before meeting my future wife, which led a female peer to ask her: “Do you know who you’re dating?” (The Alpha in me asks her that to this day, though now people are more likely to ask me “Do you know who you’re married to?”)
After college, my wife went to medical school, I worked on a Ph.D., and for a few years we lived our Alpha lives, though they didn’t feel that way since we spent them accumulating debt. In true Alpha fashion, however, when asked on a medical school survey about her favorite hobby, my wife answered “avoiding ironing.”
The “kids decision” came a few years into our careers. After weighing the financial and personal factors, I was fortunate enough to be able to choose stay-at-home fatherhood while she became the sole breadwinner. To her credit, my wife did not engage in maternal “gatekeeping,” and thankfully my growing Beta skills of being “mellow,” having patience, and managing my professional Alpha competitiveness helped me become a competent at-home parent. As Rhodes notes, “people are malleable, and you can modify some of your behavior for a better balance.”
I have often been asked if my shift in identity was emasculating. The transition was challenging and even jarring at times, but I never questioned my masculinity. As I began writing about my experiences as an at-home father (or Alpha grad gone Beta dad), I noticed that outsiders seem to worry more about the masculinity of stay-at-home dads than the dads themselves. When asked the “masculinity” question, one response I suppress is “do breadwinning moms worry about their femininity?” The question has become obsolete.
As gender flexibility increases, questions seem to multiply themselves out of relevance (and existence, I hope). Consider the section of The Alpha Woman Meets Her Match on “gender deviation neutralization.” Rhodes explains that one study showed a breadwinning wife will “often take on more of the household chores as a way to compensate for her greater earning power, with the aim of being nonthreatening to her husband. The academic term for this is gender deviation neutralization” (orig. italics). Rhodes strongly discourages women from doing this, for they “should never tailor their behavior to meet social stereotypes.”
This passage reminded me of the many ways my marriage to an Alpha woman is, in fact, starkly traditional. The “political correctness” mocker might take some solace in the conventional arrangements that “neutralize” my gender role deviations: I drive when we’re together, I handle the snow blowing, I take out the garbage, and I kill the bugs. But these roles evolved by chance and mutual agreement, not by gender concerns.
Of all my conventionally masculine roles, the most complicated involves money. I handle the family finances, and one of my pet peeves after 25 years together is that my wife refuses to carry any cash with her. Her cashless lifestyle frequently leads to awkward public scenes where she asks me in front of bystanders, “Can I have some money?”
This drives me crazy for several reasons:
1) It implies that I am the sole breadwinner and in control of her finances, which is patently false. In fact, a bystander might assume I’m a domineering Alpha male and the most politically incorrect man in America who forces his wife to conform to a sexist, outmoded gender role.
2) It implies that I may need to feel like the sole breadwinner who is in control of her finances, which is also patently false. A bystander might assume she is overcompensating for my fragile Beta ego (and “neutralizing” her gender deviation) by letting the public believe I am in the conventional Alpha role.
3) It sets a bad example for our daughters, though I admit this minor negative example is wildly compensated for by the larger example of a mother who is also a physician with financial independence.
4) It obscures the truth, which is simply that my wife hates handling money. She hates carrying cash so much that one day in Chicago when she had no coins in her car she actually threw a button into a toll receptacle out of desperation—and the bar went up! As a result, we negotiated long ago that I would handle as much of the finances as possible.
Ultimately, that is one of the benefits of a long marriage: trust. She trusts me so much that she didn’t file for divorce after finding another woman’s bra in my diaper bag, but that’s another story.
So what to make of masculinity now? Gender roles are changing and dissolving all around us; so should the questions we ask. Men (and women) should simply do what works. “Deviations” be damned. Flex new muscles, no matter your Alpha/Beta scores. Develop trust in your relationship. “Provide” for your family in whichever ways work best. And keep your sense of humor.
As for that “political correctness” knock, I have learned to answer in the spirit of Eleanor Roosevelt: No one can emasculate you without your consent.
Vincent O’Keefe is a writer and stay-at-home father with a Ph.D. in American literature. He is writing a memoir about gender and parenting. His writing has appeared at Time Ideas, The New York Times “Motherlode” blog, The Huffington Post, The Shriver Report, Role Reboot, and The Good Men Project, among other venues. He has also been featured at CNN Parents. Visit him at www.vincentokeefe.com.