Leaving your Hypothetical Husband

Jessica Valenti posted this on Twitter and it pissed me off.

If you’re not going to read the article, I’ll give you a run-down. The article indicates that “the vast majority” of “young people” (80% of females, 70% of males) (and I’m assuming by “young”, they mean college-aged), across demographics, hold as the ideal an egalitarian marriage, where both partners share the burdens of money-making and home-keeping and child-rearing equally.

When asked what their ideal fallback would be, however, if such egalitarian harmony were impossible, young men and women are exactly the opposite – most young men hope that their wives will take care of the home front and let their careers take a backseat to a greater or lesser extent, and most young women claim they’d rather divorce their husbands and raise their kids on their own while holding down their jobs than stay at home with their kids.

To which I say, hahaha hohoho heeheehee, kids. Have fun in that dream world where you can either feel totally egalitarian about all aspects of life with your husband all the time, OR you can just leave your husband and do it all on your own, no problem! (And, young men, have fun in the dream world where you make so much money that asking your wife to scale back to take care of the very expensive wee ones is a no-brainer!)

My response to this on Twitter, and on Facebook, if you missed it, was (and I’m not directly quoting because I’m going to use real English words instead of the ones 140 characters forces) “It is easy to leave one’s hypothetical husband to raise one’s hypothetical children on the money one earns from one’s hypothetical job.”

I had more or less the same problem, the problem of talking in hypotheticals, when I talked about domestic violence. It is easy to say of a hypothetical man about which you only know that a) he hits you, or b) he wants you to quit your job and stay home with your kids, “Oh, I’d leave that asshole but quick.” Obviously, it’s not the same thing, exactly. A man who hits you is dangerous and violent and you really should get out as soon as you are able to do so, if possible, even if you love him, even if he’s a total dreamboat or makes a lot of money or has helped you out of a number of jams or whatever it is that’s keeping you in, you should leave. Whereas a man who wants you to stay home with the kids while you don’t want to do that just has a different vision of family life than you do; he’s not, you know, dangerous. I mean, one way an abuser operates is to make you dependent on him, and staying at home with the kids makes you dependent on your husband, but it does not follow that all husbands of stay-at-home moms are abusive. Anyway. My only point is that in both of these cases, people who say, “Oh, I would leave the asshole” are operating with a hypothetical asshole in mind and of course that guy is an asshole; he hits you or does not respect your career goals! But no one is actually involved with a one-dimensional man who only hits or only asks you to stay home. And if you’ve gotten to the point with someone where you’ve married them AND made the decision to have a baby with them, chances are there is much that you love about that person and would not find it easy to leave. You can say whatever you want to say about a thing that you’ll do in a hypothetical situation; it’s what happens when it’s an actual thing that counts. Until they look into how these choices play out for realz, this is like asking a bunch of eight-year-olds if they’d rather live on a moon base or in an undersea palace.

There was some negative reaction to Jessica Valenti’s Twitter post. I, for instance, said my thing about hypothetical husbands, which as far as I know, she didn’t read. She did read the one where someone accused her of feeling that being a SAHM was inherently oppressive. She argued on Twitter that posting a thing is not the same as approving of the thing, and said, to that point, “Learn how the internet works.” (Okay, I added the capital L. I’m sorry; I’m always going to be a little old-fashioned about grammar. Do you know how long it took me to agree to only one space between sentences?)

Now, I do know how the Internet works, and I know that usually, posting something without commenting on it IS approving it. For instance, when she posted this (and yes, that will be the subject of my post next week), she wrote snarky commentary ending in “Ok, then,” which made it clear how she felt about it. The only way a no-comment would be interpreted as disapproval would be if  it’s well-known by your followers that you would never in a million years approve of that position. For instance, if Jessica Valenti had posted, without comment, an article with the headline, “New Study Shows Women Often Say No, Mean Yes,” I would assume she disapproved of it.

