Why being labelled a “Retro Wife” makes me angry
I’ve been avoiding the much discussed article in the NY Times “The Retro Wife” for a couple of months. If you haven’t heard about it it is a piece about the new generation of affluent middle class women turning their backs on feminism and opting to be stay at home mothers and wives. Arguably because this kind of applies to me (for the moment anyway) I’ve avoided it because I assumed it’s author intended to shame me. “Look, you there” she would say, “you, yes you, white, middle class young lady. YOU ARE A CRAP FEMINIST. Where is your ambition? Don’t you know you are indulging in a ridiculous sexist nostalgia trip? FEEL GUILTY IMMEDIATELY.”
It actually didn’t do that at all. Possibly because writer Lisa Miller is torn about the path she is taking. (Disclaimer - this isn’t me being judgy but something she explicitly voices in the piece). She seems intrigued, impressed and yet slightly repelled by the idea of being a traditional “homemaker.”
And this is where I start to take issue. The story the media likes to tell is that we are a new generation of homemakers, we craft, quilt and bake. We tend to our men and children. We aspire to be the housewives our grandmothers were. We reject the decisions taken by our mothers in the 70’s and 80’s to work and raise a family simultaneously. We embrace our femininity, put on vintage dresses and pour our husbands a glass of wine when they get in from work.
And yes there are some aspects of truth in it. I do bake and cook more now that I’m at home. Cooking is a joy for me so that makes me happy. But the focus on a new generation of happy housewives completely ignores some of the key reasons women are dropping out of the world of work. It makes it seem as though we have the world at our finger tips and we just aren’t ambitious or driven enough to make the most of our chances. Some seem to think we are frightened of the corporate world and so retreat to a world of comfortable domesticity.
It ignores the sexism we encounter every day in the work place, the review where you get reprimanded for being “bossy” and “pushy” where male colleagues are admired for being “assertive” and “decisive.” It ignores the fact that early years childcare in this country is either sub-standard or unaffordable for the majority of families. It ignores the fact that for the moment if you want someone to stay with the baby for the first 12 months of their life without losing their job it has to be the woman because men aren’t yet entitled to longer parental leave. It ignores the fact that that housing crisis means there is a lack of affordable housing in urban areas pushing families further and further away from the places with jobs. If you have two kids and a one hour commute how easy is it for both parents to continue working full time? It ignores the fact that pregnant women or women with children are consistently overlooked for promotion. It ignores the fact that even today our culture consistently reinforces the notion of women as primarily wives and mothers above any professional status they may achieve.
It may seem like it, but mums who stay home aren’t all on a sodding nostalgia trip. After all, it’s a messy business raising a family. Many of the mums I know would prefer to have (or are actively pursuing) a more equal split with their husbands where both parents work and undertake childcare. But for a lot of us we are trying to do the best for our families within the society and culture we are actually in and not some pretend world that assumes that we’ve achieved equal status with men. So a lot of us turn our backs on the corporate world, and spend a few years focussed on our kids of course. But increasingly, the women I know are doing more than just that. Instead of spending their spare time baking a pie for their husband they are quietly starting businesses from their kitchen tables. Businesses they can run from home. Businesses where they can work flexibly and hopefully do something they love. Businesses that can grow alongside their family instead of in competition with it. And for me, THIS is the new domesticity. Where homemade entrepreneurs are born.