“Someone to watch over me….”

I’m quite heterosexual, but I’ve dreamed for years of having a wife. Turns out I’m not the only one:

Now that women have solidly earned their place in the work force, many find themselves still yearning for something men often have: wives.

“The thing I most want in life is a wife. I’m not kidding,” said Joyce Lustbader, a research scientist at Columbia University, who has been married for 29 years. “I work all day, sometimes seven days a week, and still have to go home and make dinner and have all those things to do around the house.”

It is not just the extra shift at home that is a common complaint. Working women, whether married or single, also see their lack of devoted spousal support as an impediment to getting ahead in their careers, especially when they are competing against men who have wives behind them, whether those wives are working or staying at home. And research supports their argument: it appears that marriage, at least marriage with children, bolsters a man’s career but hinders a woman’s.

One specialist in women’s studies dismissed wife envy as something women “are usually joking about” and another called it “a need for a second set of hands, regardless of gender.” But therapists who work with couples on equality issues say it is no joke.

“I hear it all the time,” said Robin Stern, a psychotherapist in Manhattan and author of “The Gaslight Effect.” “It’s a real concern. Things that used to be routinely taken care of during the week are not anymore.”

With two-income families now the norm, and both men and women working a record-breaking number of hours, the question has become how to accomplish what used to be a wife’s job, even as old-fashioned standards of household management and entertaining have been relaxed. Many men are sharing the work of chores and child care with their wives, and some do it all as single parents, but women still generally shoulder a greater burden of household business (or fretting over how to do what is not getting done).

Frankly, I don’t see this as entirely a matter of male chauvinism, although most people who know Mr. Bookworm and me would be the first to agree that, by any standards, Mr. Bookworm is a 1950s kind of guy who does absolutely nothing around the house.

Mr. Bookworm’s antediluvian tendencies aside, while there are many wonderful and devoted house husbands (I know a few), in 95% of the marriages I see around me, the husbands and wives have simply fallen, without thought, into the traditional role of the women taking on the primary childcare obligations. (I think it has something to do with the precedent set vis a vis the children with pregnancy and nursing.)

The fallout from that almost thoughtless devolution into traditional roles is that the women with paying jobs outside of the house inevitably decrease their hours, flex their hours, or give up paying work altogether. And the fallout from that change in paying work status is that, as their income declines and their hours at home increase, the women take on more of the domestic tasks. As every working mother knows, domestic tasks can be a full time job. These working women therefore

  1. rise at dawn,
  2. get everyone ready for work or school,
  3. get the children out the door,
  4. toss a load of laundry in the machine,
  5. get themselves ready for,
  6. go to work,
  7. pack a full day of work into part-time,
  8. race home to meet the kids,
  9. stuff snacks into the kids,
  10. drive the kids to their after school programs,
  11. race through the grocery stores while the kids play soccer,
  12. get the kids home from the after school activities, cooking dinner,
  13. supervise homework,
  14. tidy the house,
  15. finish the laundry,
  16. wrestle the kids into bed,
  17. complete the work that didn’t get down during the rest of the and
  18. collapse (often with that infamous headache).

Their husbands, meanwhile,

  1. get up in the morning,
  2. shave,
  3. shower,
  4. go to work,
  5. come home,
  6. eat dinner,
  7. kiss the kids and
  8. watch TV.

That’s why we modern women want wives — we want someone to take care of us and give us a break.


16 Responses

  1. Hello Bookworm,

    I think I could be classified as being a chauvinist on this topic.

    I remember a few years back when my cousin was just exiting high school. The whole universe stretched out before her. She said she wanted a successful career, affluence, a devoted loving husband and five children. Five kids? I asked. Yes, five lovely children to ease her passage through time and age.

    When I pointed out to her that she can’t have her hearts desire on everything, that it’s just not reasonable to have five rugrats running at your feet and have a successful career at the same time, she accused me of being cynical and pessimistic.

    Excuse me. Her fantasy is nice but it’s bull.

    This is one of those cases of either/or. Either you want to be a mom raising five kids OR you can have a successful career. Femininists I’ve known rail at the “glass ceiling” when studies have shown that women hit that glass ceiling when they get pregnant and have to work part time, or when they have to take off months if not years to raise the child.

    From a business standpoint, you just wouldn’t get paid the same working part time as full time. And if you take off a few years to get situated with your child, chances are that you are O.B.E. (Overcome By Events, or not relevant) at the point you decide to re-enter the workforce. Time and technology moves so quickly nowadays that a few years make that much difference.

    I think the truth of the matter is that child rearing is a dull, repetitive thankless job. I may have a jaded view of children but I view raising a child as taking a savage (an accurate description in my estimation since children mostly consist of their appetites and their consequent satiation through your benevolence…) and raising it into a human being. When your raise a child, who would be there to cheer you or pat you on the back for changing a diaper or answering all their indefatigable questions, things you might receive if you were in the workforce producing?

