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The Retro Wife

This veneration of motherhood is fed by popular culture. On critically praised TV shows, ambitious women are nutty and single (Claire Danes in Homeland, Tina Fey on 30 Rock), while good mothers are chopping veggies with a big glass of Chardonnay at their elbow. Beyoncé and Marissa Mayer never explain how they do it all, I suspect, because they have teams of nannies and housekeepers on the payroll—and realize that outing themselves as women who rely on servants will taint them, somehow, as bad parents. (Sandberg places this feeling within “the holy trinity of fear: the fear of being a bad mother/wife/daughter.”) In my Facebook feed, Michelle Obama is an object of obsession not for the causes she’s pursued as First Lady but for her child-rearing tactics: two mandatory sports (one chosen by them and one chosen by her) and no screen time on weeknights. When her husband first ran for president, he delivered speeches proclaiming the heroism of the working mother: “I don’t accept an America that makes women choose between their kids and their careers.” Four years later, against an opponent whose home life looked like a Disney production, Obama took a sanctity-of-motherhood tack: There is “no tougher job than being a mom.”

Even Anne-Marie Slaughter would say that her maternal drive ultimately superseded her professional one, which is why she was unable to achieve more in her huge State Department job. She had a troubled kid at home. Thus the policy solutions she proposes do not dispel the mind-sets that continue to haunt American couples: In a world where men still run things and women still feel drawn to the kitchen and the nursery, an army of flextime females might lock in a second-class tier of workers who will never be able to compete with men for the top jobs. “That’s the criticism of my piece that I worry most about,” Slaughter says. “If that turns out to be true, I’ll have to live with it forever.”

Even as she enjoys her new life, Kelly Makino misses certain things about her old one. She misses getting dressed for work in clothes that have buttons and hems and sexy shoes to match. She misses “eating lunch with chopsticks,” a euphemism for a universe of cuisine beyond chopped fruit and yogurt cups. She acknowledges the little luxuries of an office: a desk, a quiet cup of coffee, sick days. She misses her work friends—it is vexing trying to find the same hours free—and the validation that bosses and colleagues offer for a job well done. “There is no way my wonderful, loving family can fill that need,” she says. In February, a few months after I met the Makinos at their home in New Jersey, they moved to the suburbs of Washington, D.C., for Alvin’s job. Out of her element and detached from her old network, she is, for the first time since quitting work, bored.

Kelly loved her old profession and does not want to be painted as betraying the goals of feminism. She prefers to see herself as reaching beyond conventional ideas about what women should do. “I feel like we are evolving into something that is not defined by those who came before us,” she says. By making domesticity her career, she and the other stay-at-home mothers she knows are standing up for values, such as patience, and kindness, and respectful attention to the needs of others, that have little currency in the world of work. Professional status is not the only sign of importance, she says, and financial independence is not the only measure of success.

I press her on this point. What if Alvin dies or leaves her? What if, as her children grow up, she finds herself resenting the fact that all the public accolades accrue to her husband? Kelly wrestles with these questions all the time, but for now she’s convinced she’s chosen the right path. “I know this investment in my family will be paid back when the time is right.” When her kids don’t need her anymore, she’ll figure out what she wants to pursue next. Someday, she’s sure, she’ll have the chance to “play leapfrog” with Alvin; she’ll wind up with a brilliant career, or be a writer, or go back to school. “You have to live in the now. I will deal with later when later comes. I’ll find a way,” she says. “Who knows? Maybe I will be home for ever and ever. Maybe I will have the best-kept lawn on the block for the rest of my life.”