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The Retro Wife

For Rebecca Woolf, maternal ambition led to the creation of her website, Girl’s Gone Child, in 2005, when she was 23 and had just given birth to her son Archer. She has since had three more children (a girl, Fable, and twins named Reverie and Boheme), and every day she posts staged photos of her kids that make her family life look like one big, wholesome-but-funky romp. Here are the twins wearing adorable handmade animal hats with ears! Here is a lesson in at-home bang trimming! Woolf, who lives in Los Angeles and whose husband is a television producer, points out that as the founder of a thriving blog, she does have a job. But the image of home life she presents for popular consumption is as glossy and idealized as the mythical feminine perfection Friedan rebelled against. It is perhaps no wonder that in the world of mommy blogs, tattooed Fort Greeners and Mormons unknowingly collide, trafficking the same sites and trading recipes on the same message boards. They may vote different tickets, but on the centrality of home and family to a satisfying life, their interests are aligned.

Before they marry, college students of both genders almost universally tell social scientists that they want marriages in which housework, child care, professional ambition, and moneymaking will be respectfully negotiated and fully shared. According to a 2008 report by the Families and Work Institute, two thirds of people younger than 29 imagine for themselves partnerships not defined by traditional gender roles. Maybe she’ll change the lightbulbs; maybe he’ll go part time for a while after the birth of the baby. Seventy-four percent of American employees say they believe that women who work outside the home can be as good at mothering as those who don’t. The institute’s data also indicates that “men today view the ‘ideal’ man as someone who is not only successful … but also involved as a father, husband/partner, and son.” Once married, the research shows, men are more contented over the long term, and women are happiest in an egalitarian union—so long as both parties agree about what egalitarian means.

That, of course, is where things get tricky. Despite their stated position, men still do far less housework than their spouses. In 2011, only 19 percent spent any time during the average day cleaning or doing laundry; among couples with kids younger than 6, men spent just 26 minutes a day doing what the Bureau of Labor Statistics calls “physical care,” which is to say bathing, feeding, or dressing children. (Women did more than twice as much.) In her research, Gerson found that in times of stress men overwhelmingly revert to the traditional provider role, allowing them to justify punting on the dishes. “All [men],” she says, “agree that no matter what the gender revolution prescribes, it is still paramount for men to earn a living and support their families, which also implies taking a backseat as caregiver.” As a romantic college student, a man may imagine he will request an extended paternity leave, but it’s very likely that he won’t. The average amount of time a man takes off after the birth of a child is five days. “That’s exactly what happened to me!” exclaimed Kelly Makino when I relayed that stat to her. Alvin had planned on taking a two-week leave after Lillie was born but was back at the office after half that time.

All those bachelors’ vows of future bathroom cleanings, it turns out, may be no more than a contemporary mating call. “People espouse equality because they conform to the current normative values of our culture,” says University of Texas evolutionary psychologist David Buss. “Any man who did not do so would alienate many women—yes, espousing values is partly a mating tactic, and this is just one example.” At least in one area, there’s scant penalty for this bait and switch. Last year, sociologists at the University of Washington found that the less cooking, cleaning, and laundry a married man does, the more frequently he gets laid.

Feminism has never fully relieved women from feeling that the domestic domain is theirs to manage, no matter what else they’re juggling. There is a story, possibly apocryphal yet also believable, of an observer looking over Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s shoulder during a Cabinet meeting in the late nineties. On the pad before her, the secretary had written not “paths to peace in the Middle East” but “buy cottage cheese.” (Albright declined to comment for this story, but while promoting a book in 2009, she told an audience that all her life she made it a point always to answer phone calls from her children, no matter what else she was doing. “Every woman’s middle name is guilt,” she said.) Those choices have a different tenor now, one that upholds the special importance of the maternal role. “My sense,” says Buss, “is that younger women are more open to the idea that there might exist evolved psychological gender differences.” Among my friends, many women behave as though the evolutionary imperative extends not just to birthing and breast-­feeding but to administrative household tasks as well, as if only they can properly plan birthday parties, make doctors’ appointments, wrap presents, communicate with the teacher, buy the new school shoes. A number of those I spoke to for this article reminded me of a 2010 British study showing that men lack the same mental bandwidth for multitasking as women. Male and female subjects were asked how they’d find a lost key, while also being given a number of unrelated chores to do—talk on the phone, read a map, complete a math problem. The women universally approached the hunt more efficiently. Joanna Goddard, who runs the women’s lifestyle blog A Cup of Jo, says she hears this refrain among her friends. “I’ll just do it. It’ll be easier. I’ll just do it. It’ll be faster. I’ll do the dishes. I know where everything goes.”