I do not assume she feels that way about SAHMs.

Jessica Valenti argued with the follower that she had never said being a SAHM is “oppressive” but I read her Why Have Kids? and you know what? She strongly implies that being a SAHM is oppressive. I mean, I agree with a lot of her points in that book about how this culture of mommy perfection is, in fact, oppressive, and ruinous to women and their children, not to mention marriages, society, and happiness. But Jessica Valenti also titles one of her chapters – in the “Truth” section – “Smart Women Don’t Have Kids,” and also in the “Truth” section , “Women Should Work”. In an earlier section, she says that the zealous helicopter parenting derided in much media is “just the understandable outcome of expecting smart, driven women to find satisfaction in spit-up. All of the energy that they could be – and maybe should be – spending in the public sphere is directed at their children because they have no other place to put it.”


“I’m also not arguing that women shouldn’t stay home with their children (well, not yet anyway).”

To conclude her chapter titled “Women Should Work,” she quotes Linda Hirshman extensively. Hirshman wrote Get to Work, a book about how “choice feminism” is bullshit and women should work both for their own benefit and for the benefit of all women everywhere. And also for the benefit of the world. Valenti says that she once was dismissive of Hirshman, because how could you dictate someone’s choice? She says, “while I was uncomfortable with the idea of mandating – or even suggesting – to women that there’s one better choice [between work and staying at home], I actually believe that there is.”

And it is?

“We need flexible work schedules, paid maternity leave (that lasts more than a few weeks or months), subsidized child care, and workplaces that are parent friendly. … I don’t think it’s a good idea to depend on someone else financially for an extended period of time.” She mentions the idea of the US providing a wage for housework and child care, as it is labor that contributes to the economy (and the overall productivity of the United States), but says, “that’s not the world we live in right now.”

Right. Neither is the world in which we have flexible work schedules, paid maternity leave, or subsidized child care. So in the mean time, women are going to try to make the best choices they can.

Jessica Valenti’s book is by no means unsupportive of the idea that everyone’s making the best decisions they can under current conditions, and she’s right to point out that current conditions suck, and suck in specifically anti-woman ways. I actually really liked Why Have Kids?, and I liked it specifically because I hate the idea that a woman’s “choice” to work or not work while having kids is made in a vacuum, and institutional support (or lack thereof) for those choices plays no part. I always want to look at systems, not individuals, and so does Valenti. Valenti also makes much of the culture of mommy perfection that’s driving everyone f-ing nuts, and that’s really important to discuss, too.

But it’s not out of left field to conclude that Jessica Valenti finds the idea of being a stay-at-home mom oppressive, as her Twitter follower suggested. And it’s not trolling to say so. (Now, maybe this follower did say and do more trollish things in private messages. I don’t know.)

And this is also why Twitter is a sucky forum for in-depth conversation.

Personal blogs are much better!

I will be honest here; I have had a rough time becoming a SAHM. It was not what I expected to do with my life and in some ways I feel like it’s due to some personal failures that it ended up being the best choice for me. I spent my post-college and pre-kid years in academic programs that had little hope of getting me a job outside academia, and then didn’t pursue them far enough to get a job inside academia, and, as most grown-ups know but as I refused to really acknowledge, “a job inside academia” is as much a fantasy as “the super-easy nature of divorcing the man you once loved enough to marry and make children with, and raise those children on your own with the money you will have no problem making as a single mom in a high-earning profession.” So that left me more or less unemployable anyway when I had a child, which made staying home with her the easy choice, especially considering that a) my husband wanted me to, and b) my husband could afford for me to. I still teach Hebrew school a few hours a week, and now I am trying to make a go of writing, but 85% of my time is spent being a SAHM.

