Hits and Mrs.
Wouldn’t it be easier to stop the juggling act and be a housewife and a helpmate? Wouldn’t it be better for her spouse and children if she were to opt for a more traditional role — full-time wife, full-time mom, full-time writer of thank-you notes — a choice that continues to be embraced by many forces in our culture?
Consider this: Three-quarters of Americans believe both partners should contribute to the household income, according to a Pew Research Center study from October. Meanwhile, only 37% of mothers who work outside the home want to be working full time, that same study reported.
Maybe those women are just tired, stressed out by the complications of everyday life amid a recession. Maybe it’s easier to idealize so-called simpler times (1945 to ’65 anyone?) amid difficult ones. Or perhaps we should examine the role of pop culture and TV, which has a tendency to clothe domestic life in perfect little cocktail dresses.
After all, the much watched women of Wisteria Lane seem to be more interested in “feminine arts” such as gossiping and scheming than in holding down a corporate gig. The housewives of the Camelot-era “Mad Men” seem to have nothing better to do than mix martinis, look fabulous and inspire a partnership with Banana Republic and a slew of cocktail recipes that are listed on sites such as Oprah.com.
Whatever the source of their inspiration, a small contingent of women are turning to the Internet to champion the importance of being a good wife and partner. Some of their voices are sincere and straightforward. Others toy with the notion of 1950s housewifery, viewing it through a lens that seems clouded with nostalgia. It seems doubtful any of them would endear themselves to the editors of Ms. Magazine, but they have tapped into a longing.
There are bloggers like Kathi Browne, a fortysomething mother of three in Maryville, Tenn., who stopped working in the corporate world after her third child was born and summarizes her philosophy at Wingspouse.com as “an alternative to the traditional career choices some executive spouses are forced to make. Rather than requiring a choice between a career or family, the wingspouse career unites the two — creating a partnership between the executive and the spouse, and leading to mutual success.”
A wingspouse can help analyze an executive’s ideas without fear of reprisals — or theft. A wingspouse might accompany his or her partner to a speaking event and help work the room — or simply stand back and read people to see if the message is getting across. Or provide comfort on the home front. “Another wingspouse shared her secret to making her husband feel settled sooner,” Browne blogged last December. “She hangs the same plaque in the front entrance of every home they move to.”
A wingspouse can be a man or a woman, but Browne acknowledges that she believes she is writing primarily for women.
In the San Diego area, Kelley Lilien, 30, a graphic designer and work-from-home mother of two, lets her inner eccentric housewife run free with MrsLilien.com. Hers is a splashy website with themed posts on perfect picnic outfits and snacks or Grace Kelly tributes, each entry enhanced by a fanciful poem.
Keeping everything tongue-in-cheek, Lilien also extols the virtues of another nuclear family stereotype, the mother’s little helper. She is not afraid to mention booze, pills and retail therapy on her blog. While her alter ego might be the one to show up at your cousin’s wedding in a T-shirt-length magenta kaftan to match her super-sized Cosmopolitan cocktail, the real-life Mrs. Lilien is slightly more subdued, happily affixing her fingers with the cocktail rings her husband gives her each Valentine’s Day, never leaving the house without lipstick and believing that a good dinner party “is just what life’s about.”
And then there’s Taryn Cox, who isn’t afraid to put it all out there, unabashedly writing about stereotypically uxorial topics ranging from themed baby showers and creating her own cocktail-style dresses to the art of ironing a newspaper and how to clean with vodka at a blog she has titled TarynCoxTheWife.com.
Cox’s posts showcase classic glamour and gorgeous parties as songs such as “Sunny Side of the Street” play in the background.
“I’ve always just been so completely fascinated by the idea of marriage and dedication,” says Cox, a trim 26-year-old with a penchant for pastels and an e-mail address that starts with “stepfordwife.”
No, she’s not married and she doesn’t have kids, but “this [blog] is for those dreams and fantasies. I believe my own vision. I believe there’s an art to being a good wife.”
Growing up in Newport Beach as an only child to a single mom, Cox says her enthusiasm for the wife-and-mother role grew when she saw all her elementary school friends getting picked up at the curb when school let out and she was shuttled off to the YMCA for after-school care. Her blog, where the word “wife” is written in capital letters, includes rules for domestic bliss (WIFE rule No. 17: “The perfect WIFE should shave her legs every day or every other day.” WIFE rule No. 14: “The perfect WIFE should have the most beautiful and neat handwriting. This always comes in handy when writing Thank You notes, Addressing Cards, and Sharing Recipes”).
While not blogging, she’s parlayed years of personal assistant gigs for the likes of Lindsay Lohan and Scarlett Johansson into her current position as a domestic assistant and organizer for philanthropist Monica Rosenthal and her husband, TV producer Phil Rosenthal. Cox says it should give her plenty of practice for her planned life, as she helps with grocery shopping, organizing dinner parties and other duties.
