The Secret Message of the Feminist Housewife

“If feminism is not only about creating an equitable society but also a means to fulfillment for individual women, and if the rewards of working are insufficient and uncertain, while the tug of motherhood is inexorable, then a new calculus can take hold: 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.”

– Lisa Miller in her article “The Retro Wife” in the the latest issue of New York Magazine

With a picture of a hipster in an apron with a kid peering out from behind her back, the latest cover of New York Magazine declares the latest archetype in the media dialogue about having it all: The Feminist Housewife (the actual article is called “The Retro Wife”). “Lost in the argument about ‘leaning in,'” the cover tells us, “is the new breed of modern women who are purposefully leaning out.'”

But what if they’re leaning out not because of the pull of motherhood (or not only because of this), but because, to put a fine point on it, work sucks?

What if the so-called “feminist housewife” trend is really a signifier of a larger, broader reality, which is that people generally don’t like their jobs?

Think about it: How many people do you know who like their work, let alone love it it? How many of your friends would say their work is aligned with their values, allows them to fulfill their unique purpose in the world, and also compensates them fairly?  

If you love your work — if your work is your calling — then balancing it with the rest of your life isn’t such a chore. In fact, the very phrase, “work/life balance,” is so telling, in that it defines work as a category separate from life.

Of course the pull of motherhood is strong — that’s obviously been a theme in my life lately. But so is the pull of meaningful work — another theme in my life, going on about 15 years, now.

Our education system fails to teach us how to to find meaningful work. Generally speaking, our schools teach us how to memorize and regurgitate facts in order to receive external validation in the form of grades. Where are the lessons in mindfulness and resourcefulness, two skills I consider essential to living a fulfilling adult life? How will my daughter learn to tune into her passions and pursue them, if Jordan and I don’t teach her? And how will she learn that she can design her own career, one that speaks to her deepest values and leverages her innate talents, if not from us? 

Where will she learn how to carve her own path in life? To manifest things for herself? 

I didn’t learn any of this in school growing up, and I had a bit of an existential crisis in college when I realized I was like a hamster — take me off the treadmill of earning good grades, and I didn’t know what to do with myself. What was the point of my expensive Ivy League education? Was it really about learning, for learning’s sake? Certainly not. It was about getting a degree that opened doors to high-paying jobs — but no one gave me the tools to choose between doors number one, two or three (or to design my own door number four).

For one thing, we need to encourage students to design their own majors. This teaches self-knowledge and resourcefulness in pursuit of a personal goal — skills that map directly to carving a meaningful career path.

Until we do, we’ll have people like all the people you and I both know who clock in and out at work every day, feeling their deepest selves suppressed. No wonder a person in such a situation would choose to “lean out.” Wouldn’t you?

And too often, those who “lean in” do it not because their work means something to them in any kind of deep way, but because they are addicted to the rush, to feeling important, or to the money. Not everyone, of course — some people, many people, do in fact like their work, and do in fact thrive professionally. But not enough of us. That’s why movies like “Office Space” resonate so deeply. That’s why we’re still talking about “work/life balance” in this culture instead of just “living a balanced life.”

And that’s why many women who have so much to offer the world beyond their households are apparently convincing themselves that being a domestic goddess is enough reward. I’m sure for some people — women and men — focusing on raising a child and running a household is a good match for their temperaments and ambitions. But I get the sense, from this article and from my own observations, that many stay-at-home moms would choose work outside the home if they could see a path to work about which they gave a shit.

Note the rise of the so-called mommy blogger — these women aren’t content to raise their children, they’re content to blog about it, document it, promote it… and think of how many stay at home moms don’t go as far as blogging, but post constant updates about their life with the little one on Facebook. Some of this content is cheerful (radiating the joys of motherhood), other times it’s lonely (revealing a clear craving for adult connection) — but no matter what the tone, collectively, this posting represents creative energy. And I bet there’s more we could be doing with that energy as a culture if we better equipped women AND men to find work that means more than a paycheck, while also of course putting policies in place that help you be a parent and a whatever-else-you-want-to-be.

I don’t think we need more retro wives. I think we need less retro education.

Image by Flickr user James Vaughan, made available under a Creative Commons license

5 thoughts on “The Secret Message of the Feminist Housewife

  1. AMEN!! One of the first pieces I've seen on this topic that raises this extremely critical–and often overlooked–issue. Even more relevant in this economic recession.


  2. "…work about which they give a shit" made me laugh out loud. I'm in the process of doing the sort of vocational discernment that you're referring to now, after almost 23 years of education. I wish that the default for the system was not "if you can go to college, go to grad school, get a high paying job, you should," but something more like "you can find work that fills you up, here are the tools to help you." Thanks for this.


  3. There's also something I've noticed where 'work/life' balance means different things for men and women. For men, writers using that phrase tend to go on to explain that men get less time to party, to see their friends. and to socialise in general. But for women, the 'life' of 'work/life balance' means childcare – and childcare alone!


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