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The Retro Wife

This is not the retreat from high-­pressure workplaces of a previous generation but rather a more active awakening to the virtues of the way things used to be. Patricia Ireland, who lives on the Upper West Side, left her job as a wealth adviser in 2010 after her third child was born. Now, even though her husband, also in finance, has seen his income drop since the recession, she has no plans to go back to work. She feels it’s a privilege to manage her children’s lives—“not just what they do, but what they believe, how they talk to other children, what kind of story we read together. That’s all dictated by me. Not by my nanny or my babysitter.” Her husband’s part of the arrangement is to go to work and deposit his paycheck in the joint account. “I’m really grateful that my husband and I have fallen into traditional gender roles without conflict,” says Ireland. “I’m not bitter that I’m the one home and he goes to work. And he’s very happy that he goes to work.”

A lot of the new neo-traditionalists watched their own mothers strain under the second shift, and they regard Sandberg’s lower-wattage mini-mes, rushing off to Big Jobs and back home with a wad of cash for the nanny, with something like pity. They don’t want a return to the confines of the fifties; they treasure their freedoms, but see a third way. When Slaughter tours the lecture circuit, she is often approached, she says, by women younger than 30 who say, “I don’t see a senior person in my world whose life I want.” In researching her 2010 book The Unfinished Revolution: Coming of Age in a New Era of Gender, Work and Family, New York University sociologist Kathleen Gerson found that, in spite of all the gains young women have made, about a quarter say they would choose a traditional domestic arrangement over the independence that comes with a career, believing not just “that only a parent can provide an acceptable level of care” but also that “they are the only parent available for the job.”

The harried, stressed, multiarmed Kali goddess, with a laptop in one hand and homemade organic baby food in the ­other, has been replaced with a domestic Madonna, content with her choices and placid in her sphere. “I was … blessed,” wrote one woman on the UrbanBaby message boards recently, “with the patience to truly enjoy being home with my kids and know that in the end family is what is important in life—not pushing papers at some crap job.” When the UB community fired back with a fusillade of snark, the poster remained serene. “It’s sacred work but not for everyone,” she wrote. “I will never have regrets.” In season three of The Good Wife, Caitlin D’arcy, the law firm’s ambitious and strategically minded female associate, unexpectedly quits her job when she becomes pregnant, saying she wants to be a full-time wife and mother. Her mentor, Alicia Florrick—separated from her husband and a mother of two—tries to dissuade her. “You’re smart and clever,” she says. “If you give this up for someone, even someone important to you, you’ll regret it.”

“I’m not giving it up for my fiancé,” says Caitlin. “I’m giving it up for myself. I like the law, but I love my fiancé.”

“But you don’t need to choose,” protests Alicia. “There’s no reason why you can’t work, be a wife and a mother.”

“But I want to choose,” says Caitlin. “Maybe it’s different for my generation, but I don’t have to prove anything. Or if I have to, I don’t want to. I’m in love.”

In Friedan’s day, housewives used novel technologies such as the automatic washing machine to ease the burden of their domestic work; today, technology helps them to avoid the isolation of their grandmothers and to show off the fruits of their labor. Across the Internet, on a million mommy blogs and Pinterest pages, these women—conceptual cousins of the bearded and suspendered artisanal bakers and brewers who reside in gentrified neighborhoods—are elevating homemaking to an art, crocheting baby hats, slow-roasting strawberries for after-school snacks (“taste like Twizzlers!”), and making their own laundry soap from scratch. Young mothers fill the daytime upholstery and pattern-making courses at Third Ward, a craftspace in Williamsburg, and take knitting classes at the Brooklyn Yarn Café in Bushwick while their kids are in school.

Home, to these women, is more than a place to watch TV at the end of the day and motherhood more than a partial identity. It is a demanding, full-time endeavor, requiring all of their creativity, energy, and ingenuity. Kelly Makino set up a giant mothers’ group in northern Jersey, using her M.S.W. to help other parents pool time and resources. (Such “side projects,” she says, have the added benefit of “keeping us sane.”) Homeschooling, once the province of Christian conservatives, is now increasingly chosen by lefty families; in New York City, the number of children being taught in their apartments rose by nearly 10 percent over the past year.