And it’s not that there aren’t some aspects of it I love. I mean, I get to spend all this time with my kid. Woohoo! And I love being able to run errands and go shopping and do other things during hours where nobody else is there; I now get almost offended when I have to go to a mall on a weekend and OTHER PEOPLE are ALL OVER THE GODDAMNED PLACE. I’ve learned to cook really well and I have the opportunity to throw parties and dinners and welcome other people into my home to cook for them; I’ve been able to continue teaching Hebrew school, which I really love and which would be harder to do with a full-time job AND a family. I’m on two volunteer committees to host conferences that I think are going to be really cool and, again, I couldn’t have done that AND done adequate work at a full-time job AND taken care of my family. And, oh yeah, I have time to write. And blog. And I know that we are DAMNED lucky that my husband a) has a job that can support us, and b) has hours that let him spend lots of time with us, too. So that’s all a pretty good deal.

But I’m a feminist, and I read websites like Jessica Valenti’s feministing and Jezebel, and of all the things that make me struggle with my choice to stay home, this is the stuff that hurts the most. Well, no. Not making my own money hurts the most. And then there’s the disapproval from people I actually know and love. But there have been several instances lately of forum dwellers over at Jezebel calling SAHMs prostitutes because we allow our husbands to pay our bills and also we have sex with them. And there is a sit-commy joke in here about how married people with kids never have sex anyway so it’s the highest-paying per-sex-act prostitution job you can get, but . . . yeah.

Look, it hurts, is all I’m saying, to hear over and over again that while you’re doing the best thing you can think to do, the people you admire and respect, the people you consider yourself to be part of, at best pity you and at worst think you’re prostituting yourself by doing it. Especially since child care and housekeeping is work that needs to be done by someone, at some point. And child care, especially, is not work that gets any less time-consuming once your kids hit kindergarten. School hours are not the same as work hours, and now you can’t let the precious little ones so much as get on or off a bus on their own, so someone has to be in the home to deal with pick-up and drop-off, and it’s either going to be you or someone you pay. Or you can pay extra for an after-school program. If you can have a job that makes enough money to make that a worthwhile decision. Plus there’s extra-curriculars and monitoring the homework and participating in school projects, and most public schools basically run on the unpaid efforts of the stay-at-home moms who volunteer for shit like the PTA and fundraising and whatnot. And sure, you can opt out of doing it, but only because other parents are doing it instead of you. Schools where no parents can afford the time to distribute the flyers and organize the bake sales and hang streamers suffer for it.

I really would love to see more of an effort by feminists to understand how much of what SAHMs do IS work, and work that the world NEEDS done. I don’t believe I’ll ever get paid a wage for it, but operating on that understanding first, rather than the understanding that doing paid work would be better for women, would be an important first step. They’re always reporting on who’s happier, SAHMs or working mothers, and the results seem to show that working mothers have a slight edge but actually part-time working mothers beat both, but, even when these statistics are mentioned by feminists like Valenti, there’s no recognition that their own stance that being a SAHM is a lesser life (and don’t tell me you don’t think it is, Jessica Valenti!) is contributing to the unhappiness of SAHMs, the same way pressure from the non-feminist world is contributing to the unhappiness of the working mother.

(And yeah, I haven’t dealt at all with the concept of stay-at-home dads, or men trying to balance family and work, or non-heterosexual families, or non-nuclear family arrangements. Sorry. It’s just a blog post, not a book.)

3 thoughts on “Leaving your Hypothetical Husband

  1. Sarah Schmermund, MA says:

    This is fantastic! Thank you for sharing. And yes, you are completely right: these studies hold little merit, as research agrees with you – we will never really know how we will think or feel about something until we actually experience it!

    • perica1981 says:

      Or at least have to think about it in the real world. Not, “Would you leave your husband?” but “Would you leave Max?” Not, “Would you give up your career to stay home with children?” but “Would you give up this specific job you’ve actually been doing with all its attendant pros and cons, when your partner has this other specific job s/he has actually been doing, with all its attendant pros and cons, to care for the actual child either gestating or recently brought forth unto this world?”

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