“A wife bonus, I was told, might be hammered out in a pre-nup or post-nup, and distributed on the basis of not only how well her husband’s fund had done but her own performance — how well she managed the home budget, whether the kids got into a ‘good’ school — the same way their husbands were rewarded at investment banks,” author Wednesday Martin explained.
It’s easy to get distracted by the amounts of money Martin is talking about and what the women who receive these bonuses do with them. “Their self-care was no less zealous or competitive. No ponytails or mom jeans here: they exercised themselves to a razor’s edge, wore expensive and exquisite outfits to school drop-off and looked a decade younger than they were. Many ran their homes (plural) like C.E.O.s,” Martin noted. “Oil prices aside, I can’t help dreaming about what I might be able to afford with my 2016 bonus,” mused Polly Phillips in a New York Post piece designed to court this specific ire. (“I get a wife bonus and I deserve it, so STFU,” screams the headline.) “Might it be the ultimate in wife bonus purchases — a Birkin bag? I’d absolutely kill for a $15,000 starter model in taupe.”
But hating on rich women obscures an important point: Housework and child care are work, or at least they’re treated that way when someone other than the person who lives in the house or gave birth to the child in question does them. If one person in a marriage is going to take on these responsibilities, which rightfully belong to both partners, then they maybe they should be paid. And if we think it’s so important that children have their parents present and have a certain standard of living at home, maybe we should make a collective investment and pay similar stipends to families even where one partner isn’t making an investment banking or oil executive’s fortune, or families headed by a single person.
“I’ve been surprised and disappointed by the reaction I’ve received from other women,” when disclosing that she gets a bonus, Phillips wrote. And while she is sort of skipping over the fact that talking about your spending incessantly might not make you great company, she makes an excellent point. “Many of them have sniggered, assuming that my bonus is bedroom dependent, or have accused me of betraying feminism and living in the ’50s like a desperate housewife. To me, there can be nothing more feminist than believing that staying home to take care of our daughter — as well as the day-to-day washing, ironing, cooking and cleaning — is just as worthy of a wage as going out to a job outside the home.”
Or, as Shane Ferro put it in Business Insider, “One parent working and one doing the unpaid upkeep of the house and kids is unfair and too often split down typical gender lines, but it’s not economically irrational.”
My biggest point of objection is to the way Phillips’s bonus is structured. “The size of my bonus has nothing to do with my performance in the kitchen or the bedroom. It’s entirely dependent on how my husband does at work, and how well his company performs,” she explains. “Which means, judging by the price of oil at the moment, my critics might be pleased to hear that next year, I might not get much of a wife bonus at all.”
But if she’s going to be paid for managing her family’s home and doing child care, Phillips should be getting a set salary that reflects the value of her work, rather than a cut of her husband’s bonus. It’s not her fault if the price of crude falls or her husband has a bad year despite the environment she has created for him at home. It’s not getting paid for work that’s necessarily condescending or sexist; it’s tying that payment to the performance of the person who’s paying the salary, rather than the person who’s actually undertaking the labor in question. And it’s doling that money out like a year-end treat, rather than delivering it regularly like the wage that it is.
So down with the wife bonus. And up with the wife (or husband, or stay-at-home partner) salary.