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Housewives Are Now Neo-Feminists?

Vivia Chen

March 27, 2013

Feminist Housewife courtesy of NYMagazineIs the economy humming along so terrifically that women are once again fantasizing about dropping out of the workforce? It seems so, judging by the rise of female voices nostalgic for traditional womanhood. The latest in this chorus is the cover story in New York magazine, "The Feminist Housewife: Can Women Have It All by Choosing to Stay at Home?"

The article by Lisa Miller starts with a profile of Kelly Makino, 33, who gave up her job with a nonprofit organization to mind the homefront. Makino, writes Miller, "believes that every household needs one primary caretaker," and that women are generally "better at that job than men." It goes on:

The maternal instinct is a real thing, Kelly argues: Girls play with dolls from childhood, so “women are raised from the get-go to raise children successfully. When we are moms, we have a better toolbox.” Women, she believes, are conditioned to be more patient with children, to be better multitaskers, to be more tolerant of the quotidian grind of playdates and temper tantrums. . . .

As a parent who's experienced the existential emptiness of countless playdates, I can assure you that not all women share those sentiments.

Interestingly, Makino calls herself a "feminist" who wants her daughter "to be able to do anything she wants." She adds: "But I also want to say, 'Have a career that you can walk away from at the drop of a hat.'"

To that, I can only respond: Seriously? Do you want to tell your daughter that she can just trash her career" at the drop of a hat"? That's empowering.

But what I find troubling isn't so much Makino's individual choice, but the suggestion that a return to traditional gender roles is somehow the right thing to do:

What was once feminist blasphemy is now conventional wisdom: Generally speaking, mothers instinctively want to devote themselves to home more than fathers do. . . . For some women, the solution to resolving the long-running tensions between work and life is not more parent-friendly offices or savvier career moves but the full embrace of domesticity.

The article says there are statistics to back this trend: "The number of stay-at-home mothers rose incrementally between 2010 and 2011, for the first time since the downturn of 2008." Moreover, it states that Mormonism and Orthodox Judaism, which both "clearly define gender roles along traditional lines, represent "two of the fastest-growing religious movements in America."

Of course, New York isn't shining a light on Mormon and Orthodox Jewish women. As always, its focus is on hip urbanites, who have their own version of traditional motherhood. They don't want to be the type of stay-at-home-mom who takes shortcuts, like whipping up casseroles with Campbell's cream of chicken soup. No, they aim for something much more demanding:

These women . . . are elevating homemaking to an art, crocheting baby hats, slow-roasting strawberries for after-school snacks (“tastes like Twizzlers!”), and making their own laundry soap from scratch.

Is that where we are now? Recreating the rigors of life on Little House on the Prairie in some gut-renovated brownstone in Brooklyn?

So that's the new phase of feminism! How wonderful.

Do you have topics you'd like to discuss or tips to share? Email chief blogger Vivia Chen at vchen@alm.com. 

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I never "stayed at home" with my kids. I taught them to read, raised them to be strong and intellectual, I took them everywhere. Now they are entering high school and college with high marks. My husband did the dishes and the laundry, he changed diapers and handled bathtime, we both love to cook. I never saw this model as sexist, we are a team and we complement eachother well. My girls are independent and extremely capable. They know Mom is a hardcore mofo and they also know that it is women who put me down, not men. But never to my face, I'm pretty tall and confrontational.

This topic is much more complex than a blog post comment can address, but I thought I'd share a passage I just read that seems relevant and thought provoking.

It's from a woman who lost her savings due investing with Bernie Madoff- "When I think about the nights -year after year- that I worked late and didn't get to read my daughter a story, when I think about everything that I put off until I could save enough to start my own business, I feel like I am going to break apart with grief. All that money is gone. But so are the nights I spent making it. So is my daughter's childhood. It was like I was starving myself daily for the feast that was going to come, except it never did.'
(from Geneen Roth's 'Lost and Found')

This article presents a fantasy. When you are in the throes of baby love, the thought of being home all the time is very appealing, especially when your work life is often full of long days, sometimes boring and meaningless work, hostility, and a lack of recognition. But are you going to be happy staying at home, alone, with just your baby? There is little of the support that housewives in the 50s had –namely lots of other mothers on the block to socialize and commiserate with. How are you going to feel in 5 years when your baby is in school and you have the whole day at home by yourself? Challenged? Inspired? Or reduced to making your own laundry soap so you feel useful? Oh, and let me just mention that despite your happy marriage, having children puts a huge strain on a marriage and so does burdening your spouse with the sole responsibility for earning all the money. Divorce rates are still over 50%. How do think you will feel when you have to try and reenter the job market as a single mom after 5 years out of practice? I am totally in favor of women having choices. But use the formidable intellectual that propelled you into the law to begin with before you make an irrevocable choice like dropping out altogether, instead of fantasizing about the 50s lifestyle. I wish more professional women (and men) would consider and adopt the choice of limited hours/part time work which is the one way you can have it all.