Cox says she’s one of the first people her friends call when they get engaged, possibly because of her two giant binders of articles about wedding and party planning.
So, what’s her dating life like? Cox is somewhat mum on that, saying she usually dates only men she meets through mutual friends.
"[But] I’ve always been told I have very high expectations when it comes to dating men, which I always found to be an overexaggerated statement,” Cox says. “I think my expectations are not over the top but should be the norm. I think it’s important for a man to practice opening doors, calling instead of sending a text, putting forth the effort to make plans in advance instead of waiting to the last minute. It shows that he ultimately respects you and your time when paying attention to you and the small details.”
While Cox and the other bloggers haven’t exactly hit the mainstream tipping point — their comparatively small number of monthly page views keeps them off the radar at ComScore, an Internet marketing research company — they do seem to have loyal readers and have encountered a few outside opportunities.
Lilien says she received personal e-mail compliments from retro-loving home design maven Jonathan Adler and she has parlayed the blog into a styling gig for Anthology, a home and lifestyle magazine launching this fall, and a partnership with Alexis Swanson Traina of Swanson Vineyards in collaboration with Andy Spade and Jean-Philippe Delhomme for a Napa Valley lifestyle-driven website and blog.
Cox and her fashion sense got some love from Elle magazine. And in February, she taught the world how to bake a cake for the Style Network’s “What I Hate About Me” program.
Browne has been on talk radio, and, although it wasn’t in her Wingspouse capacity: She recently spoke on the importance of social media at the American College of Physician Executives’ annual meeting in Washington, D.C.
Perhaps their readers are just trolling the Internet on their lunch breaks, looking for a bit of a fantasy life they can’t have right now. That Pew Research Center study, citing data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, concluded that women now make up 47% of the U.S. labor force, compared with 38% in 1970. And in our stressed-out economy, most of those women probably have to stay employed.
Not surprisingly, feminists are not amused by the notion that women’s roles in society are dictated in any way. “They want to live in this perfectly art-directed world,” says Michele Kort, senior editor at Ms. “It’s an illusion that if you have all the right clothes and right accessories that your life will be perfect. This is a throwback to stuff like [Marabel Morgan’s 1974 self-help book] ‘The Total Woman’ … that a wife should be subservient and be all about making a man comfortable and having the perfect household … for the women of the ‘50s, it wasn’t so happy-making.”
The joys of domestic bliss have certainly moved the pop culture meter over the years. Before Morgan’s seminars and books, (the first of which is possibly best remembered for the bit about greeting your man at the door clad in Saran wrap), there was Helen Andelin, who famously wrote and taught classes on how to be a domestic goddess and got the title of her 1963 book “Fascinating Womanhood” from a series of 1920s-era etiquette books with a similar name. Andelin died last June, but her theories are still discussed on various blogs and in chat rooms.
Books such as Laura Doyle’s “The Surrendered Wife” (2001), that suggest women abstain from control over their husbands’ lives in favor of practicing vulnerability and manners, have loyal followers, and proper wifely matters are discussed in the preachings of tough-love conservative radio host and author Dr. Laura Schlessinger (whose 2009 book was titled “In Praise of Stay-at-Home Moms”). Atlantic magazine essayist Caitlin Flanagan, who is fortunate enough to be able to retain hired help to assist in the running of her domestic life, stresses the rewards of being a traditional housewife.
“The concept of the career woman has without question become the accepted societal norm, but the concept of the ‘traditional stay-at-home mom’ has still remained a part of our culture,” says Jeremy Gutsche, founder of the online magazine TrendHunter.com.
“What has changed is that the blogosphere and social media have connected many different groups, including … those that believe in a 1950s way of life,” Gutsche says. Also, “the recent recession caused people to reassess what is really important in their lives, and we’ve seen a rise in people prioritizing their personal fulfillment above their careers. Even if one didn’t lose their job, when we see the chaos that surrounds us, it forces us to think about what is really important in our lives. This manifests itself in the form of hobbies, experiential travel and spending more time with one’s family … all things that are akin to the more traditional 1950s lifestyle.”
Maybe the topic is popular because it’s easy to put it down?
In the Depression era “there wasn’t men’s work or women’s work, there was only work,” says Erin Bried, who went on “The Today Show” in January to promote her book “How to Sew a Button: And Other Nifty Things Your Grandmother Knew,” only to get a bit of backlash in the online world, possibly because the segment’s title “5 Things Every Woman Should Know” suggested to some that sewing buttons, fixing martinis and hanging picture frames were women’s work.
Then again, Bried recently got word that 14 bloggers whom she says seem to be from all ages and backgrounds have started the Button Club and are attempting to complete all 110 tips in her book. Perhaps they’ll be done by December when Bried’s follow-up, “How to Build a Fire: And Other Handy Things Your Grandfather Knew” arrives in stores.