Get a ‘wife’

Functioning households need two days of domestic labour a week. Guess what? Working couples don’t have the time.

Get a ‘wife’

Suki Dhanda

If there is one dilemma that confounds working mothers more than any other, it’s the issue of priorities. What is more important, the exhausting fulfillment of a serious career or the exhausting fulfillment of raising a baby? Is it possible to have both, and if so, at what cost?

Gaby Hinsliff is familiar with this modern conundrum’s pincer grip. As the political editor of the U.K.’s respected Sunday broadsheet the Observer, and the new mother of a young son, Hinsliff found herself, at the age of 37, in a classic double-bind. On the one hand she loved her job, on the other she loved her son. Both were fascinating, fulfilling and unapologetically demanding. Both required ample amounts of her best and brightest self every day—day in, day out, without fail. Both were slowly, but inexorably, driving her insane.

For a couple of years after maternity leave she stuck it out; working the Tuesday to Saturday schedule her paper required, employing a full-time nanny, juggling bedtime duties with her PR executive husband depending who was working late, pulling in favours from family and friends during party conference season, and so on. “I loved my job, it was the best job in the world, but I began to feel more and more torn, more and more sleep deprived,” she said in a recent phone interview from her home in Oxfordshire. “If you’re happy doing that kind of job with small children, either your partner is doing something much more low-key than mine was or you must be very comfortable with the idea that you can delegate the child-care side to someone else.” In the end, she quit and moved out of the city to the leafy, pastoral “Shires” (also known as London’s “gin and tonic belt”) where her husband had been offered a good job and the cost of living was significantly lower. In other words, she joined the ranks of self-employed, part-time, stay-at-home parents. Or, to use her term, Hinsliff became the “half a wife” her family—and every virtually working family—so desperately needs.

This logistically tricky and emotionally fraught transition is thoughtfully chronicled in her new book Half a Wife: The Working Family’s Guide to Getting a Life Back—a book that she wrote, fittingly enough, on her newly freed-up freelance writer’s schedule. But don’t mistake Hinsliff for a neo-traditionalist proponent of the so-called “Mommy track,” i.e. the place where ambitious, educated mothers with viable careers go to die, only to be reborn as charity sale cupcake bakers. On the contrary, Hinsliff is all for female breadwinners and stay-at-home dads. The key notion here is her concept of the “half wife”—i.e. the roughly two days a week of concentrated domestic labour she has calculated is necessary to keep a professional family functioning and healthy. Every parental unit needs “at least half a wife” to operate smoothly and efficiently, according to Hinsliff. This “wife” can take the form of shared labour between partners with flexible working hours, help from in-laws, paid outside contractors, or (as in her case) one parent biting the bullet and going part-time.

While Hinsliff is now a passionate advocate for self-employment and flexi-time in the private sector (shortly after leaving her job she sat on a government task force looking at the creation of more flexible working hours for working families), she is also familiar with the inevitable loss of status that comes with taking one’s proverbial nameplate off the office door. “When we moved out of London and applied for a mortgage to buy a new house, I remember having to fill out a form and under occupation writing ‘journalist’ but then having to qualify that with ‘freelance’ and it feeling very strange. It’s the murky career territory where people feel the need to apologize for choosing self-employment. We say, ‘I used to be’ or ‘I’m only part-time’ because we’re used to judging ourselves in terms of status and title and rank.” Hinsliff says that while she misses the rush of working at a large organization, the trade-off is ultimately more than worth it. “When I think of what that status and that rank cost me, I mind less not having it.”

One of the deals she made with herself when leaving her full-time job was to take on new challenges she couldn’t have otherwise contemplated. One was writing a book. The other was starting a blog and establishing a social media profile. She now has nearly 16,000 followers on Twitter and posts frequently on policy and family issues on her popular blog usedtobesomebody.blogspot.com.

