What's missing from the Retro Wife debate

The cover of the New York Magazine.

The cover of the New York Magazine. Photo: NY Mag

You tell your story over and over. As much to yourself as to anyone else. It is the story of where you are going and why. This degree, this job, this city, this partner, this child - these decisions. And sometimes the decisions aren’t decisions, but pretty soon, inserted into the narrative you’re building, they resemble decisions all the same. You smooth the edges, fill in the blank spots, erase the false starts and pat it all into place. The story becomes something more substantial than the vague direction you’re moving in. It develops more certainty. In fact, rather than a complex series of compromises, what emerges is a reassuring sense that there is right and wrong and what you chose was right. The course you’re taking is now “the right thing for me”, “the best decision for the kids” and, “what’s needed for our family”. This is not necessarily about being dishonest with yourself or having doubts about your life; it’s simply the need to visualise the path you’re on. The fantasy version of your life, the one you tell in your story, is how you explore, connect to, and imagine the possibilities of where you are going and why.

So, I can see how when Lisa Miller interviewed stay-at-home mother, Kelly Makino for her much discussed article, “The Retro Wife” (New York Magazine), she gleaned anecdotes from Makino so romanticised that this mother appeared to be snorting stardust. There is Makino lovingly detailing how she tracked down her husband’s childhood Hawaiian recipes, because she just wants to spoil him. And then there is Makino ploughing herself into hours of repetitious nursery rhyme singing with the children because this input into their development is “priceless”. It’s easy to scoff at Makino. She’s bubbling with enthusiasm and ambition for her domestic role, and specialising in a kind of labour that we, as an economy, are both utterly reliant upon (the workplace grinds to a halt if there is no-one to tend to the sick, injured, aged, young, seriously disabled or the just plain ‘tired and hungry’), and terribly dismissive of at the same time. Raising children and running a house are obviously mindless occupations, otherwise more men would be doing them. So, what can you say about someone who deliberately chooses this path? Makino calls herself a feminist, but we won’t think she’s at all empowered by the time we finish the article. In fact, there is such signposting throughout that when Makino finally admits she feels bored sometimes at home and that she worries about picking her career back up, you want to yell, run Makino run, like you’re watching a horror film. You wonder how Makino can think straight through that deafening soundtrack playing over her life, the one forecasting her pending doom.

And yet if you really listen to Makino, and stay-at-home mothers like her, if you do so without trying to script these women and without the defensiveness which we usually bring to these conversations – because I note that both “The Retro Wife” article and this response to it are written by working-outside-the-home mothers, and we have our own baggage here - you will see plenty of grays in Makino’s black and white shapes. The story of being a stay-at-home mother is the tale of inflexibility in workplaces, the exhaustion of continually negotiating with partners, and entrenched sexism, but it more than that too – it is also the immediacy of the needs of small children and the genuine pleasure and fulfilment one can experience by being with them. If you really listen you will hear emotions ranging from deep satisfaction to deep regret from stay-at-home mothers. Much like any other path through life, the experience is varied.

I spent a year of maternity leave at home with each of my two babies. I have been back working for three years now, and I feel a little longing when I read Makino’s experiences. Say what you want but her house is obviously operating smoothly. More so than mine, anyway, which is currently littered with unfolded laundry, yesterday’s breakfast dishes and a bunch of unread school notices. I know when you combine paid work with mothering work that you pick your battles with the chaos; but the battling with and the acceptance of chaos gets exhausting and demoralising.  Of course, being at home with a baby and a preschooler was also exhausting. But I recall that, like the stay-at-home mothers in the “Retro Wife” article, I eventually reached a level of efficiency where I cleaned out cupboards and baked fresh bread. And it was quite satisfying. The house had a calm that is no longer there.


But I am the child of divorce and single parenthood and the quiet disillusionment that comes with that means the path of staying at home is not really for me. So here I am, also telling my story over and over to myself. I, too, have navigated my way through a complex series of compromises and have begun to use terms like right and wrong. Working outside the home has become “the right thing for me”, “the best decision for the kids”, and just “what’s needed for my family”. And I have to admit, my choices find a little more conviction when they bounce off another mother’s opposite choices.

But there’s something else here too. We seem to have a vested interest in the decisions of these women who choose to stay home, why is that? Plenty of mothers don’t have a choice about it - they are either sufficiently dependent on their income so as to be forced to work or they earn too little to cover childcare and are forced to stay home. And yet it is this relatively small cohort of educated, professional women with their wealthy husbands who we are preoccupied with - we have decided they can sink or save feminism. It suggests, about this debate, that we put a lot of stock in the notion of trickle-down feminism. That women with the most advantages, if they can climb to the top jobs, will have the power and use it accordingly to change things for women with the least advantages. While there must be some truth to this, it none the less seems indulgent to focus so much of our attention on the most successful women and how to further their paths to achievement.

I suspect there’s something less well-meaning going on here, too. The overlap between feminism and neoliberal economics is surprisingly broad. We have long been split on the issue of mothers - whether we should concentrate on freeing women from the home so they can enter the workplace where their time will be valued, or whether we should ensure the work performed by women at home is valued instead.  The answer is both, obviously. Few mothers stay at home their whole lives. Most dip in and out of paid work in various forms as their careers speed up and slow down for different life events, including the rearing of children. In fact, few of us committed to full-time careers will find ourselves working uninterrupted from graduation to retirement – there will be unexpected illnesses, career changes, retrenchments and retraining, moving countries, caring for elderly parents, and the sudden need to find ourselves. We would do well to be less divisive in this discussion and to be less extreme about it. The data suggests there isn’t really a flood of mothers shedding the gains of feminism and detouring back to tradition. The trajectories of our career paths need not be measured against the traditional path of men’s, and if there is any significant shift happening it is probably that young men’s career paths are starting to look more like women’s as more of them take an active role in parenting.

There have been several critical replies to the “Retro Wife” article, but they’ve either sought to make the argument that Makino is misrepresented or to make the argument that the trend is overblown, not that her sentiments about stay-at-home mothering, even the more gushing ones, could possibly be valid. There is a great tendency in us to see the desire to reach our potential as being in opposition to mothering. You can either be finding yourself and achieving your goals or you can be nurturing children. In this false binary either a woman’s energy is for herself or her baby, but in reality our lives and loves are more complicated than this. For me personally, many a time these drives have been in conflict, but in many more instances self-actualisation has included motherhood. When, in this world, we eventually come to value caring work more fully, we will understand that caring for others is also a form of caring for ourselves.  Men and women, both, will find that it is one of our more profound drives as human beings, to have love and meaning in caring relationships.