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Unbinding the Housewife: Why Men and Women are Perfectly Able Parents

pipermartz's picture

In March of 2013, New York Magazine posted an incredibly controversial trend piece titled The Retro Wife by Lisa Miller. The article features the stories of two progressive, “neo-traditionalist” women, Kelly Makino and Rebecca Woolf, who have decided to become the primary caretakers, also known as “homemakers” or “housewives,” of their families. The narratives of Makino and Woolf were aimed at exposing an alternative and empowering path for women, one drifts from the Lean In feminist mentality presented by Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook. Miller believes that Sandberg’s book “argues that the new revolution needs to start with women themselves, that what’s needed to equalize U.S. workplaces is a generation of women tougher, stronger, wilier, more honest about their ambition, more strategic, and more determined to win than American women currently are” (Miller). Shortly after this description, we encounter Miller’s complete doubt and hesitation to support this manifesto, stating that not all mothers can sacrifice the urgent demands of their families in order to become workingwomen. At this moment she reveals the true intentions behind the article—to promote and commemorate modern day “feminists” who make the decision to not pursue a demanding career.


Many readers and online news sources lashed out, claiming that the article’s two narratives do not reflect a growing trend, but rather profile two “rich white ladies”; that the article unnecessarily fuels “Mommy Wars,” a term that refers to the ongoing battle between “working moms” and “stay at home mothers”; that the piece relies heavily on assertions that women are biologically “hardwired” to be better caregivers; and most importantly, how Miller completely seizes to mention the important role of fathers in the childrearing process. Despite the negative reception, The Retro Wife successfully opened up an incredibly important dialogue about the current social perception of the gender roles of parenting, in which the predominant caregiver is often perceived as weak, hyper-feminine, and traditional. However, under these circumstances men are often praised as dedicated heroes for their unusual, brave behavior, while women are expected to take on the role because of their “innate” nurturing abilities but are still condemned for their support of traditional gender essentialism. The gender issues associated with the assumed role of the primary caretaker are not simply about inherent gender differences, instead they are deeply rooted in social constructions that have long shaped the gender disparity of parenting social norms. To solve this social divergence we must unbind the “housewife” by stripping away the surface-level excuse of gender and exploring the underlying social connotations of motherhood and fatherhood.


The Retro Wife presents us with a perfect example of how these gender differences are used to explain why women returning to their homes are following a natural, expected passage. In her most prominent stance, Miller declares that “the tug of motherhood is inexorable,” firmly establishing that “mothers instinctively want to devote themselves to home more than fathers do“ (Miller). She focuses deeply on the “intrinsic” abilities and desires of even the most liberal, progressive women to focus on mothering in order to fill a void of female fulfillment. Unfortunately, there is no consideration that young girls have been habituated to these caring, intuitive, and nurturing personality traits that have become associated with womanhood. Most women featured in the article agree with the notion that they have some built-in abilities that their husbands do not, which could easily be interpreted as internalized sexism: “many women behave as though the evolutionary imperative extends not just to birthing and breast-­feeding but to administrative household tasks as well, as if only they can properly plan birthday parties, make doctors’ appointments, wrap presents, communicate with the teacher, buy the new school shoes” (Miller). Indeed, the article presents us with very conflicting perspectives on the gender stereotypes of housewives that essentially disregard explanations of social conditioning that we have received to support the social norms of girls, women, wives, and mothers.


Missing from Miller’s equation for the ideal family are the various roles of fathers, not only as conventional breadwinners but also as the misunderstood stay-at-home-dads. The executive director of Child Care Action Campaign, Barbara Reisman, noted: "The fact that we still think about it as a mommy war says a lot about where we failed to come in terms of gender issues. Why is this about mothers? Where are the fathers?” (Richardson). Since the recession, in which men lost two and a half times as many jobs as women did, the number of fathers who assume the role as the primary caretaker has been climbing (Williams). Interestingly enough, most articles about stay-at-home-fathers, also known as SAHFs, stress the difficult economic situation that has forced the husband to succumb to the needs of his children and support his working wife. Why can’t these men simply state that they are just being fathers? Why does the term “stay-at-home-father” even exist? One husband, Peter Mountford, describes how onlookers constantly gawk at him and his daughters in awe at the park and sometimes assume that he is their babysitter! One woman at the grocery store even called him a hero, implying that the decision for a man to care for his children was some sort of a brave anomaly (Mountford). Men are not only capable of caring for their children but they succeed when given the opportunity to nurture them. Some like to joke that many at-home fathers are finally coming “out of the pantry,” a gendered joke that clearly hints at the feminized stigmas of these men (Williams). Ultimately, a man’s role as a father should not limit the expectations or his abilities to care for children, clean dishes, or do laundry. We must dispose of this idea that husbands are not good at these simple homemaking tasks because they are men, but rather because they have been conditioned to believe that they are above those duties because of their gender.