Hinsliff is interested in the ways government policy and private sector employers can come together to support working families through the creation of more flexible working hours, job-sharing, telecommuting and the like. She warns that many working parents ignore the world of politics at their peril. “Most people experience politics as something very distant from them, but if you have children politics is in every corner of your life. It’s in the hours we work, the child care we’re offered, the price of real estate. All those pressures bearing down on family are the result of decisions made by government.” Moreover, she is quick to point out that working family life is not just a women’s issue and has been treated as such for far too long. “It’s also about the choices fathers make at work and the choices that leaves for their partners,” she says. “Men are starting to want more time with their kids. If you think being a good mother is a toxic issue in the workplace, just try asking, ‘What’s being a good father?’ ”

The crucial thing, says Hinsliff, is that domestic labour (i.e. “wife duties”) needs to be fairly shared. She rejects the notion that women are more “naturally inclined” toward child rearing and says that couples owe it to their marriages to work toward an equilibrium. “The risk of divorce doubles if both partners work and the woman does all of the domestic work, but that risk is nullified if domestic work is shared,” she says, adding with a dry laugh, “Of course my husband would be the first to admit he’s not exactly a domestic goddess. But we’re working on that.”


Get a ‘wife’

  1. So… housing is expensive… seniors are lonely (and increasingly have to work later before retiring)… young working parents don’t have enough time to raise families… 

    It sounds to me like the solution to all of these problems lies in forming households the same way people to in most of the world, and the same way humans have for most of their existence: multigenerational households. 

    The nuclear family is an artificial construct, made possible only by the simultaneous appearance of fantastic postwar prosperity and a welfare state that took over what was once the function of the extended family (particularly unemployment insurance, housing, childcare and pensions). Now that the welfare state is under strain across the west, we need to look back at traditional family structures that worked. 

    In a world of multigenerational households, people would have less freedom, of course. But they’d have deeper social networks. The cost of houses would decrease, as you wouldn’t have to have separate houses for every 1-2 people. This, in turn, could help roll back urban sprawl, creating densely populated communities where people wouldn’t have to drive everywhere. Working families could work, while their parents helped raise the children, and did tasks like cooking regular meals. Old people could retire sooner, freeing up jobs for the next generation, who, in turn, would represent their old-age pension – we wouldn’t look at children as a burden, but as an opportunity. Meanwhile a pared down welfare state could focus on providing support for those genuinely need, instead of taking on the role of surrogate family. It is basically like a system of kibbutzes, except that it works. 

    • Speaking as an American who has lived in China for nearly 5 years multi-generational households are not a silver bullet for all the world’s problems.

      Problems with this model include grandparents who are tired and feeble to be strict with little energy packed kids. Parents who slave at work and don’t know anything about their children. Children who grow up used to getting whatever they want. Not to mention the constant friction between Parent and Grandparent over who’s really in charge

      Usually it’s the oldest generation that ends up winning the control struggle. While this sounds like a great idea on the surface, this is the same system which made arranged, child marriages possible.

      Also, it’s ridiculous to call the ‘nuclear family’ a modern construct. The Judeo-Christian idea for it comes from the first book of the Old Testament. (Gen 2:24)

      No system is perfect. It’s foolish to think there’s one simple fix for all the world’s problems.

  2. first off:
     What do you call a women who juggles a full-time career/job, takes care of the family, takes care of household, (even with the help of her husband)?
    Well, apparently a “liberated women”, according to women’s lib.?????At 52 years old, been there, done that, and, there is no way, a human can do all that, on her own.(without hiring help)Children are suffering a lot, today.  They lack so much, as, respect, guidance, self-confidence, nurturing, all of it is expressed in their behaviour, just look at the bullying, which is a sign of what goes on at home, Baby- boomers, you should have taken the time, it’s all worth it, because your kids are spoiled-brats,and that’s because of what i call,  the “guilty mother syndrome”.
    No, i don’t have a big salary, or a cushy pension for that matter, but i have so much pride in my well-functioning adult children, all because i choose to be a” stay at home mom”, even if was belittled for it, by other (so-called liberated) women., but no money can buy the “PRIDE”  I feel today,
    When people ask me, how my husband and i brought  up successful children, i reply:
    ” you don’t raise children with money, you raise them with (life) values” 
    Take the time, and enjoy, it’s all worth it!!!!

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