    For many modern women, they are choosing their careers first and their children last, right behind working out at the gym and fine dining.

    Some suggested that stay-at-home husbands would be the solution, a complete role reversal. However, I have not met one, not one single woman who wouldn’t have utter contempt at such a man. Call it genetic memory or Jungian collective consciousness or whatever you like, but women generally have low opinions about men who don’t work and/or who make less money than them. Most of these relationships would in all likelihood rapidly unravel in divorce, so that she’ll find a “winner” instead of a stay-at-home “loser”. Perhaps my characterization is unfair, but I haven’t encountered an exception yet.

    My cousin was obviously upset when I pointed out that she can’t have it all— the devoted husband, the five children and the successful career. Well, I’ve upset other feminists as well when I pointed out this self-evident truth about life. Our schools are teaching young women that they can have it all, and that’s just a pipe dream, fools gold…

    My point is there are choices that have to be made between husband, career and children, choices that have far ranging consequences. I work almost exclusively with women at my job and from what I gather, many of them have sacrificed their want of children for their careers. Others become pregnant, go on maternity leave, come back for a bit and then leave the company to raise their child. Still others become pregnant, go on maternity leave, come back full time and leave their kid for someone else to raise, a relative or a nanny. (Isn’t it anyone wonder why we have almost an entire generation that haven’t been raised? But that’s for another time.)

    In summation, I think traditional roles is still the healthiest model we have for raising children and living sane lives. There are variations and options you can play with and balance, but generally speaking traditional gender roles is healthy. Personally, I think this modern notion of the super-mom, super-model, super-businesswoman (plus a marginalized, emasculated husband) is dysfunctional in the extreme because it disconnects from the nuts-and-bolts reality of living daily life.

    But the rub of the matter is this: is the modern world going to allow the viability of traditional roles, or is Madison Fifth Avenue dead set and grinding everyone down into their conception of “progressive” healthy families?

  2. Book,
    Well, you can try to have it all, but perhaps the problem is in not prioritizing correctly. Some comments:

    2. get everyone ready for work or school
    – In our house, that consisted of pointing out where the cereal, milk, bowls and spoons were. In their usual places. Go and get them.

    8. race home to meet the kids,
    9. stuff snacks into the kids,
    10. drive the kids to their after school programs,
    – Usually, after school activities were AT the school. If not, we had bicycles. Find your way to the event. And bike home when done, hopefully in time for dinner.

    13. supervise homework,
    – This usually consisted of making sure homework got done by asking, “Have you finished your homework?” The dreaded call from the teacher was ALWAYS dreaded, due to the punishment sure to follow. It rarely happened.

  3. “Their husbands, meanwhile…go to work”. Book, I could not help but notice how you have relegated “work” to a task, like shaving or taking out the garbage.

    Sorry, but as one who typically logs a 70-hour work week and who can’t help but notice how many of the stay-at-home moms in my neighborhood seem to have plenty of time during the day to jog or hold coffee klatches at the local Starbucks, I take umbrage at that. What do you think we do at work…nap? Sure my spouse takes on many (not all) of the chores you describe…but she works a 35-hour week.

    Being a professional lawyer, I just know that you could not have meant it the way that it came across.

  4. […] [Discuss your thoughts on this subject with Bookworm over at Bookworm Room…] Share Article heterosexual, wife, work force, Columbia University    Sphere: Related Content | Trackback URL […]

  5. I didn’t mean to denigrate work, Danny. From my point of view, work is so much more pleasant, interesting and fun than running a household. Looking back on the halcyon days before I had children, I can tell you that I was a happy workaholic, unfazed by a regular 60 hour work week. I’m envious that my husband gets to go off to a structured environment, commune with adults, and make things happen on a large scale. It’s not chopped liver, it’s ice cream!

  6. Now, that I can relate to, Book. As soon as my kids were old enough for middle school, my wife (a mathematician and horticultural geneticist)became a middle-school teacher so that she could keep tabs on them AND work. Our school system is infused with former business executives, attorneys and Ph.D. scientists turned teachers, for the same reasons combined with corporate burn-out. However, we also share many household duties and everyone (including the kids from a very young age) does their own laundry.

  7. Without causing any sort of unrest, I do believe that there is still a small amount of social stigma that has yet to disappear from the subconscious; women being the ‘house’ and men being the ‘work.’ However, I believe there are ‘creative’ (for lack of a better word) life choices to make in an effort to escape the stigma and better cater to an individual or family’s lifestyle. I asked my friend why she decided to have her children at such a young age. Her response was because she didn’t want to have to sacrifice her career in order for her to have a family. With the two children, she is finishing her masters and by the time the kids begin school, she will be able to attend to her career. I thought it was a great solution.

