The long read: The real housewives
What goes inside a 21st-century woman’s head when she decides to stay at home, and run a domestic establishment called a household? Especially when there are judgements drawn every now and then?
Sometime ago, a friend, who’s a senior partner at a global consultancy firm, was recounting her childhood days. Every year, right before final examinations time, her sister and she felt miserable and tried all kinds of tricks to not be forced to study — including feigning bouts of sickness. Each time, their father would pull them to a full-length mirror, and ask them to take one hard look at themselves. “Now, ask yourselves: do I want to be a housewife when I grow up, take care of husband, cook and have babies? Or, do I want to do something meaningful with my life, be counted as someone who made a difference to the world at large?”
The two girls would affirm to the latter. They were on autopilot. “There was no getting away from it,” my friend laughed. “I’ve kind of grown up with a mindset that wanting to not have a full-time career is unthinkable.”
I nodded my head, and immediately expressed concern about my sister-in-law, who despite having an intrinsic get-go and considerable experience in her area of work, chucked it all up when she got married. She wanted to be a housewife. There was some alarm in family circles, people asking, “What will she do with her life? Won’t she get bored?”, the pitch getting less edgy when she had my niece in a couple of years — taking care of a child, in formative years, is still a full-time occupation after all — but never dying out completely: “Once the child goes to school, she should definitely get back to working.”
It’s been more than 12 years; she’s remained a ‘housewife’. Or ‘homemaker’, as she likes to call herself. I realise I may have, despite my best intentions not to, contributed to the din. “Really, how can one be content not having a job? That too, in this day and age!”
I had checked out a few quirky housewife trivia online that I went on to share with my friend. Like a 2005 study from the Institute of Social and Economic Research which sounded horribly sexist. It said married men were likely to earn more than single men only if their wives stay at home and do all domestic chores. And that the notion of “working wives” goes against the physical and mental wellbeing of men. Another study claims that a staggeringly high percentage of working British women over the age of 20 — who are in a relationship — would rather be a housewife than pursue a career, and have no qualms being financially dependent on their spouses or partners.
A few weeks after our judgemental tête-à-tête, I came across a website run by April J Harris, who calls herself “a writer, mother, frequent traveller, recipe developer and blogger based in the south of England”. What struck me most was the moniker she gave herself: the 21st century housewife. So, I started reading her account on what it means to be a housewife in the current millennium. “There are no ‘typical’ housewives or stay at home moms anymore,” April writes. “We are all different, with different lifestyles and circumstances. Some of us have never worked outside the home, many of us have. Most of us are well educated — some of us are biochemists, neuroscientists, doctors, lawyers and more. Many of us have children, a number of us don’t. Some of us love what we do and wouldn’t have it any other way, others are doing it as a labour of love while they put their own dreams on hold.” She also makes a bid for feminism. “Most housewives ARE feminists. The feminists who deride us seem to have forgotten that the whole premise of feminism was a woman’s right to choose her own path. The majority of housewives believe in that right no matter whether a woman decides to work outside the home, be a housewife or become prime minister. Feminism is meant to give women the right to choose, not dictate or restrict the choices we can make.”
In the comments section, someone was seeking advice from April because she had been referred to “just a 1950s’ housewife waiting for her husband to come home”; she also finds it annoying when many women stare at her and expostulate, “You don’t work?”
Gosh, maybe I was like one of those women, I thought. Me and my high-powered friend. I needed to do some research to set the record straight. On Googling ‘Housewives + worth’, I unearthed a numbers nugget on salary.com on their socio-economic category. A 2019 survey of American housewives showed that their median annual salary would be $178,201 — a $15,620 increase over 2018. In other words, it was a 9.6 per cent bump over the previous year’s earnings.
Okay, so all of this is notional, but how are the “job” and “salary” tabulated? Simple: by factoring in the many hats a housewife wears — housekeeper, dietitian, day-care teacher, network administrator, recreational therapist and so on — and then “tracking real-time market prices” plus hours put in per week.
‘Being a homemaker is harder than going to work’
As a branding expert, Dubai-based Shaheen Irani Hrib was earning more than her husband. And she was, in her own words, a “workaholic”. So, when she decided to quit and stay at home a year after her daughter was born, it meant serious scaling down of lifestyle for the family. But she and her husband talked it through and made their peace with it. “I was missing out on an important part of my daughter’s life, and it was a need that had to be addressed, it was non-negotiable.” It wasn’t easy, she admits. “First of all, the day I gave up my professional ‘position’, I became someone’s wife, someone’s mom, that’s all — it was like a loss of identity. And secondly, being a homemaker is harder than going to work.”
