I expected the worst when I heard that that New York magazine would be writing an article about “The Retro Wife,” about how some liberal feminists are embracing retro lifestyles by staying-at-home. Well, I didn’t expect the worst. But I expected your typical scoopfuls of women-don’t-need-or-want-feminism-anymore BS, which, as Anna North at BuzzFeed Shift notes, are all too common in lifestyle articles about work/life balance in women’s lives.
Instead, I found “The Retro Wife,” by Lisa Miller — while light on factual analysis and more reliant on anecodtes — spoke to me.
I would encourage everyone to read the piece rather than just recapping the entire article here. But to put it succinctly, Miller argues that women (obviously mostly middle-class and upper-middle class) who have educations and careers no longer feel that they are “bad feminists” if they decide they’d like to dial down their careers and stay at home with their kids. Women are not conflicted about finding fulfillment in both full-time careers and/or full-time parenting, too. The lead woman described in the New York piece had a successful career as a social worker but found that she and her husband were running themselves ragged trying to balance two careers and a couple of kids. So they decided to live off of one salary so she could stay home. And now everyone is happy.
I’m one of those women. At least, I think I will be. If I have kids and if my future baby daddy wants to financially support our family for a couple years, I’d love to primarily stay home and write part-time. Domestic life is beloved by me; it has been a dream of mine since I was a little girl playing with dolls to be a mommy and a writer some day. I was raised by a stay-at-home mother in a family of five kids; my mom definitely “worked,” even if it was not for a salary. Additionally, my dad had also been a single parent and I think that made him more involved than some of my friend’s dads. He’s a widower and even though he was the only parent who worked outside the home, I suspect he was involved in parenting as a byproduct of having been the only parent for awhile. I never grew up thinking that working in an office was a man’s job and being a parent was a woman’s job; in fact, my mom explained to me as much when I asked once why it was my father collected me from the elementary school nurse’s office. The truth is, I envied aspects of my mother’s life.
In adulthood, I’ve realized that combining full-time work with parenting would not be my first choice. I came to that conclusion quickly when, as a newspaper reporter, I’d work all day and then be stuck covering board meetings all night — sometimes two or even three nights a week. Add a few more years working long, crazy hours fact-checking for magazines or working the night-shift at a blog, and today I feel very certain that I don’t want to juggle both work and family life at once. I’m not ashamed to say it, even though I know it makes me open to criciticism: I would like to dial down my career for a few years as a stay-at-home parent and I seek to partner with a man who is on board with this plan.
It’s not about abandoning my career or wasting my NYU degree (which, I might add, I have to work to pay back probably until I die). I’ll always be a writer; I’ll always be working on some project, even if it isn’t a 9-to-5 newspaper, blog or magazine that requires going into an office. That flexibility of writing is something I will certainly cherish, because I know it’s not a flexibility afforded to other industries.
It’s also not about wanting to be “taken care of” in any sort of helpless sense. I’m no stranger to hard work — not in the slightest. For the past nine months, I have actually worked two jobs — one during the week at The Frisky and another on weekends at BlackBook magazine’s website. Yes, I work seven days a week. I don’t even have squalling babies yet, but don’t feel like I should have to prove to anyone that I was committed to my career of being a writer. Why do I have to work nonstop until I retire, just because I’m a woman, just to prove I’m a “good” feminist?
And yet still, some feminists harrumph about this.
Feminists need to accept the fact that some people, many of them women, feel happier and more fulfilled in a domestic arena than they are by office culture. Ambition has many shades to it and not everyone needs to have Hillary Clinton aspirations. (Puh-leeze, can we be honest about the fact that some aspects of work just plain suck? Chasing down freelance paychecks will be the death of me, mark my words. And I would give one of my kidneys to never have to deal with office politics again.) Professional aspirations and success do not fulfill everyone the same way; in fact, they may even change over time to accommodate new paths. By way of example, I feel less driven to prove myself at age 29 than I did at 23. I’m still driven. I’m still ambitious. Only less so than before. And that’s OK.
I do not believe men and women are extremely different or uniquely suited to different roles. We are all social constructions. The gender essentialism in the New York piece bothered me, because it quoted people suggesting women are “better” at being stay-at-home parents and doing domestic tasks like washing laundry and planning birthday parties. That’s social conditioning, not biology. Kids thrive with stay-at-home dads or in daycare. I want to stay at home not because I think it will be better for the kids, but because it will be better for me.
With that in mind, I’ll say the ultimate goals of the people in the piece, which require choosing traditional gender roles, do not ring false to me. Roles should never be enforced, but in my life, it is OK if they are chosen. I’m comfortable with personally choosing taking on some traditional gender roles while still holding my feminist beliefs about equal opportunity for everyone. It bothers me more that inflexible workplace policies and pricey childcare force this hand on some families and even more so that the lack of a living wage means a couple (my parents, the Romneys, Taylor Swift and Future Mr. Taylor Swift, etc.) is privileged to even make this type of decision in the first place. Those class issues are what society should be fixing, not individuals for making choices that benefit their family.
The very fact that some people have the desire to leave work for the domestic realm? And some of those people are women? Feminists need to deal with it.
Email me at Jessica@TheFrisky.com. Follow me on Twitter.