Skip to content, or skip to search.

Skip to content, or skip to search.

The Retro Wife

In 2006, British researchers studied work-life conflict in five European countries. They found a lot of strife in France, despite a high percentage of women in the workforce and widespread government policies aimed at helping women remain employed when their children are young: subsidized nursery schools, day-care collectives, and the like. What’s more, the French expressed progressive, optimistic ideals about gender roles. Seventy-four percent of full-time employees in France disagreed with the following statement: “A man’s job is to earn money, a woman’s job is to look after the home and family.”

The explanation for the disconnect, the researchers surmised, was that French people, like Americans, lie to themselves about what they want. French women (like their American counterparts) do the bulk of the domestic work, and the majority also work full time. Quoting from colleagues’ earlier work, the sociologists showed that sexism in France is as much a part of the culture as great bread, wine, and a long lunch hour. In France, “there were numerous men who were available to look after children during the week when their partner was employed … but nevertheless did not take responsibility for child care even when they were free.” They were saying one thing and doing another, which in marriage, says the historian Stephanie Coontz, is “a recipe for instability and unhappiness.”

That same year, an American sociologist published a paper describing similar results. Predictors of marital unhappiness, found Bradford Wilcox at the University of Virginia, included wives who earned a large share of household income and wives who perceived the division of labor at home as unfair. Predictors of marital happiness were couples who shared a commitment to the institutional idea of marriage and couples who went to religious services together. “Our findings suggest,” he wrote, “that increased departures from a male-breadwinning-female-homemaking model may also account for declines in marital quality, insofar as men and women continue to tacitly value gendered patterns of behavior in marriage.” It’s an idea that thrives especially in conservative religious circles: The things that specific men and women may selfishly want for themselves (sex, money, status, notoriety) must for the good of the family be put aside. Feminists widely critiqued Wilcox’s findings, saying it puts the onus on women to suck it up in marriage, when men should be under more pressure to change. But these days you’ll find echoes of Wilcox’s thesis in unlikely places. “We look at straight people,” a gay friend said to me recently as we were comparing anecdotes about husbands, “and we think marriage must be so much easier for them.”

When I look at Kelly and Alvin Makino, I feel the same way. I have worked full time for almost all my daughter’s nine years, and only very rarely have I ever felt that nature required anything else of me. I love my job and have found work to be gratifying and even calming during periods when other parts of my life are far less so. Like 65 percent of American couples, my husband and I both work to pay our bills, but my commitment to my career extends way beyond financial necessity. My self-sufficiency sets a good example for my daughter (or so we tell ourselves), which is one reason why even if we were to win the lotto, staying at home would not likely be a course I’d choose.

And yet. I am not immune to the notion that I have powers and responsibilities as a mother that my husband does not have. I prepare our daughter’s lunch box every morning with ritualistic care, as if sending her off to school with a bologna sandwich made by me can work as an amulet against all the pain of my irregular, inevitable absences. I believe that I have a special gift for arranging playdates, pediatrician appointments, and piano lessons, and I yearn sometimes for the vast swaths of time Kelly Makino has given herself to keep her family’s affairs in order. In an egalitarian marriage, every aspect of home life is open to renegotiation. When two people need to leave the house at 6 a.m., who gets the children ready for school? When two people have to work late, who will meet that inflexible day-care pickup time? And who, finally, has the energy for those constant transactions?

Two of the fastest-growing religious movements in America are Mormonism and Orthodox Judaism, which clearly define gender roles along traditional lines. It’s difficult not to see the appeal—if only as a fleeting fantasy. How delicious might our weeknight dinners be, how straight the part in our daughter’s hair, how much more carefree my marriage, if only I spent a fraction of the time cultivating our domestic landscape that I do at work.