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And What Do You Do?: When Women Choose to Stay Home

And What Do You Do?: When Women Choose to Stay Home

by Loretta Kaufman, Mary Quigley

And What Do You Do? reveals the trend among married women who choose to put their husbands' careers first (some for a few years, others for decades) while carving out their own lives on the home front and beyond. Through dozens of personal interviews, the authors, who themselves made this decision, explore how partnering gives wives equal voice in


And What Do You Do? reveals the trend among married women who choose to put their husbands' careers first (some for a few years, others for decades) while carving out their own lives on the home front and beyond. Through dozens of personal interviews, the authors, who themselves made this decision, explore how partnering gives wives equal voice in marriage; why they choose to backburner their careers; how they retool job skills into new, emotionally rewarding work; how they negotiate with their husbands to take turns with career priorities; and how their gifts of love and time to their families come back tenfold.

Editorial Reviews

Margie Johnson
The voices of dozens of innovative mothers heard in Kaufman and Quigley’s book still the cultural cacophony surrounding mothers in recent decades. These women’s stories bring to life a savvy counterculture unabashedly investing their skills, education, and imagination to yield a balance they crave in family life. They are confident that the self-knowledge and refinement mined in interdependent living will be the catalyst for an abundant life with adequate time ‘for every season.'
—Margie Johnson, Chairman of the Board, Mothers at Home
Publishers Weekly
Nearly 40 years after The Feminine Mystique "gave women permission to throw off their aprons," journalists Loretta Kaufman and Mary Quigley applaud those bold enough to tie them back on in And What Do You Do?: When Women Choose to Stay Home. Currently, close to eight million women (including former lawyers, teachers and psychologists) are choosing to retool their careers or stop working outside the home. Having interviewed "new traditional wives" from across the country, Kaufman and Quigley explore the difficulties that may come with the role of family CEO, intelligently dispelling myths like "your mind turns to mush" and "you can't afford to stay at home," and enticing readers with tales of unexpected rewards.
Joanne Brundage
The wives and mothers profiled in the pages of And What Do You Do? have a great answer to that question-they are doing nothing less than blazing new trails in the work/family/life balance. These intelligent, talented women are making the revolutionary choice of putting their families first by taking time out from the paid workplace. In doing so they are also redefining the notion of success to encompass involvement. Kaufman and Quigley do an excellent job of putting names and faces to this importnat emerging trend of ‘sequencing’-moving in and out of the paid workplace as family responsibilities ebb and flow. This book is a must read for women struggling with work/family decisions.
—Joanne Brundage, Founder and Executive Director, Mothers & More, the network for sequencing women (formerly known as FEMALE-Formerly Employed Mothers at the Leading Edge).

Product Details

Council Oak Books
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
5.54(w) x 8.54(h) x 0.64(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

the Rules

It's like a dirty little secret that people whisper but refuse to publicly acknowledge. Married life starts off equal: his career, her career. But as jobs jump to the fast track, as babies come along, as life begins to move at a blinding pace, sooner or later a couple realizes that something has to give, and often it's the wife's career. So what's a woman to do? In conversations with wives from coast to coast, we found a surprising number of savvy, educated, take-charge women who have courageously carved out a unique role that is part traditional, part feminist. Without any fanfare or media attention, women across America have rewritten the rules and found creative, rewarding ways to combine marriage and mothering, work and play. Yes, they have it all ... but not all at the same time.

    Little recognition has been given to the 7.7 million married mothers with children under age eighteen who don't work ... by choice! Another 5 million married mothers work part-time in an effort to integrate—not juggle—some work with their primary concern, family life.

    In one sense, these women are traditional wives and mothers, choosing to make their husbands and children a priority, either by staying home full-time or cutting back to part-time work. In another sense, they are very nontraditional. Steeped in feminism, they certainly are not second-class citizens in their marriages or families. They didn't trade their brains for baby bottles. But when marriage and motherhood caused their priorities to shift, theywere bold and brave enough to make radical changes in their lives. Yes, many made those changes with a great deal of angst and conflict. As they improvised their new roles the doubts disappeared, and now many bring an energy and enthusiasm to their at-home lives that spill out into the wider community.

    We hear a great deal about the struggles of working mothers. Institutes and studies examine their problems. Magazines talk about "juggling" a job and kids. In movies and on television, the perfect mom is a fashionably dressed executive. What we don't see portrayed very often is the mom who turns in her briefcase for her family. We don't hear much about the 56 percent of women with children age seventeen or younger who rank being a good wife and mother as the primary measure of their success in life—ahead of wealth, power, fame, influence, or knowledge. While the so-called "mommy wars" rage, millions of women are quietly withdrawing from the front lines, often feeling like part of an underground organization, linked by local at-home groups and e-mail. At the turn of the twenty-first century, the part-feminist, part-traditional woman is stunned that staying at home is counterculture.

