So it’s about 6:00 p.m. on Sunday. I just stuffed some lemon, garlic, and fresh rosemary and thyme up into the nether regions of Rocky, a free range chicken, who is now doing serious time in a very hot oven.
My husband, casting about for something to do during halftime of the second NFL playoff, just cut a bunch of peppers, zucchini, onions and tomatoes into perfectly uniform chunks (he was, after all, a math major) for a killer oven-ratatouille. He did the labor intensive part. I added some olive oil, fresh herbs, balsamic vinegar, and etc. (Ask me for my recipe: it’s infriggencredible, and low-fat, too.) He will also do the dishes. Or so I assume.
Ahh, the division of labor. But we’ll get back to that.
Surely by now you have heard of the recent Pew study that found that women make more money than their spouses in 22 percent of American marriages, up from a mere 4 percent in 1970. And unless you’ve been living under a rock, you know that thanks to the recession, women now outnumber men in the workplace. All of which makes Sandra Tsing Loh, writing a very funny piece in Sunday’s NYT magazine, long to return to the days of the housewife. (For the record, she makes more money than either her ex-husband or the man she is now living with.) What she wants is one of her own. But first, this:
I don’t know how it’s going for my sisters, but as my 40s and Verizon bills and mortgage payments roll on, I seem to have an ever more recurring 1950s housewife fantasy. In this magical Technicolor world, the breadwinner husband, Brad, leaves home (where his duties are limited to mowing the lawn and various minor home repairs) at 7 a.m. When he returns from work at 6 p.m., aside from a savory roast with mashed potatoes, his homemaker wife, Nancy, has pipe, slippers and a tray of Manhattans ready.
The couple sink into easy chairs and get pleasantly soused while Brad recounts his workday battles. Through a dreamy mixed-bourbon haze, Nancy makes gentle cooing sounds like “Ah!” and “Oh!” and “Did the central manager really say that in the meeting? They don’t appreciate all the hard work you do! Oh, Brad!”
Nancy has her active-listener face on for several reasons. One is that her 1950s housewife day (stay with me, I admitted this was a fantasy) was an agreeable roundelay of kitchen puttering and grocery shopping and, once home, the placing of those comestibles in the icebox via the precise — or charmingly imprecise — geometry Nancy favors. She jokes that Brad, poor dear, couldn’t find the icebox if you asked him.
Makes you just drool for a Manhattan, doesn’t it? But Loh’s point — and a good one — is that for all our talk about “work-life balance” and fifty-fifty splits on housework and whathaveyou, what we’ve lost is a clear delineation of job descriptions. Not gender-specific, mind you. (As Loh points out, she is much better suited to be married to a housewife than to be one.) But more along the lines of we all do what we do best. And maybe, given this new worklife landscape, we all come out even? Which eliminates, among other things, the need to judge each other’s performance on, say, loading the dishwasher or cleaning the fridge. But instead, says Loh, absent the clear roles in our postmodern lives, we have rules, resentment and endless negotiation:
Fast forward to 2010. When husbands and wives not only co-work but try to co-homemake, as post-feminist and well-intentioned as it is, out goes the clear delineation of spheres, out goes the calm of unquestioned authority, and of course out goes the gratitude.
Aside from the irritation of never being able to reach the spatula (men tend to place items on shelves that are a foot higher than women can manage), I have found co-homemaking inefficient. With 21st-century technology, it’s a straightforward matter to run a modern home. Sheep don’t need to be sheared; the wash is not done on a board by the creek; nothing needs canning, because we have Costco. Even someone who works 40 hours a week can keep a home standing, and food in the fridge, by himself.
What can turn into a second shift is not just negotiating the splitting of this labor with another person, but the splitting of decision-making authority. Two co-workers in the home also have the opportunity to regularly evaluate each other’s handiwork, not always to a positive effect. (Suffice it to say, stacking food in the fridge with precise geometric elegance is apparently not among my talents.)
In the end, we all want a wife. And here’s the thing. We all can have one and be one, regardless of gender. I for one have no feminist angst about leaving it to my husband to take out the trash or, for that matter, making sure the bills are paid on time. On the other hand, I may hate putting dinner on the table, but I am one hell of a chef. And I can take apart and fix a vacuum cleaner, though I am loathe to use it. All of which shouts laissez-faire — You’ve got the time, I’ve got the inclination — rather than negotiation. That last, in our postmodern lives, Loh points out, is what tends to muck everything up:
But the home has become increasingly invaded by the ethos of work, work, work, with twin sets of external clocks imposed on a household’s natural rhythms. And in the transformation of men and women into domestic co-laborers, the Art of the Wife is fast disappearing.
So in the meantime, I may need to settle for a man who can simply make a decent tray of Manhattans and, while you’re at it, pussycat, make mine a double.
Mine, too. Oh, and thanks in advance for doing the dishes.