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Yes, I’m a Wife, But You Can Call Me the “Current Supporting Spouse”

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.

Working Mothers in the U.S. infographic (PDF). (US Department of Labor, Women’s Bureau)
Working Mothers in the U.S. infographic (PDF). (US Department of Labor, Women’s Bureau)

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.

Further Reading

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).

About the Author

11 Comments

Rick Geissal

I was a current supportive spouse for many years, starting when our daughters were infants. I cherished that role, and it allowed my wife to feel supported & know our kids were safe w/a parent who loved them as much as she did, as you wrote. As it happened, I enjoyed being a homemaker & the one who scheduled everything and did errands, cooking & shopping.

Naomi Kirtner

Sorry–I feel pretty irked reading this. The “dis” now is to the partner who CHOOSES the career of being the primary care-taker. In this article, that person (man or traditionally woman) is *reduced* to “supporting spouse.” One of my roles as the primary care-taker may be to support my husband’s career, but it is also a career choice for me even if this culture refuses to see it that way (and even if everyone isn’t in a position to make this choice). I feel increasingly frustrated by this attitude, because, actually, if we both work outside the home, SOMEBODY does have to still take care of the kids–we have to pay in some fashion (through after school care, hired help, daycare, etc.) for somebody to cover all the drop-offs, pick-ups, doctor’s appointments, meals, grocery shopping, homework help, educational help, emotional support, volunteer roles (the demand for which are bigger now than ever with schools in such raunchy shape financially), ETC. I know there are many, many ways to share these roles–both people work part time and split the “home care” chores; one works “outside” and one covers “inside” the home; both work but one has disproportionate responsibility; one works part time and covers most of the “inside” job while the other works mostly “outside” and covers some of the home care. What I feel infuriated by is that the way I’ve chosen to slice it–due to the number of hours my husband’s job demands, along with my particular gifts/interests/limitations–gives me ONLY the title of “supporting spouse.” Somebody, in the end, DOES have to raise our children; since I’ve CHOSEN to raise mine, and it’s the most important job I know of, and I do it well, perhaps we should name my husband as the “current supporting spouse.” His job allows me to do the thing we both know is critically important, and matters to us more than anything in the world.

Rick Geissal

I agree completely with your post. My wife and I decided I would stay home, care for our children & be the homemaker. I wanted to do it; she wanted me to do it. It was important, and I’m glad I did it – and glad you are doing it.

Lara Freidenfelds

I really appreciate your comment. I think your reformulation at the end of your comment is brilliant. The difficulty, I think, is that every family needs certain (absolutely crucial) work to get done, but only in a very few is that the work that one of the parents would choose as a career, simply because people have such a variety of gifts and inclinations. And yet, as a society, we want all mothers to choose the homemaker/full-time parent role. If, in your family, neither parent wants to go out of the house to work, and both value homemaking more highly as a rewarding vocation, then the working parent is, indeed, the “current supporting spouse.” And I hope your husband gets his chance to be a homemaker at some point, if that’s what would be most meaningful to him. If you are simply one of the lucky few couples to have perfectly complementary interests, I congratulate you on your luck!
What would you prefer your role to be called? “Wife?” “Primary care-taker?” “Stay-at-home mom?” “Full-time parent?” I have used all of these at various times myself, though I have noticed that most of them refer to parenting, and not to the rest of homemaking, which is then just assumed. Do you think that they connote higher status than “current supporting spouse?”

Naomi Kirtner

Hi–thanks for your response to my “mad” rant! In answer to your question, I am not actually fond of any of the terms we use–they’re all kind of euphamisms. When I have to fill out forms about my work/job, I often actually just put “Mom.” Being a mother could/should encompass all the things “primary care-giver” and “stay-at-home-mom” are meant to encompass, except that really it’s a belittling term (I’m “just” a mom). So I sort of feel rebellious (ironically) when I put down on forms that my work title is Mom. I would never use “wife” because my relationship in that capacity is separate from (though obviously intersects and is related to) my role as Mom.

And yes, it’s true that it’s lucky we are well matched this way, thought it isn’t ever or always perfect and of course there are compromises required from each of us. I have worked outside the home (and couldn’t, as a preschool teacher, cover the child-care costs) and fortunately, I really love being a Mom. My husband’s long hours at work helped us decide how to split this, but it was a decision we made consciously and together, and in that sense was definitely a choice. If I had worked full-time outside the home, too, we would have had three full-time (outside the home) job hours between the two of us, and we still would have had to figure out how to manage how to raise our children and run the home. It didn’t feel like I “gave up” my career to be home, though; that’s what I wanted to do. I was lucky enough, also, to have that modeling from my own mother, who got a masters’s degree in the ’50’s but decided (chose!!) to stay home becaue it’s what she really wanted to do. I think the traditional roles we’ve chosen have probably been hardest on my husband, who also is actually well-suited to many aspects of the “stay-at-home parent.”

I love the idea of women working and having careers; I just wish that others didn’t look upon my choice as “less than.”

