Domesticity / Feminism / Relationships

On retro wives and lowering the bar.


An article from New York Magazine—titled The Retro Wife—popped up in my newsfeed today; it was about “feminists who are having it all—by choosing to stay home.” Its author, Lisa Miller, asks “what if a woman isn’t earning Facebook money but the salary of a social worker? Or what if her husband works 80 hours a week, and her kid is acting out at school, and she’s sick of the perpetual disarray in the closets and the endless battles over who’s going to buy the milk and oversee the homework?” And I am very tired.

The article is about women and their choices, specifically their choices to stay home and raise families. In and of itself, stay-at-home motherhood is nothing to sneer at. I do not disdain the SAHM; her daily grind is significantly more labour-intensive than mine, with far more demands on her person—I respect that choice fully and without condescension. However. “Kelly is 33, and if dreams were winds, you might say that hers have shifted. She believes that every household needs one primary caretaker, that women are, broadly speaking, better at that job than men, and that no amount of professional success could possibly console her if she felt her two young children … were not being looked after the right way.”

When I was in university, I lived in a rat-infested but relatively inexpensive four-bedroom hell-hole in Kitsilano with three roommates, two of them lovely. One of them, the one I shared the first floor with, was disgusting. Every morning I would step over his towel, wet and the colour of old snow on the side of a highway, and wipe hair off every surface I’d need to touch in the bathroom … he was deliberately bald, so …

When you have a roommate who is not pulling his weight, you can talk to him about it, you can clean up after him and resent him and make life at home intolerable, or you can vent to your other roommates and ultimately team up against him and force him to change, or you can pack your stuff into garbage bags and GTFO. The roommate relationship is one where equal labour brings harmony to the household, where it doesn’t matter how many hours you went to school or worked or whatever each day because you still have to clean up after yourself and generally be a not-disgusting human being, even if you don’t have a dishwasher, and especially if your landlord won’t do anything about the rats.

Because the division of labour was equal in the house, I twice had to scoop the rats—dead in their traps—off the porch, using a dust pan, and into a garbage bag and, dry-heaving, drag them out to the bin in the alley. The roommate relationship is one where sometimes you do things you don’t want to do because it is your turn.

So why is it that marriage is different? Why is it that with two adults sharing a house, one does—or believes she has to do—the bulk of the domestic drudgery? Miller writes, “what was once feminist blasphemy is now conventional wisdom: Generally speaking, mothers instinctively want to devote themselves to home more than fathers do.”

Miller later writes: “Psychologists suggest that perhaps American women are heirs and slaves to some atavistic need to prove their worth through domestic perfectionism: ‘So many women want to control their husbands’ parenting,’ says Barbara Kass, a therapist with a private practice in Brooklyn. ‘Oh, do you have the this? Did you do the that? Don’t forget that she needs this. And make sure she naps. Sexism is internalized.'”

So are we doing all the housework and childcare because we have to, or because our partners are doing it wrong? And is it possible to do the dishes wrong? I figure a dish I didn’t have to wash is a dish done right, just as Spouse gets the greatest gastronomic enjoyment out of a meal he didn’t have to make or shop for. Each of us brings something different to the raising of our small boy, but neither is a better parent than the other. If I dropped dead tomorrow, I am confident Spouse would do a fine job at raising our child to adulthood and keeping the house in order.

We are busy. We are tired. If we could afford it, maybe Spouse would stay home. This mother doesn’t instinctively devote herself to tasks she finds unpleasant.

The women in Lisa Miller’s piece have made an admirable choice to leave their careers to focus on raising their kids—it’s a choice a lot of women would love to be able to make (and a choice that some women have no choice but to make, but those women aren’t represented in the article). But why is it one or the other? This reduction of women to simple tropes—two sides in a mommy war, say—is tiresome at best.

It’s not all or nothing. It’s not working or kid parties. We are all doing the best we can. And we are fighting battles every day along the way. Some of those battles are with our employers, some with our partners, and often they are internal, because we already know everything these articles are telling us.

There are no perfect mothers. There are no perfect relationships. There are perfect jobs but only Anthony Bourdain and Ruth Reichl have them. We can’t do everything, and I’m getting pretty tired of these silly little magazine pieces and blog posts reminding me that I can’t do it all because of how much is expected of me.

So you know what? Fuck it. Fuck every last bit of it.

Problem: There are a lot of demands on our time. Our partners don’t always help out the same amount at home or when they do, they do it wrong. Our jobs don’t always offer work-life balance.

Solution: Lower the bar. Divvy up the work. Lean in or step out or do whatever you want, but do it because it makes you happy. If mama ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy.

We need to start looking to the future. If you’re dating someone who thinks your career is worth less than his or who thinks the housework is your problem, don’t marry him. Don’t enable him to reproduce. Move on, no matter how much he spent on dinner or how hot his ass looks in those jeans.

If you accidentally did marry one of those, shut that shit down now. Marriage is a partnership. He’s your roommate as much as anything else, and we do not take crap from our roommates no matter how many hours they worked last week. Everyone cleans up his own mess! Everyone takes his turn on dead rat-duty.

Do not let yourself take over the dead rat-duty because you think you do it best, or because you think he does it wrong. Take turns. Team up against your kids. Make the kids clean the dead rats off the deck! That’s why you had them, right? What else are their tiny hands good for anyway?

Let’s not discount the role our partners play. Let’s not forget our own childhoods, where many of us were unsupervised much of the time, entertained by whatever we found on the ground or in our minds and were perfectly happy about it. Let’s not forget that we pursued educations and interests and careers, and if we love what we do—even if we don’t make a ton of money—then we should not be the only party to consider staying home with the kids.

I’m bored with this whole discussion. We can’t live up to all these expectations, whether they’re external or internalized. When it comes right down to it, I’d rather be good at my job, which pays me, than fret over whether or not Spouse is loading the dishwasher correctly (he isn’t, but I don’t care), because ultimately what defines me is my own perceived awesomeness and not the cleanliness of my floors. Women are people, and people are complicated. There are no tropes. And wealthy white women are not a representative sample from which to draw sweeping conclusions about modern motherhood.

I’m beginning to think that the mommy wars were made up by a bunch of bored journalists just to annoy us.


One thought on “On retro wives and lowering the bar.

  1. I love this. I keep seeing these articles and the reductionist logic and thinking, “Where is the human discussion in all this? What about thinking about these problems like human problems, not feminist problems? Wanting to do good work that fulfills you (at home or at a worky job) is a HUMAN thing. Can we admit to ourselves this is a human thing?” I love your suggestions for partnership, and modern parenting. You rock.

    Also, I think the Mommy Wars were made up by a bunch of whomever to sell us shit. Journalists, doctors, sling makers, Ann Taylor, lululemon, Vitamix…everybody is CASHING IN on womanly insecurities. The real losers are women and their families who as you describe, are just trying to be happy and make it work. Thanks for doing your part though. 🙂

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