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Essay

Wife Envy

A Mother's Mother's Day Musings

May 11, 2003|Kristen Taylor | Kristen Taylor is a cognitive psychologist in Los Angeles and an at-home mother of two.

As I approach year 10 of marriage to my college sweetheart, I'm starting to grow envious of one thing he has that I'll never have: a wife. You see, if I were to ask the average married mother what characteristics her ideal mate would have, I would probably get a list something like this:

* Capable of breastfeeding.

* Willingly attends children's birthday parties, with gender- and age-appropriate gift in tow.

* Can successfully complete three loads of laundry in one day.

* Giant mental Rolodex of pediatricians, 24-hour pet hospitals and bouncy-house rental companies.

* Able to spot dust bunnies before guests do.

* Well-versed in early childhood development, school achievement and the public versus private school debate.

* Superb child-care selection skills.

* Can handle at least three of the above at the same time, with a strep throat infection.

Know any guys who fit the bill? Me neither.

Oh, I know of the odd father out there who takes a whack at one or two of those traditional (blecch) Mom jobs. But even when Dad is a part of the domestic milieu, his help is usually one flank of the mother's well-orchestrated, controlled, systematic family battle plan. When University of Maryland sociologist Suzanne Bianchi and her colleagues studied who does what these days compared to the 1960s, they found that while men have almost doubled the time they spend doing housework, they're still doing only one-third of it. For many families, a mother's responsibilities at home relegate her to managing the drudgery-filled domestic sphere, whether or not she also manages a fiscal- and ego-boosting career.

Why are women better at these things? Some answers are obvious (breastfeeding), and some "motherly" traits are probably a mix of biology and cultural conditioning. A superior ability to multi-task, for instance, may result from women's brains being organized in a more spread-out fashion than men's, perhaps due to selection pressure favoring the multi-tasking evolving mother/gatherer/domestic animal-tender. But we're out of the forest and off of the savanna now. We're (supposedly) post-feminism. Women graduate from college, get jobs, chart a career path, and if they marry, do the weekly shopping with their husband and sip Chardonnay in the kitchen while he prepares a gourmet repast.

Until that baby is born, anyway. Those enlightened couples who blissfully and staunchly disavow traditional gender roles as young marrieds often find themselves back in another decade when Baby arrives. A Tulane University study found that in general, when couples become parents, women reduce their work hours and increase their housework hours, while men's lives stay about the same. Why?

Nancy Latham, studying the issue for her dissertation at UC Berkeley found that it wasn't, as she hypothesized, because the fathers made more money than the mothers, and thus weren't as financially able to cut their work hours. Latham believes it's because the mothers felt more responsible for taking care of their young children. Women feel that they should be the kids' primary caregivers, which isn't really news. The problems arise when men don't change their domestic behavior to help out more.

My good friend Ruth at times has had to drag her husband kicking and screaming back into the domestic fold after extended periods "on hiatus." Shawn, who is a whiz on the home front, reminds her that not many men are as involved in domestic life as he is. "But I didn't marry those men. I married you," is her well-reasoned rejoinder. Shawn proved his abilities well before they married and had children. When you marry with one set of expectations, those expectations should be met for, well, an eternity.

Which got me to thinking, "What could prevent the nose dive back to traditional gender roles after parenthood?" Two of me, I suppose. Where could this happen? In Wifeland, my own private mental getaway. My wife and I both work, but flex-time jobs allow us to cover child care with a minimum of paid help. We take turns cooking. We take turns staying home with a sick child. We take turns taking the dog to the veterinarian. We both know the baby-sitter's phone number.

But it's not just the nuts-and-bolts domestic junk, is it? Imagine two nurturers. Two people who psychologically and biologically are hard-wired to put the needs of the children above all else, even above themselves. Imagine a partner who feels the same maniacal pull toward the children as you do, who fusses like you do over every coo and gurgle, and who can choose just the right tile for the bathroom.

I sometimes have pretend conversations between me and my imaginary wife that go something like this:

Me: "Honey, I've got an important meeting tonight that I can't get out of. Could you feed Baby when you get home from work?"

My Wife: "Sure, I'll just cancel my meeting. But Toddler has a half-day at nursery school today so will be home earlier than usual. Can you come home after lunch, and before your meeting?"

Me: "No problem."

My Wife: "Thanks. You're so on top of things! How do you manage, with your powerful career?"

Me: "Only with your help!"

My Wife: "I'm just doing what comes naturally. And by the way, your hair looks great! Highlights?"

With a wife, I could have all of that.

But I would miss my husband.

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