    Let's be honest, a career change to be supportive of husband and family is politically incorrect—a reason why this "trendlet," as demographers might call it, is not getting much media attention. These women chose a path that, as more than one woman noted, made them feel like social outcasts. A response of "I take care of my husband and children" is not likely to impress people who ask the standard conversation opener, "And what do you do?"

    Who is the woman at home? Surprisingly, the stereotype is still some souped-up version of June Cleaver. That simply is not the case. These same women grew up with feminism as their mantra; most planned on combining work and family. And therein lies the key issue: no alternative was ever considered. Popular culture, many believe, summarily dismisses at-home life as a waste of a well-educated mind.

    We have found an amazing group of women whose stories read like fiction, ranging from the Navy pilot's twenty-six-year-old wife who sent her husband off to the Persian Gulf, to an ex-Broadway dancer and wife of a soap opera star, to a surgeon's wife who provides a home-away-from-home for his transplant patients and their families. These women differ in many ways, from demographics to political attitudes. Gradations on a scale, some are more traditional than others. Some plan to return to work five or ten years down the road. Others believe, as the bumper sticker proclaims, "Dorothy was right. There's no place like home," and there they plan to stay. Yet, despite the differences, we found that remarkably similar attitudes, opinions, and beliefs cropped up repeatedly in our conversations. What emerged, as the women described the thinking behind their decisions, was a shared subconscious of sorts, with its own new vocabulary: partnering, back-burnering, retooling, taking turns, gift giving.

    A variety of personal circumstances propelled the move to the home front: the first baby, a husband's all-consuming career, exhaustion from working and then doing the "second shift," a career that was not as fulfilling as expected. For some, it was the sudden dawning that while a career can be put on hold, childhood can't; it's a one-time offer that expires very quickly. The change came for others when they decided that passing their husbands like ships in the night was not the relationship they had envisioned. After attempting to combine work and family, still others concluded that life should be more than a 9-to-5 job and 5-to-9 child care. Many gradually came to the understanding that an education is not only training for a job; it's training for life. So one by one, after building careers, some for a decade or more, these young women put their doubts and fears aside and went home. They were surprised to learn that the adage is true: When the wind slams shut one door, it blows open yet another.

    Ranging in age from their mid-twenties to late forties, these wives see themselves as partners—not servants or secretaries—with their husbands in an adventure called family life. In the 1990s and beyond, family life resembles a complex corporate enterprise. These wonder women rightfully claim that they "do it all," including finances (from checkbooks to investing), operations (from housing to lifestyle), and strategic planning (from number of children to instilling core values). Because of their previous professional experience, many function as in-residence consultants for their husbands on everything from hiring decisions to office politics. From the outside looking in, the role might not appear equal, but inside the marriage there is a basic understanding that each partner is indispensable to the other. Money is not the way to keep score. The wife's contribution is not taken for granted: it is acknowledged, applauded, and valued by her husband.

    In writing this book, we often felt like Lewis and Clark, the explorers who invented terms for flora and fauna they discovered in the uncharted West. Our language does not have a word, name, or label that describes these women or honors their choice. Housewives? We won't even touch that. The very fact that there is no term is a good indication that they are being ignored. So we asked these women to characterize themselves. Many responded, reflecting their previous corporate lives, "I am the family CEO." Others used terms such as "new-fashioned wife" or "new traditional wife." We chose to use "family CEO" and "new traditional wife" as they encompass most aspects of this multidimensional role.

    Where did this new generation of women come from? Some evolved, others made a conscious decision to stay at home, and still others kicked and screamed before realizing they had to make a change for their sanity as well as that of their families. Many found the transition difficult because at-home wives are not only ignored, they are often dismissed as not deserving attention ... or worse. "Culturally, the skewed attitudes about at-home motherhood seem to proliferate," writes Cecelie Berry in Salon's "Mothers Who Think" online column. "The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal have published articles referring to at-home mothers as executive `status symbols,' a label that demeans the work we do and the sacrifices we make. In movies like One True Thing and Stepmom, the mother who raises her children at home fades away, swanlike, stricken by cancer, while the younger career woman flourishes. These movies function like health warnings: Work makes women stronger; stay-at-home motherhood is carcinogenic."