For more than a quarter-century, feminism has stood for nothing more than making the every whim of women paramount. What better way to do this than by galavanting around town while someone else goes out and work? Why should this new breed of "feminist" come as a surprise?

As far as Eve's assertion that childcare expenses are the responsibility of both parents, I'm sorry but I disagree. If a man agrees to assume childcare expenses, including a married man who implied does so, fine. However, woman have the right whether or not to bring the child into the world and no man should have to pay for a child that he does not agree to pay for - paternity should be abolished.

It is also not politically correct to say that the more women who opt out of the workforce once they marry and have children, particularly the professional workforce, the more likely a return to the 50s for those of us who are left. There I said it. I really do NOT like this (affluent, largely white) "trend" of elevating motherhood to an art form, and wish that as a society we could focus our efforts on getting more support for parenthood, period. Like paid maternity leave, subsidized day care, universal pre-K, etc. Rather than our ridiculous "every (wo)man for him or her self model" we romanticize in the U.S.

I think that too many women leave the workplace because it's not very welcoming for working mothers. Being a mom is incredibly rewarding and the call to mother is real. However, many of us who are fortunate enough to have interesting fulfilling jobs and small children would like to do both well. If the workplace fixed its policy problem more of us would choose to work. Also, the dirty little secret is that some of us hate our jobs and welcome an excuse to leave.

I appreciate that the New York Magazine article was meant to provoke. Ms. Makino appears to have many options available to her, and I’m sincerely happy about her good fortune. Any woman who has more options available to her has more freedoms.

However, I wish our public conversations about work / life balance issues reflected better the global realities of most women’s options. I never, ever fail to remember how fortunate I am as a woman to have been born at this time into this society, and not at a time or place where my options would have been much more severely regulated by social mores and laws. I am luckier than most of the world’s women, and I am far luckier than the majority of women who have ever lived.

It seems to me that what is valuable is that which is rarest. And what is rare in our world right now is the variety of choices some women can make about how—away from the kitchen and hearth—they will fulfill themselves, care for their families, and contribute to society.

In my humble opinion, what does not elevate our public debate about women’s roles, options and choices are more “No, U!” slurs about the choices different than ours that other women prefer. Nor does it honor any of us to over-simplify the conversation and pretend that all women have the same wide range of options.

K.C. - Although it's not your main point, you ask the wrong question, and give the wrong answers. Childcare expenses should be considered the shared expense of both parents. So the question is not whether the mother will "make more money than hiring help" -- not only should the expense be shared, but that question does not take into account that a mother, as much as a father, should be able to use her brain, realize her potential and have a satisfying career.

Lawyers returning to work after years of mothering are always offered jobs at lower salaries than their skills are worth. When a mother who wants to leave work for full-time homemaking consults me, my question is about the intensity of their desire. Are you running away or running towards? This is a career threatening choice.
I ask mother-lawyers who want to work again two questions: Will you make more money than it takes to hire excellent child-care? Do you like lawyering? Returning junior lawyers say their net income feels paltry after paying good help. My response is that if your net income is above zero, release the financial guilt, do what is best for you.
Sad, bored parenting/housekeeping is exactly what Betty Friedan wrote about. Ask yourself what you really want, no romanticizing on either front. Long-haul choices between real needs are always on-balance.

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The Careerist takes an inside look at how lawyers shape their careers and manage their lives. The blog aims to dissect developments in the profession, provide useful information and advice, and give lawyers a platform to voice their views. The goal is to provide a fresh, provocative take on the state of lawyering.

About Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen, The Careerist's chief blogger, has been covering the business and culture of law firms for a decade. A former corporate lawyer, Chen is fascinated by those who thrive (as well as those who don't) in the legal profession. Her take: Success in the law (and life) doesn't always travel a linear path. If you have topics you'd like to discuss or information to share, contact her: VChen@alm.com

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