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The Retro Wife

Psychologists suggest that perhaps American women are heirs and slaves to some atavistic need to prove their worth through domestic perfectionism: “So many women want to control their husbands’ parenting,” says Barbara Kass, a therapist with a private practice in Brooklyn. “ ‘Oh, do you have the this? Did you do the that? Don’t forget that she needs this. And make sure she naps.’ Sexism is internalized.” Perhaps this mentality explains the baffling result of a survey that the Families and Work Institute conducted last spring for Real Simple magazine. Women said they yearned for more free time and that they hated doing most housework. But when they got free time, they used it to do housework—convinced that no one else could do it as well.

If women and men are at odds with themselves over what they value most, if a woman says she wants a big job but also needs to be home by 5:30 to oversee homework, and her husband promises to pick up the kids from chess club but goes instead to the meeting with the boss, how can marriages with two working parents not wind up conflict-ridden? From Kelly Makino’s perspective, it was a no-brainer. “Some days I just have to pinch myself,” she says. “It’s so easy, it’s so rewarding to live this way.”

Kelly and Alvin decided to change their lives one night last spring during a mini-vacation to Washington, D.C. They were there to see the cherry blossoms, and Kelly was aware, all weekend long, of the ebbing of her anxiety. “I didn’t have to worry about 500 people’s lives. I had to worry about four people’s lives.”

Connor had been in a fight at school. Lillie had been having nightmares. After the kids were in bed, the Makinos retired to the bathroom of their hotel room. “We realized that neither one of us were happy. We were sleep deprived and stressed out all the time,” says Kelly. If they scaled back, they reasoned, they could live on Alvin’s salary. But first Kelly had to come to terms with her unfulfilled ambition—“I knew I had it in me to be the best”—and the disapproval of her parents. Her father worried that she’d be bored out of her mind. Her mother accused her of “mooching.” It took Kelly three months to quit her job.

Sitting at their kitchen table, littered with the detritus from a birthday-party goody bag, the Makinos retrace how their relationship turned out the way it has. They met at a biker bar where Kelly was waitressing, and at first, when Alvin envisioned their collective future, he thought, “Oh, it’s totally not going to be like my parents. We’re going to do things equally. Both of us are working, and we’ll take care of the kids together. It just seemed so simple in my mind.”

“I remember you said you wanted us to be a power couple,” says Kelly.

But there was tension. Alvin earned a lot more money. Kelly felt that her job contributed more good to the world, that its emergencies were more urgent. One time, she remembers, she was just leaving work when she found herself face-to-face with an anguished child. “It’s 4:30, this 12-year-old girl tells me she has been raped.” Kelly attended to the girl and contacted the school authorities; after she got home, she put her own kids to bed and then was on the phone making a report to protective services until midnight. It was exhausting work but gratifying. “Honestly, before I had kids,” she says, “I kind of looked down on stay-at-home moms a little. I thought, You can’t hack it. It was a prejudice that was wrong. I thought, Why can’t you do it? You must’ve sucked at your job if you stay home.

Kelly’s commitment to her career “put a lot more pressure on me to make sure I could pick up the kids and I could feed the kids,” says Alvin. “As much as I tried to be really supportive, there were conflicts with schedule, with availability, with resource time. We would get home at 6:30 or seven, then we’d have to think about dinner. It’s a rush to get the kids to bed. The time either of us had with the kids was short, hectic, stressful. Day to day, managing our schedules—sometimes my meeting would last two hours instead of twenty minutes—it put a lot of strain on our relationship.” They got fat on takeout. At bedtime, they talked about “bills, plans, schedules, the next day, everything but spending time together,” says Alvin. They never had sex, remembers Kelly. They rarely had any fun at all.