The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

My fiancé wanted a housewife. But did I want to be one?

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The first thing my best friend from college ever gave me was a card with a glittery ring on the cover. “Can’t wait until we marry the loves of our lives!” she’d said to me. We were 18.

That year, she also told me she was at MIT to find her “person” — romantically speaking — and that her goal was to be a housewife. A decade and a law degree later, she married someone she’d met during her junior year of college. She now spends her days taking care of their two adorable children in a Manhattan apartment.

At her wedding, standing next to her, I also had a glittery engagement ring on my left hand.

I’d met Craig by chance at a sushi restaurant in Boston. Two days later, we had dinner. Two months later, we moved in together. I fell for him because he was the first person who didn’t seem threatened by my personality or my career (and its earnings). “I love that you’re this Type A, ambitious woman,” he’d said early on. Craig was accomplished himself: He had an undergrad degree from Harvard, worked at a hedge fund and was about to go to Harvard Business School. To borrow a line from Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, he was the first boy I knew who cared that I had a brain — not only that, the first boy I knew who wanted me to use it.

Or so I’d thought.

I was in the throes of a quarter-life crisis, dropping out of a Wharton MBA because I didn’t want to stay in finance. Craig had told me he’d support me in whatever I wanted to be — author, cheese monger, stationery shop owner, portfolio manager. So when I told him I was thinking of graduate school, perhaps doing an MFA in creative writing, the last thing I expected him to say was: “But who’s going to cook dinner?”

Soon it became clear he did not want me to work or go to school. He wanted me to stay at home, cook, clean, curate our overprivileged lives and support his thriving business. If we had kids, they would have been mostly my responsibility as well.

“There is a big difference between believing in equality and being willing to live it — especially for men,” says feminist writer Jessica Valenti. Despite the progress of feminism and beliefs in gender equality, the percentage of American mothers who stay at home has remained fairly stable over the past 30 years. What’s more, the 2018 General Social Survey found that a quarter of Americans agreed with the statement “it is much better for everyone involved if the man is the achiever outside the home and the woman takes care of the home and family.” There is a progress gap facing women in their private lives: Some of these supposedly progressive men, like Craig, still seem to want housewives.

I worked in finance for the majority of the past decade and had three bosses, all men. All of them respected and believed in me at work — and all of them had brilliant wives who stayed at home. One of the wives went to Harvard; another, Wellesley; yet another, Brown. Other women around me — friends, co-workers, wives of friends and co-workers — were also dropping out of the workforce, for anywhere from months to years, to take care of their kids and family. The reasons for women making these decisions are varied. But what might be some reasons for men wanting their partners to quit work, beyond the obvious one of benefiting from unpaid domestic labor?

When I spoke to Dan Cassino, a professor of government and politics at Fairleigh Dickinson University, he noted that “men are constantly trying to prove their masculinity to themselves and to other men. When that’s threatened, men often try to take down women: degrade their spouse, do less housework, or assert themselves as the decision-maker.” As women have made serious educational and professional gains, some men, Cassino said, have sought to maintain the power they’ve always had by belittling their partners’ careers or persuading them to stay home. It’s a way of signaling their own manliness and success. Because equality, to these men, Cassino said, can feel like discrimination.

Craig tried hard to convince me that I could be happy at home. Although circumstances are different for every couple — and he and I were both blessed with a bucket of privileges — the logic of some of his arguments was interesting. First, an appeal to comparative advantage: Because I make more money than you, I will work and make our living; all you have to do is take care of our lives and make our home.

Second, an appeal to home production: We need a cozy home more than we need your pay. You’re so much better at taking care of the house.

Craig was using economics as a cover for sexism. I was thinking more about the long term. As women take themselves out of the workforce, economist Marina Adshade told me in a phone interview, “they forgo not only income from the years out of work, but they also forgo accumulated-on-the-job training, skills and years of work experience, which is a big determinant of future wages,” Moreover, the skills they have accrued will depreciate — and because money is power, Adshade said, their bargaining power within their relationship will erode. It’s not a one-time decision; it’s a lifetime decision.

I entertained Craig’s proposal because I loved him. At my best friend’s wedding, standing next to her, it was suddenly obvious I couldn’t give up my career for love. Some people do, like my friend floating down the aisle in her traditional white gown — and that’s great, if that’s what a woman truly wants.

But it wasn’t what I wanted. I spent the next few months interviewing and found a dream job in New York that I could not imagine turning down. When I told Craig, excitedly, that I’d gotten the offer, he gave me an ultimatum: “It’s the job, or me.”

By then, it was an easy decision. I packed my bags, left the ring, and moved out of our shared townhouse and into a cozy studio — making a home all my own.


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