This Is (and Is Not) the 'Retro Wife'

The Atlantic Wire

A social trend story is, at best, a way to inspire conversation about a broader topic of interest to a lot of people, usually a topic somehow connected to The Way We Live Now. But what happens to the subject of such a story in the aftermath of that conversation? 

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The reactions to New York magazine's recent "Feminist Housewife" piece by Lisa Miller should surprise no one. They are as wide and varied as are the ways in which real women live; they are emotional, angry, jealous, guilty, exhausted, sad, euphoric, irritated, and inspired. Yet the danger of any piece like this is that many people insist on seeing the women within them as characters, as stereotypes, as figures to be used to buttress personal life choices, or, in the reverse, as archetypes who serve up angering indictments of the reader's own life. Kelly Makino, the "Feminist Housewife" on the cover of the magazine, whose priorities, Miller writes, "are nothing if not retrograde," contacted me Wednesday after I wrote a reaction to the piece on Monday. Makino is a real-life flesh-and-blood human, and she has some thoughts about how people have responded to Miller's telling of her story. "A lot of the negative comments are when people got hung up on the details, or didn't hear the details," she told me. "You have to read it with your filters on. It's not my story, it's my story told through the perspective of a working mom telling the story of a stay-at-home mom," she said, acknowledging the necessary layering that exists with any profile.

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Our conversation included talk of how hard it can be for moms to find full-time work, how when Makino did work she made approximately only one-third of her husband's salary, and about the struggle in which "though women are allowed into the work force, you can add to your plate, but you can’t take anything off it." These are real problems for real women who are not featured in New York magazine stories. We also talked about what it meant to be in this piece, with its eye-drawing headline. "I almost fell over when they told me the name, that’s all I’m going to say," she said. "It’s really hard, this is like a thesis-level discussion that's put into 8 pages."

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Despite what one might take away from a cursory look at the article's headline, there's quite a lot of modern with the retro in this housewife.

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As with other stories that present versions of "the tale of (certain) current-day women"—Anne Marie Slaughter's widely read Atlantic piece, for example; Sheryl Sandberg's book; any of the recent critiques about Marisa Meyer—Miller's article has become a matter of discussion online and off, attracting everything from declarations of hate to peppy online high-fives. In the past couple of days, Miller herself has been doing the morning TV circuit, and perhaps we'll see Makino on TV, too. Then the fervor over this story will die down, and then, surely, there will be a new one, and we will have our many practiced emotions about it, too. If anything is truly retro, though, it may be the way we react to said stories—our knee-jerk responses betraying our insecurities, guilt, and fear that we're doing it wrong. Instead of looking forward when we read these pieces, we're looking back.

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Meanwhile, in Washington, D.C., where she recently moved with her husband for his job, Makino is still taking care of her children and her husband as she works on a children's book. In the days since the article was published, Makino has gotten reactions both positive and negative, all the more surreal given that she's the default poster-girl for the message. Miller, for her part, is quick to acknowledge that Makino the person is not as simple as the "Feminist Housewife" she represents in her piece. "She's a real person in 3-dimension and she thinks two or three things about a certain subject, as we all do," Miller told me. Though Makino becomes a solitary, emblematic character in the eyes of readers, she's not alone in her current life choice. As Miller explained, "I did a ton of research for the story and talked to many individual women who'd made choices like Kelly's, as well as to psychologists, sociologists, economists and other scholars, and in the end felt the story was better served by focusing on one woman's narrative, so that we could really see and feel the real tensions in her life."

Still, in our conversation, Makino felt it was important to restate the facts about her life that don't neatly fit the "Retro Wife" mold: That her familiar life decisions were very much impacted by the gender wage gap and lack of affordable child care, the economy itself, and the fact that we remain socialized to expect women to do much of the home and parenting work. Makino initially quit her job because she made less than her husband and most of her income went to day care. She tried going part time, but the responsibility was too great with the demands of her family, and she ultimately took another part-time role, helping a group of moms begin a pre-school coop. When she moved, that ended, and, she says, "Now my project is I’m writing a book, because I’m so bored right now."