Lydia

I doubt this will win me any popularity contests but I am equally bothered by the casting of “mom” as a career because I think it implies that moms who do other things all day besides being moms and homemakers are the ones who are “less than.” (Which is the default assumption of our society.) My mom was also a mom. My mom very much enjoyed being a mom (well, she still does, although that means something different now, since my sister and I have long been out of the house). She also has a career and did throughout my childhood. Is she less of a mom than a mom who stays home? (I’ll give a hint: No.) The worst is “full-time mom.” I really hate that one. Moms who work are not part-time moms, thank you very much.

The question I have is this: Why is it so important for us to cast everything important and meaningful and challenging as a “job?” I think it speaks a lot to our culture and how we tend to define people so much by their jobs that we have to find a way to define anything and everything as a job. (I mean, in the sense of a profession or form of formal employment. Of course, all kinds of things are “jobs” in a broader sense). Being a mom is certainly important, meaningful, and challenging. (Though I also can’t stand the “most important job in the world” rhetoric either. Really? The MOST important job IN THE WORLD? That always just seems like a head-pat to women by people who’d rather they stay in the kitchen. I know some wonderful stay-at-home dads and I don’t ever hear anyone saying to them that they have The Most Important Job in the World or The Highest Calling Ever. We do not pull this stuff with men.) Why can’t that be enough? If a woman is a stay at home mom, she is doing something important, meaningful, and challenging. But no, she does not have a “job” in the sense that working mothers do. It doesn’t mean that it isn’t something to be taken seriously. I’m certainly glad my parents took raising us and running our home nicely seriously. It just means it’s something different. If that feels marginalizing–I don’t see why it should–well, I can’t say that I can bring myself to overly moved by that, given the marginalization that working moms–hell, working women–put up with every day. Our society is still set up for stay at home moms in the US, to the extent that it’s set up for women at all (not a great extent). We don’t even have paid maternity leave. Not surprising, given that a good deal of our politicians would still like all adults women to be making babies and staying home with them as soon as it’s socially acceptable to procreate.

Yvonne Brown

I think part of the problem is rooted in the economic structure, where one spouse, traditionally the husband, goes out to “work” and make money. In a more agrarian society, presumably, although roles were sex delineated, both could be considered “producers.” It is considered impossible to measure the productivity of the spouse who stays at home, although segments of the women’s movement have tried. As we know, in the early 20th century, home economists wanted to elevate housework by making it a science. Even in the 70s, feminists worked to compensate and dignify the roles of wives and mothers. It seems to me the current feminist movement has just abandoned this issue. Therefore, I applaud you for bringing it up! Personally I think the contemporary feminist movement has made a mistake. It is difficult for a woman who chooses to stay home to claim a place in the movement.

Naomi Kirtner

Yes, I agree this is a great point. It was interesting when we were buying a life insurance policy years ago, trying to calculate (economically) what it would cost to replace me if anything happened and my husband were to continue working his same hours. (Let’s just say the policy was worth more than I have ever been paid!) And I do feel the a certain guilt, in addition to a diminishment, in my role as “Mom.” That is, I am aware that, on the one hand, we calculate worth economically and I am worth “zero,” which is hard. And at the same time, it’s because we are a middle-class family at all that we can “afford” for me to be home–a kind of privilege that leads me, at times, to feel guilty for getting to do it. In the end, I know it’s best for our family, and it’s satisfying to me internally, but I don’t even want to enter the conversation because, as you so rightly point out, it’s hard for me to claim a place in the movement.

Lara Freidenfelds

I so much appreciate all your thoughts. There is lots more to be considered on this subject! I have stayed home myself, because I place high value on the parenting part of the job, and because for various other reasons it made sense. I have also been annoyed at feeling devalued. In academia, lots of people assume I am home because I couldn’t get a job, and then the job I am doing as an at-home parent is generally not recognized as work at all, so I guess it appears that i haven’t published any articles because I’m spending my days lying on the couch eating bon-bons and watching soaps. As I’ve managed to establish myself as a scholar despite my lack of an official position, I have also decided at times to be “in your face” with my decision: if I nail a conference talk and then people are suddenly interested to find out who I am, and they ask me what “independent scholar” means, I tell them that I am a stay-at-home mom, and I do my research in the evenings. It took a number of years for me to feel established enough to say “stay-at-home mom” in an academic context.

I also think that it’s important to me, anyway, to separate the parenting from the housework, in terms of how I think about them. Parenting feels valuable and important, even if it’s not the most natural “fit” for a day job for me, the way it is for you. Cleaning toilets is another matter. It absolutely has to get done, and in that sense is important, but I don’t like it to be lumped with the “mom” or “wife” job. If I am doing the bulk of that kind of work, it is definitely self-sacrifice, and while it might be worth it, it’s definitely “support” work. I hope that kind of support will be reciprocal in the long run. In the blog post, I included the practical aspects of daytime parenting with housekeeping, because that total combination really does feel amazing when you’re the parent working outside the house, but I don’t think they should be automatically lumped together.

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