Motherhood vs. wifehood

But recent figures show that significant numbers of highly educated women are leaving paid employment. In this respect, they are not very different from the film’s protagonist. However, the common explanation as to why these women leave their careers is that they underestimate the difficulties of combining employment and parenting. Lack of affordable childcare is another important factor that pushes mothers out of the workforce, although it affects poorer and less educated mothers far more than highly educated ones.

Yet the picture is more complex than this. In my new book, for which I interviewed a range of professional women who quit their jobs after having children, I found that the decision to leave the workforce and become stay-at-home mothers was a decision they made as much as wives as mothers.

The decision was as much about facilitating their husbands’ continued career advancement as it was about their desire to spend more time with their children. To be sure, the demands and expectations of motherhood had a significant impact on these women’s decision to step off the treadmill, as did the toxic working hours and conditions of both their and their husbands’ workplaces, which were utterly incompatible with family life.

But behind the women’s complex stories of motherhood and work, there lies another story. These former lawyers, accountants, teachers, artists, designers, academics, social workers, and managers rarely spoke directly about it, but their stories revealed how the choices they have made and their everyday lives have been profoundly influenced by their roles as wives.

Tess, formerly a senior news producer, quit her successful career when her children were young. She felt needed at home, she told me, and her workplace gave her a generous redundancy package. “But there was another factor,” she admitted more than half way through our interview. Her husband’s career as a lawyer was about to take off and although at the time she earned substantially more than he did, she decided to leave her job.

This story is far from anomalous. Tanya, a former senior partner in a law firm, quit her career to enable the smooth running of her family, and crucially, she admits, of her husband’s career. Rachel, a mother of three and a former senior accountant, whose husband is a partner in an accountancy firm, confided that her husband strongly encouraged her to leave her job to look after the children full-time so “he doesn’t have to worry about it.” And when I asked former HR Manager Anne what she found most satisfying in her life, the first thing she said was cooking her husband the food he loves.

Retro housewives?

These women may sound like the reincarnation of the “captive wife” Hannah Gavron described in her book about homebound mothers in 1960s Britain. They may appear to be “retro housewives” or the “new traditionalist”—the professional woman who unambivalently throws over her career for family and homemaking. Yet they adamantly reject the label of “old-fashioned” or “traditional” wives, which they see as belonging in their mothers’ generation (and Joan Castleman’s), not theirs. They detest domesticity, keep their performance of household chores to the bare minimum, and see themselves as independent.

However, often indirectly, with pain and pause, many of them admitted that they have unwittingly deferred their identities to their husbands’. When the two-earner household could not cope with the pressures of both partners combining paid work and parenting, it was the woman who gave up her job.

Although these women are a minority, both socio-economically and in terms of their employment path, their stories about the central role of wifehood are crucial for understanding how gender inequality, both in relation to work and to family life, endures. Today’s wife may no longer be reliant on her husband’s status or money, nor does she labor in the kitchen. And, yet, the role of wife continues to shape, if subtly, the pursuit of her desires. The popularity of the acronym DH (for Dear Husband) in numerous threads on the popular parenting website Mumsnet teaches us that so many of the dilemmas, tensions, disappointments, as well as pleasures of motherhood, are inseparable from women’s identities as wives.

Interestingly, a YouGov survey of people in 24 countries found that Britain was the only country where more women than men agreed with the statement that “a wife’s first role is to look after her husband.” While the percentage of both female and male respondents agreeing with this statement was relatively low, mine and other studies, as well as anecdotal evidence, suggest that wifehood is far from passé.

In the wake of renewed discussions about women’s inequality in the workplace, it seems ever more crucial to understand how our desires continue to be shaped by the imperatives of male dominance, as women, mothers and as wives.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

📬 Sign up for the Daily Brief

Our free, fast, and fun briefing on the global economy, delivered every weekday morning.