  8. One more thing, Mike (comment 2), I’m heavily involved with homework because it is the only way I can see what the teachers failed to teach. My poor son was writing essays every week, which got returned with criticisms: “You did this wrong. You did that wrong.” I have no problem with deserved criticism. I have a big problem, however, when I learn that the teacher had never taught these children how to write an essay. After I figured that out through supervising homework, I taught my son the basics of essay writing. From one day to another, the teacher’s negative statements stop. I’m sure, though, that she’s at home congratulating herself on the benefits of her teaching methods.

    In other words, homework has become a little microcosm of home schooling for me, where I get to fill in all the blanks the teachers leave behind.

  9. Grading essays correctly, concerning the grammar and the right development, takes quite a bit of time. The only teachers that give out essays each day is either those that have nothing better to do but grade essays all night, or they aren’t grading the essays completely. The first wastes the teacher’s time, the second wastes the student’s time.

  10. I’m quite heterosexual, but I’ve dreamed for years of having a wife.

    That had me busting out laughing. Especially since I read from some of the bottom of your post first.

  11. John Ross recommends Chris’s scenario. The young wife is supported by her husband as she has children and takes care of them until they can take care of themselves. High school level perhaps. Then, the wife starts her career via education and job training.

    So you can have it all, you just need to set your priorities straight. It’s often better to have children while younger and thus having energy, then to have to put your career on hold to have children and then regreting putting your career on hold as you deal with the stresses of childcare.

  12. I am reminded of something. There are benefits to this modern life. Meaning some couples do watch over each other in harmony. Without the retro 1950s thing.

    I’m envious that my husband gets to go off to a structured environment, commune with adults, and make things happen on a large scale. It’s not chopped liver, it’s ice cream!

    Book seems to like talking to other adults. I was and am still the same way. Older folks just seem to have more interesting things to say, even if they are old-fashioned.

  13. […] On another note, Book’s post about needing a wife is pretty amusing. […]

  14. Well, first off, I consider any man who acts as you describe in 1. through 8. to be a bum — and that’s regardless of how much money he makes. A man who makes kids and then abandons them to concentrate on his job is a bum, even if he has a wife to take up the slack….maybe ESPECIALLY if he has a wife because that means that he is betraying his marriage vows, besides.

    That said, I have a lot of agreement with Thomas on this issue. Gail and I talked about this early on — we both agreed that we wanted to raise our own kids, not pay someone to do it for us. I actually would have been willing to stay home with our (prospective) kids….but I needed her commitment to a full working lifetime of concentrating on her career. If *I* was going to be the career partner, I had to finish my graduate degree. Once started, I had to keep going – no five years off and start up again. Women know how that works – and it doesn’t very well. She decided she’d rather be the parental partner.

    That didn’t mean my days were 1. through 8. I’d seen enough of that growing up. I chose to work in education so that my hours were flexible – I got home at a decent hour, took 40 minutes to wind down and then fed, bathed, read stories to, and put to bed my two children while Gail headed for the YWCA, or the library, or ballet lessons, or wherever the heck she spent all that time. Those two hours with the babes every night are among the most precious of my life – and they forged bonds that remain to this day, 30+ years after the first was born.

    Was it always blissful? Oh get real! But, parenthood is so precious (as well as aggravating, exhausting, and nearly impossible) that I can’t imagine any other activity so worthy of my time and attention. How else will we populate the future with decent human beings who can make a difference?

  15. Book,

    In your #8, I do understand that you’ve had to take heroic measures to rescue your son’s education. And that you’re capable of that rescue effort. I think I misstated my position and came off sounding too harsh. Let me say that that rescue effort – which should not be necessary but is – alone takes a large amount of time and energy. That intervention alone reduces the time needed for other activities. There’s no way to fit it into the schedule without sacrificing other activities and remain sane.

    It’s no surprise to me that at the end of the day, the only recourse is to drop into bed, totally spent. Now suppose you add three or four MORE unusual intervention efforts to the mix. Can you fit those into the daily schedule as well, without cost? Something’s gotta give. Decide what is reasonable and begin triage.

    I was suggesting that our parents had it easier because they did not try to do it all. If the day is too busy to whip up a complex breakfast, cereal will have to do. Perhaps intervene in the homework three days a week instead of all five? Change some afterschool activities so that they are based in the school or are held nearby.

    The impulse to “have it all” – and to keep adding more and more – and then even more and more – eventually must begin to break down and cause more harm than good.

  16. Y, (#9)
    I agree completely. Assume that, at the very minimum, grading a homework assignment in a meaningful way takes five minutes. (We are discussing an ESSAY here.) That’s twelve per hour. Assume the class has 24 students, and you have two hours of grading on that one assignment alone. Add math to the mix. Add spelling, etc, etc. It’s impossible that such an approach could work.

    There’s a “school of thought” (ha!) that just having the students write, and crank out page after page of writing, will alone make them better essayists. I disagree and I suspect Book would as well. All you get is reinforcement of bad habits. Without constructive criticism and the correction of poorly written samples, progress is absent or extraordinarily slow.

    I’d rather see one essay per week myself, worked on say three times, with a polished work as the end result.

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