Are We Allowed to Say “Housewife”?

Meditations on Who Wears—and Irons—the Pants

Are we allowed to say “housewife” anymore? I doubt it’s ever been a flattering word — brings to mind frumpy ladies in hair curlers with ambitions no grander than getting good deals on rump roasts at the local supermarket. My overachieving parents raised me to look upon the fate of housewives, homemakers, as rather unfortunate. Having a successful career was a very important thing. Much of the other stuff could be muddled through. Suppers could be thrown together; nannies could be hired. From my mother, there was always this unspoken but unmistakable plea that I should never marry the type of man who expected cooking and cleaning and having his pants ironed.

My mother cried through my entire wedding. Maybe she was overwhelmed by happiness. Or maybe she had some kind of disturbing premonition about what was going to happen. I was just out of school when I got married, and didn’t have a job. I intended to find one, and get going on my successful career, as soon as I got back from my honeymoon. I was still without work two months later when, surprise , Rob and I learned we were going to become parents. We decided to call off my job search; it just didn’t seem practical anymore. And so one of my mother’s worst nightmares came true. A daughter of hers was pregnant, unemployed—a housewife in progress.

Rob and I spent the next year or so in traditional Catholic family mode. Rob, who had always harbored romantic notions about this type of life, was pleased with how naturally I took to my new role. I read cookbooks, learned a good recipe for baked pork chops, and had supper on the table every night. I grew to realize that the looks on the faces of those women in ads for cleaning products aren’t completely ridiculous. It is possible to feel great personal satisfaction at the sight of a shiny clean bathtub.

After the baby arrived the housewifely chores became almost impossible to keep up with. Now there were diapers and night-feedings and hours of inexplicable crying to get through. I have never worked so hard as I did those first few months of my baby’s life. When he was around six months old I wimped out, and got a part-time job. It was a relief to get out of the house a few days a week, to have this new, other way of defining myself.

Rob is looking forward to the day we can become a traditional family again. He wants more babies, and for me to abandon the workforce. But for now I’m unwilling to part with this balance we’ve achieved. At the pace my “career” is going I’ll never be rich or have an important title attached to my name, but we have a safe, clean (mostly) house, warm suppers, and a happy, healthy kid who gets plenty of attention from both of us. We take our cue from traditional gender roles but aren’t bound by some maddeningly rigid idea of how the household responsibilities should be divided up. Almost always, we are at peace in our in-between way of living. Though we still haven’t agreed on who should be ironing Rob’s pants.