The Wrong Side of the Mommy Track

The Good Wife, a new drama on CBS, plays a neat trick: It convinces viewers that it is a show about a political wife in the aftermath of a sex scandal. And in a surface sort of way, it is: In the delicious first sequence, in which the embattled state's attorney announces his resignation after being videotaped in bed with hookers, we're treated to Alicia Florrick (Julianna Margulies), the "good wife" in question, slapping her husband across the face, just beyond the sight of the probing cameras. What woman wouldn't have loved to see Silda smack Eliot, or Elizabeth pummel John?

But The Good Wife is actually about a far more pedestrian topic: the middle-aged woman on the verge of a breakdown -- and a comeback. With a no-good husband suddenly out of a job and two teenagers at home, Florrick dusts off her juris doctor and heads back to work, where she triumphs over skepticism and reconsiders all those years on the mommy track.

Florrick is not alone: With the recession pushing more American men than women out of work -- even in upper-income professions -- some of the privileged few wives who weren't already working are trying to re-enter the job market. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that this year, college-educated women increased their labor-force participation from 76 percent to 78.4 percent, while the participation of college-educated men dipped.

The Good Wife, though, puts an incredibly romantic spin on the challenges of going back to work. Within the first episode, Florrick lands a plum firm job and wins a high-profile criminal defense case, humiliating her stereotype of a female boss (Christine Baranski), the kind of woman who pretends to mentor younger women, but is actually threatened by their success.

But what happens to the real-life Alicia Florricks -- the women who attempt to claw back to the top after years or even decades at home with the kids? For one thing, their income suffers: A woman can expect her salary to drop by 2 percent for each year she stays home from work. That means a woman who earned $80,000 10 years ago, then quit her job, can expect her new salary to be $64,000.

And that's if she can successfully find a job. In 2007 journalist Leslie Bennetts wrote The Feminine Mistake, a book documenting the dire economic toll of highly educated married women "opting out" of the work force. "Since The Feminine Mistake came out, I have followed the lives of many of the women I wrote about, and their stories haunt me," Bennetts wrote this week at The Daily Beast. She tells of one stay-at-home mom who spent several years looking for a job after her husband left her for a younger woman. The ditched wife finally found work as a teacher, but the job paid one-eighth the salary she earned in her last full-time position, 20 years ago. "She has a lot of company," Bennetts laments. "Nearly 70 percent of child-support cases in this country have arrears owed to the custodial parents, who are overwhelmingly female -- one of several reasons why men's standard of living rises after divorce while that of women and children typically plummets."

The fiction of The Good Wife is that a high-powered politician's wife is the kind of woman who'd find herself in such a predicament. In the real world, it takes so much money just to play at state or national-level politics that political wives are rarely left in the poor house by a husband's sex scandal. Silda Wall Spitzer certainly doesn't need to scan the help-wanted ads; her husband is the heir to a Manhattan real-estate fortune. John Edwards was one of the biggest-winning trial lawyers in American history. Mark Sanford and his wife, Jenny, both made buckets of cash on Wall Street before retiring to a life of seeming Southern gentility.

The Good Wife is really a sort of revenge fantasy: Alicia Florrick not only slaps her husband across the face and proves to him that she can hack it as the family breadwinner, she also one-ups those other women at work, the ones who look down on her for opting-out in the first place. In the real world, though, women like Alicia's judgmental boss might be onto something: Women rarely win, in their personal or professional lives, by giving up everything to focus on hubby. When the chips fall, women are the ones left supporting the kids, and their earning potential matters. "Men can be lazy," the boss lady tells Alicia. "Women can't." It's all too true.

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