The year my second son was born, I went to work, and my husband stayed home. It was the most luxurious year of my life. In the mornings, I nursed my baby while my husband brought our older child to preschool. When he got back, I handed off the baby, said, “bye, Sweetie, see you later!” and enjoyed a quiet walk down to my office on the beautiful Wellesley campus. At noon, my whole crew trooped down to my office for me to nurse the baby again. I patted my beautiful little ones on their heads, kissed them goodbye, and my husband gathered them into the stroller and headed home. I enjoyed a stimulating conversation over lunch with colleagues, and wrote or taught for a few more blissful hours. Sometimes I took a stroll around the lake to think and mentally revise a chapter while I got some fresh air. I wrote at home in the late afternoon, so I could nurse the baby once more.
At around 5:30, my husband called me for the lovely dinner he had prepared. Then it was family time, and I was ready to hear all about my kids’ days, and have those adorable conversations only 3-year-olds can deliver. I knew my husband would always be there to take care of a sick kid, run an emergency errand, or answer the preschool teacher’s questions. My kids didn’t cry when I left, because they had Daddy. I could relax and focus on my work, secure in my knowledge that my kids were safe and happy, cared for by the person who loves them as much as I do.
Recently, I have heard more than one working mother ruefully joke, “I need a wife!” On her smart blog “Hot Heels, Cool Kicks, & a Scalpel,” pseudonymous trauma surgeon @surgeoninkicks wrote of her jealousy sparked by a colleague, whose wife called to ask if she should pick up any socks and underwear for him while she was out shopping. @surgeoninkicks treasures her husband, who does a great deal to make their household run, but it’s not the same. Her male colleagues have wives who dedicate themselves to a full-time supporting role. The male surgeons know that their children will be safe and loved, their laundry will be washed, and their meals will be on the table. @surgeoninkicks calls washer repairmen and coordinates babysitters from her office, and tells her kids to make do with tissues when she hasn’t had a chance to shop for toilet paper.
I chuckled at the blog post, but its premise made me uneasy. I knew exactly what @surgeoninkicks meant, from my experience of that blissful year in Wellesley. And she made it clear that while that support person is usually a wife, it could theoretically be a husband, grandparent or other caretaker. But at the same time, to this historian’s ear, it couldn’t help but echo “Why I Want a Wife,” a famous feminist essay that protested the subservient and taken-for-granted role of “wife,” rather than yearning for someone else to serve in that capacity.
Judy Brady’s “Why I Want a Wife” was published in the inaugural issue of Ms. magazine in 1972. Unlike @surgeoninkicks’ blog entry, Brady did not end her essay by telling her reader to go hug the wonderful wife or wife-substitute who makes your life easier. No, Brady’s classic semi-satirical essay was cuttingly funny, angry, and resentful. Granted, the husband’s role as she portrayed it was so obnoxious partly because it was so clueless in its privilege. In Brady’s portrayal, someone with a wife could gracelessly assume that his wife would care for children, the house, his laundry and meals, and everyone’s doctor appointments, while she earned enough money part-time to put her husband through graduate school. But a hug and a heartfelt “thank you” would be a band-aid for the bigger problem Brady was targeting. To Brady, the gendered roles we assume when we hear “husband” and “wife” are patently unfair. Brady would not wish the role of “wife” on anyone.
Since that 1972 essay, in ever-increasing numbers, wives and mothers have gone to work. The typical result has been that wives do less housework, but, like @surgeoninkicks, they still take primary responsibility for children and home, no matter how many hours they work. Husbands do a little more housekeeping, but not even close to half. They rarely take executive responsibility for household functioning. More women have a chance at career satisfaction, but the double shift of outside work and housework is intense and exhausting. It is nothing like the fantasy of trading places with a husband, as @surgeoninkicks imagines, and as I got to do for one of my postdoc years at Wellesley.
Since Wellesley, I have been the primary at-home parent, for various structural, logistical, and health reasons. We are lucky that we can make the finances work in this arrangement. I pick up the kids at school and deal with daytime errands and doctor appointments. I write while the kids are at school, I keep our household together, and I make it reasonable for my husband to do the commuting and traveling that is part of the work he does that supports our family.
I am also my husband’s wife, which makes me very happy. I am not sure I want to use the label “wife” for my day job, though. Sure, right now I take extra responsibility for kids and home. I expect that to shift as our kids get more independent. Splitting the household was easy before we had kids; it should be just as easy once we’re empty nesters, and surely the kids can take on some more responsibility for themselves before they actually leave for college.
I think I’d like to call myself the “Current Supporting Spouse.” “Spouse,” because gender really should not matter. My husband was just as good an at-home parent as I, and not every marriage these days contains a wife. “Supporting,” because I want to be explicit about the work I am doing. This stuff doesn’t just happen by magic because I’m a married adult female. I am supporting my husband’s career by intention, not by default. “Current,” because the fact that I’m doing it now does not mean it’s my job forever.
How we name ourselves really does matter. “Current Supporting Spouse” may not be the catchiest title in the world, but it feels accurate and respectful to me. It generalizes much better than “stay-at-home mom,” since many Current Supporting Spouses also work full time, but put their spouses’ careers ahead of their own at least for the moment. It also extends effortlessly to husbands. While I am generally the Current Supporting Spouse around here, there are weeks when I suddenly have a rash of deadlines or conference travel, and my husband steps neatly into the role. We have not been able to figure out how to make our arrangement “fair” on a weekly basis, or even a yearly one, but we are committed to both of us flourishing as productive individuals, over the long term. We are much more likely to succeed if the support work I have been doing isn’t linked to my role as a wife.
I’d propose that we stop joking that we “need a wife.” I think it would be better if each of us, male or female, who is lucky enough to have a partner with whom to raise children, would ask ourselves, “When will I be the Current Supporting Spouse? How will I do it? How will I earn a blissful year, or at least a week now and then, when I can focus on my productive life as an individual and know that someone I love and trust is taking care of the household?”
Brady bitterly critiqued the taken-for-granted “wife” role, but she did not try to dictate how the unfairness should be addressed. It won’t work for all of us to renounce the role for ourselves, and then pine for some self-sacrificial partner, most likely female, who will willingly grab the short straw. It’s not wrong to have times in our lives when we rely on a supporting partner, or act as the supporting partner, for the sake of overall family contentment. But reciprocity is crucial. If we can’t picture spending some time in the Current Supporting Spouse role, chances are, we shouldn’t be asking someone else to do it.
Judy Brady, “Why I Want a Wife,” Ms., January 1972.
Arlie Hoschchild, The Second Shift: Working Families and the Revolution at Home (New York: Penguin Books, 2012 (revised ed.)).
Annabel Crabb, The Wife Drought (Random House Australia, 2015).