She also reiterated that she doesn't consider herself "retro" so much as emblematic of a third choice in parenting, a next step in feminism. "A lot of women I know have quit their jobs, but they don’t have that traditional concept of stay-at-home parenting. They find a third way. We use technology, we use the gifts that society gives us." Often that means part-time flexible roles doing "highly skilled labor for a few hours a week, tracking curriculum, editing policy, all these other side projects. Being a stay-at-home parent has completely changed in the past 20 years; there are options out there that lump us into another category," she says. As Miller mentions at the end of her article, Makino may go back to work in some capacity or another when her children get older: "In a perfect world, my wish is that I'll go back and I can pick up where I left off. I don't know that that will be the case," she told me. (In an effort to promote the option, she had her children close together "so that this chunk of this early childhood period would be compressed.") And while Makino has been taken to task for expressing the view that women make better moms, there's more nuance to her view, as she explained: "Women come to the table with a better toolbox of childcare skills, but men and women have the full capability to be equal caretakers," she said. "Not all women and not all men are comfortable with that. That’s the next step I foresee. We need to trust our men to do what we do, the way they trust us to do what they do." 

Does a trend story like "The Retro Wife" change anything, or does it just give us another moment in a series of content-consuming moments, in which we feel something, briefly, outrage or pain or some kind of resonance, and then move on? Are people so rankled by the headline or first graph of a story, the suitably "retro" photos, the idea of a feminist housewife—and what they assume that to mean—that they form an opinion and don't delve any further than that first page? Because by the last, there's much from Miller that softens the idea of Makino as some sort of retrograde Betty Crocker-Draper. She's pretty clearly presented as a woman with her own ambitions, trying to live life the best way she can for herself and her family. She's also a woman living a life that's a lot more relatable than, say, the CEO of Yahoo.

"Sheryl Sandberg, Anne Marie Slaughter, Marisa Meyer...these women are accomplished beyond most people's dreams," Miller says. "Kelly is a doer, she's charismatic, but they're not making a boatload of dough, and they're just struggling and making decisions that are good for their family. That's really important. In all of this manifesto-ing, most people are just trying to figure out how to get through the week, and in this financial environment, where no one can be assured of anything, work can start to feel to some not as important as taking care of kids."

If she wants to consider herself a feminist and a housewife, what's wrong with that?

It's perfectly reasonable and normal (more normal than not!) to feel conflicted about work and children and the many conflicting desires one has in life. Most people know that they have to make choices, and that in any decision-making, something is given up and something is gained. So why do we get so angry about these stories?, I asked Miller, who's heard many strong emotional reactions to the piece, from tears to love to fury and guilt. "I think we internalize all of these social conventions about what women should do," she said. "A TV producer asked me, if you could accomplish one thing from this story, what would it be? What I said to her was that people should really be honest with themselves and their partners about what they want, but we don't know how to do that. That may be what Kelly is reacting to. Marital unhappiness comes from two people not visualizing things the same way. But because we're so tied up by these pressures—you should be like Sheryl Sandberg, you should be a stay-at-home mom—people get all tied up in knots."

If there's a progressive reaction to these pieces, I'd hope it could involve freeing ourselves from those knots, and, I agree with Miller, being honest with ourselves and each otherSuch stories should not be an indictment against our own choices. In some ways, they are celebrations of the new choices that abound—at least for a certain group of women. And these stories definitely shouldn't be cause to to vilify other women for their own choices. We get enough vilification elsewhere. At the same time, there's a twist to it, right? We're socialized to read these stories in certain ways. We keep returning in ourselves to the fear and concern that we're not doing enough, and that someone else is doing it better. There's also an irony present when a story that hopes to promote a broader view of women harks back to these old knee-jerk-triggering icons in the effort to tell the stories of actual woman. They try to turn that archetype on its head, or to present a new idea of it, using the storyline of a real human person, who, sometimes, on the way, we forget is human.

Either way, I suppose the most important thing is the discussion such stories beget: "Whatever comes out of this, it's worth it because we’re talking about it again," Makino told me. "My biggest fear, though, is that it will encourage the conservatives and the people who don’t believe in female equality and they’ll use it as fire." Makino also told me that she's not unhappy with her choice—with either of them: opening herself up to the world on the pages of a magazine, or giving up her job to take care of her family. "I will say, all of that being said, our house is much more peaceful with me not working. There are huge advantages," she said. But the fact is, "nothing is perfect." 

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