We need a wife

A few years ago, when we were both working full time, and we had three pre-schoolers, I collapsed exhausted one evening when the children were finally in bed, turned to my husband and said, “We need a wife.”

We desperately needed someone to cook, clean, mend, garden, shop for food and clothes, and care for the children.

My husband thought about this for a while, and then said, “But who would sleep with her?”

End of that conversation.

But the point remains – the sheer volume of work involved in caring for a family makes it very difficult to combine work and family. There’s no work-life balance about it; it’s all work. The nature of the work changes a little as the children get older, but all that happens is that looking after tiny bodies, and doing absolutely everything for them, is replaced by taking children to and from school, and organising their activities, which takes time, even if the activities are limited (my girls have one formal lesson each, either ballet or piano), and one informal group lesson (art or chess, both run down at the local recreation centre).

Tracey Barnett has a column about this whole issue in the NZ Herald today. She is concerned about the sheer volume that both men and women do in addition to paid work, ‘though she is also concerned about the distribution of unpaid household work between men and women. Guess who does more.

The distribution of unpaid labour in our house tends to be fairly even; one of us does more cooking and the other more cleaning, both of us do the washing, both of us care for the children. One of us spends more time organising the children, and keeping their clothes mended and replaced as needed, and doing the gardening, and the other does more maintenance work. From time to time, one of us will do more than the other, when the other has a paid work load peak.

Nevertheless, we need a wife. Barnett makes an interesting point about this, that in countries where there is wide economic disparity, businesses are far more likely to have women involved in senior management, because they can pay other women very low wages to do all the wife work. That doesn’t seem to be a suitable solution for NZ; we don’t really want a low wage economy where some people can pay other people sh*t wages.

The solution she canvasses is that women just get bloody minded about leaving the dirty oven dirty, and spending the time advancing their careers instead. Yes. Good point. But you can’t just leave children to fend for themselves while you have a drink with the boss. Dirty ovens wait; children do not.

This is the real issue. It’s not housework that’s the problem; it’s finding good quality care for children. And even then, I don’t want to contract out my child rearing. After-school care maybe, but not the weft and warp of our children’s lives. I want them to be our children, not merely people we happen to share a house with. But that may well entail making a choice between having a career and having a family.

If you look at profiles of successful women, you will find that either they have a partner who has taken on child rearing, or they have had full-time nannies who have been virtual mothers, or they have not had children at all. The recent Listener article on successful women was a case in point; not only are they all blonde, but for the most part, they don’t have children. And for me, this was the most significant point made in the article:

It’s also possible, say researchers, that a lot of women don’t want to be bosses. Why? The hours, the stress, the complexity of modern corporate life, the sacrifices typically made by top executives and community leaders. Significantly, while 76% of male CEOs have a non-working spouse, only 27% of female CEOs do.

And that may well be the critical difference. To be successful, you need a wife.

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2 responses to “We need a wife

  1. It’s a good point to make, Deborah and adds to the idea that we as a society have lost the balance and the balancing bar comes down hardest on women. Especially that homemaker and CEO path.
    I think that the increasing levels of consumerism would be a contributing factor as evidenced by the emergence of “Easy Credit” finance shops all over the place. We “have” to have stuff and to get it we have to work harder and longer.

  2. One thing I have noticed about some of the teachers I interact with is that the women who have had long careers as principals or senior management often don’t have children. It’s just anecdotal, I haven’t got any figures, but my feeling is that they are in a similar place to the more corporate types usually discussed when people talk about “success”. It’s not clear to me (and I will never ask) which came first – the decision to have a career that required sacrificing child-rearing or the decision/reality that they wouldn’t have kids.

    A woman of my acquaintance who is in her early 40s and has two primary age children recently shared that she wanted a $80,000 a year job. I was suprised. I could not understand why she would want the stress and workload of such a job when she had a family – not because I thought she should want to put her family first, but because if I had two primary age kids I don’t think I would personally want a job where I would have to spend so much time and energy on work. But we are at different stages of our lives, and maybe when I get to where she is I’ll feel the same. There’s only one way to find out!