Today, Shaheen still works on freelance projects when she has spare time, and doesn’t really miss the hustle and bustle of her erstwhile corporate life: she puts it down to her essentially being comfortable with being “a loner at home”.
But she finds it strange how “allegedly modern folks” continue to judge her. “I used to be a board member at [her daughter’s] school, very active with PTA, a class mom — and yet people around me assumed I’m sitting at home eating bon bons the whole day, and that I’ve really dumbed down in order to play the role of a housewife. The condescension is disturbing.”
‘As a homemaker, I hone my organisational skills’
Before she got married, Nadine Duerr was into organisational development and change management in the US: trainings, meetings and conferences were everyday fixtures in her busy schedule. Relocation after marriage and giving birth to twins meant she needed to give up her job. “Plus, my husband travelled a lot, so I had to be at home.” Following stints in Europe and Singapore, Nadine and her family — today, she’s a “proud mom” of four — moved to Dubai in 2018.
When they were based in Singapore, she’d often get shocked reactions when she mentioned she was a homemaker and stay-at-home mom (“what you ‘do for a living’ is often a conversation starter”). “But that never bothered me, I am not seeking validation from anyone, or their approval. I think I’m intelligent and hardworking — and I have chosen to be the way I am… it was an informed decision.”
It’s also a decision she would never trade. “I feel fulfilled, it’s been such a privilege watching my kids grow up, getting to be by their side”, and she wouldn’t change that for the world. She doesn’t employ help at home because she wants to be hands on, not miss out being part of her family’s life. “I enjoyed my career when I had it and am still in touch with former colleagues, but I don’t miss it at all. In fact, there’s such a great sense of relief that job stress is no longer part of my life!”
She maintains, however, that it’s important for all women to have skill sets so that when it comes to a toss-up between staying at home or pursuing a career, it’s always a choice. So if her daughter were to tell her she wants to be a ‘housewife’, her advice would be: “be sorted personally first before you ‘aspire’ to be one, just like you would with any other life choice.” “But I will ensure she continues with her education and develops skills — because those are what define you.”
In case she ever feels she needs to be “out there”, Nadine says she will “repurpose” and “reinvent”. “As a homemaker, I keep up with my tech skills and hone my organisational ones… I remain networked and stay abreast with finances by planning our investments…[together with her husband]” She’s part of the school board where her consulting skills come in handy. Not losing sight of your core competencies, that’s critical. In her case, being a homemaker has helped fortify them.
‘I never compromised on my own happiness’
Anita Gidwani grew up with a dad who was a fighter pilot in the army, they travelled all over India with his postings; later, he became a commercial pilot. It was natural for her to take up something to do with the flying sector: so after graduation, she worked for a travel agency and then an airline.
When she got married, her streak of “being on the move” continued. Her husband and she moved, first, within India, then abroad, different places, finally settling down in Dubai in the early 90s — this time for the long haul. She chose to be a housewife post-marriage — mostly for logistical reasons. Then, when the kids came along, “with hubby travelling on work 20 days in a month”, staying at home seemed the most practical solution.
Today, more than 30 years down the line, she sums it up with: “You know, I was never an ambitious person — like the way ‘ambition’ is defined these days… never fancied myself as being someone who’d be competing for career growth. All I wanted to be was happy — and staying at home, doing my own thing, being around my family makes me happy. That’s what matters.”
She agrees that if a woman chooses to stay at home, at times, it gives her less bargaining power. For instance, many choose to remain in bad marriages because they feel they may lose out on “security”. But, ultimately, it’s your mindset. She knows someone, who in her avatar as a housewife believed she was very dependent on her husband but she the day she decided to end the relationship, she landed on her feet. “She reinvented herself totally, pursued her passion and is now thriving.”
Anita has been careful to always give herself enough time. “My mum was always a housewife, but she kept herself occupied, not just taking care of the household but also doing things for herself, indulging her hobbies: chocolate making, hair dressing, the works. In my case too, I never compromised my own happiness. So, kitty parties were never for me, but I pursued my own hobbies, made friends, had my own life.”
In her spare time, Anita taught kids French, gave her friends haircuts, practised reiki (“to help others who were going through a bad time”) — stuff that made her happy. “I have to give credit to my husband here, he’s encouraged me to be independent and never pushed me in any direction.”
She laughs when she hears about the salary.com “annual value” of housewives. “Really? That’s nice, but I don’t think anyone can put a value on nurturing, the way a woman does it.”
It’s probably priceless.
So, at the end of it, I decided that maybe my own judgements were all drawn from the “quiet desperation” evidenced in shows such as Desperate Housewives.
But as April says, “The ladies of leisure shown on certain ‘reality’ television programmes? They are our bête noire and about as far from ‘real housewives’ as you can get.”
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