One strong factor for why we habitualize and condition our children into such strict gender roles is because of a long-standing belief that since birth, male and female brains are connected differently, thus creating what we know as appropriate gendered behavior. Although there is not sufficient or consistent research about this commonly perceived explanation, many use this assertion to validate arguments about gender roles. We do know that cultural and societal factors shape how men and women approach and complete behavioral tasks (Jarrett). In a recent study from December 2013, the University of Pennsylvania released a conclusion that male and female brains are indeed wired differently. One would assume that the strong wiring across hemispheres for women confirms why they have more holistic, attentive, and caring personality; however, the study did not research whether or not the wiring induces different gendered behavior. A perpetual cycle has formed, in which we assume that there are natural, biological differences in our brains that control our gender expression, therefore we continue to raise our children and encourage the appropriate gender expression that we assume is inborn. Although fathers and mothers may differ between their childrearing skills, most just jump to the conclusion that it is because men are born men and women are born women, skipping over the life-long conditioning that has induced those habits and skills.


The role of taking care of the household and children have categorically been taken on by women, who have passed on their learned abilities to their own daughters who then teach the next generation of girls. The cycle continues until we have lost sight of why mothers have always assumed the “housewife” role. Their daily tasks become hyper-feminized, and because of more social constructions that have promoted gender inequality, they are deemed to be too simple, weak, and feminine for men. This system is so engrained in our culture that we ignore the outdated social constructions that are the true origins of the gender disparity of parenting roles. We must strip the stereotyped housewife of her gender, because both men and women have always been fully capable to take on these homemaking tasks. The true binding of this position to such rigid definitions and connotations has always been the ridiculous social construction that throws gender differences into the forefront in. 

Works Cited:

Jarrett, Christian. "Getting in a Tangle Over Men’s and Women’s Brain Wiring." Conde Nast Digital, 02 Dec. 2013. Web. 09 Dec. 2013. <>.

Miller, Lisa. "New York Magazine." The Retro Wife. New York Magazine, 12 Mar. 2013. Web. <>.

Mountford, Peter. "I’m Not a Hero for Taking Care of My Kids." Slate Magazine. Slate Magazine, 10 July 2013. Web. 09 Dec. 2013. <>.

Richardson, Lynda. "No Cookie-Cutter Answers in 'Mommy Wars'; Women Are Struggling With Their Choices About Having Jobs or Staying Home." The New York Times. The New York Times, 02 Sept. 1992. Web. 09 Dec. 2013. <>.

Williams, Alex. "Just Wait Until Your Mother Gets Home." New York Times. New York Times, 10 Aug. 2012. Web. <>. 


Anne Dalke's picture

Unbinding Nature and Nurture

I mentioned to ari the recent New York Times article about Wall Street Mothers, Stay @ Home Fathers that speaks quite directly to the current social perception of the gender roles of parenting that you address here.

You say repeatedly that gender issues are "deeply rooted in social constructions," that "gender stereotypes disregard explanations of social conditioning," that both men and women have been "conditioned to believe" what their duties are, that "life-long conditioning has induced those habits and skills," that "outdated social constructions are the true origins of gender disparity in parenting roles."

I want to slow you down here a bit. Our brains may be wired differently--but of course brains get re-wired all the time, based on experience and behavior. If you want to learn more about these questionable brain studies, see Rebecca Jordan-Young's remarkable Brain Storm: The Flaws in the Science of Sex Differences. I remember, too, Evelyn Fox-Keller asking, during the Larry Summers' debates, why we make so much of birth as the dividing line between what's "given" and what's learned: nature vs. nurture is a VERY suspicious binary! She developed this idea into a book, The Mirage of a Space Between Nature and Nurture, which emphasizes the plastic relationship between genes and environment, and tries to counteract our tendency to privilege one cause over another by emphasizing
developmental pathways...

Polly's picture

Internalized Sexism

I liked your discussion of "internalized sexism," where girls are taught that women naturally stop working to take care of children, and then when they grow up, they fully believe it. If we never start to see more fathers taking care of children instead of working, then children won't be able to envision a woman who continues to work after having a child without becoming a working mother or a stay at home mother. From an economic standpoint (discussed in detail by Heidi Hartmann), it simply does not make sense in a family with a mother and a father for the father to stop working and become the caretaker, because he will earn more money than she will. Without fixing the wage gap, it is unlikely that we will be able to stop the cycle of women being seen as housewives.

Of course, there's also non-heteronormative-nuclear families to consider...