    Many slowly came to a new way of viewing life, like Betty Walter, a thirty-seven-year-old mother of two and former Environmental Protection Agency program analyst. "I think that as a young woman going to college, graduate school, and entrenched on the career path, I was inside the box that the feminist movement had created for me," she says. "I couldn't think beyond it. I valued myself in terms of the work that I did. But motherhood has showed me that the box is too confining, and that there is more to life than a good title, a great career, and money. The same is true with regard to being a wife. Being married is a continual challenge. To succeed, you have to plow through, bite your tongue, swallow your pride, and look to the greater good of the family unit. These are not bad things, because they ultimately reveal what matters most in life—each other."

    Critics often counter that staying home is a choice only for six-figure income couples. The numbers prove otherwise. In families with both mother and father employed full-time and year-round the median income is $51,950. The median for married-couple families with children below age eighteen and a nonemployed mother is $36,786. (Keep in mind these figures do not include the incomes of the 5.5 million wives who work part-time, ranging from one to thirty-four hours a week.) Obviously for some, this decision to stay at home borders on economic hardship. For others it means living on a tight budget and forgoing "necessities," such as cable TV or resort vacations. For still others, the economic impact is nil and the question centers solely on whether the wife is willing to put aside her career. Whatever the tax bracket, the choice to take a "timeout" is made by both husband and wife—as partners. Most marriages start as dual-income ventures: two incomes, two people. Suddenly, often after the birth of the first or second baby, the arrangement becomes one-income, three or four people—a deal many men didn't sign on for. Frankly, some husbands are not willing to take on that extra financial burden. Just as it takes a special type of woman to become a new traditional wife, this arrangement takes an uncommon man, one who believes so strongly in their partnership that he is willing to assume the full fiscal responsibility.

    Staying at home, taking time out, is not for all wives. Financially, it is out of the question for some women. Others find more satisfaction in the office than at home. For many women, the changing nature of work over the past decade drives the decision. Americans today work longer hours than any industrialized country. In many ways corporations now demand more than ever: sixty-hour weeks are the norm; frequent travel is expected at all levels of management; thanks to e-mail, beepers, and cell phones the employee is never off duty. Many women told us of frantic phone calls: six o'clock had come and gone and the children were still at day care. Whose turn—husband's or wife's—was it to leave the office? Too often that scenario was the rule rather than the exception. This is not a way to live. Of course, some critics may ask why the husband doesn't quit his job and become Mr. Mom. The answer is simple: all the women we spoke to agreed that they wanted to stay home, and some admitted that their husbands were not-so-secretly envious.

    The cadres of women who are willing to make this courageous choice to stay home are imbued with a strong sense of self. And it does take courage to assume a role that some sociologists call "economic suicide." While this kind of marital partnership often leads to stronger, happier marriages, there are certainly no guarantees. And, community property laws aside, a woman could end up in a financially precarious situation if her husband leaves her. The new traditional wife is willing to assume that risk, bolstered by belief in her own abilities. Princeton grad Alison Carlson, a forty-four-year-old mother of three boys who recently moved to Reston, Virginia, echoes the sentiments of many wives: "I lived on my own and supported myself for nine years, including three years of law school, before getting married so I am confident that I can be financially independent whenever necessary. I don't have to go out and prove it every day—I've been there and done that and know I can do it again!"

    No, it is not an easy decision. But, ultimately, the rewards are many. Through our interviews, we show how and why these choices enhance lives: how "partnering" gives wives an equal voice in marriage; why they "back-burner" their careers, some for a few years, others for a decade or more; how they "retool" those job skills into new, emotionally rewarding work, both paid and volunteer; how they negotiate with their husbands to "take turns" in terms of career priorities; how their "gift" of love and time to their families comes back to them tenfold.

A New Vision of Partnership

What sets these women apart from wives of previous generations is that they strongly believe they are partners with their husbands in marriage. Each spouse plays a role in making family life work. Many women we talked with emphasized that they set the tone and pace of family life just as a CEO does for a business. Well-educated and wise to the ways of the work world, the wives make more than mundane household decisions. Many often control the family finances right down to investing, refinancing mortgages, buying—and selling—houses, overseeing major renovations, all with little consultation from their husbands. Indeed, they have caused a change in the mind-set of many home contractors. "Nowadays when a woman says, `I'll discuss it with my husband,' it usually means she is stalling me," says one building contractor. "These ladies are the ones who make the decisions, not the men."

    The wives' efforts are valued and applauded by husbands. No, not all the time, but often enough so the wife feels that she is a full partner with her husband in the life they have created for themselves and their children. The wife of a surgeon told how her husband profusely thanked her and called her to the podium to share an award honoring his work. "He publicly thanked me, saying I deserved the award as much as he did," says Erica Miller.

Letting It Simmer

It's a simple analogy. When we put a pot on the back burner, we don't turn off the heat; we turn it down and let it simmer. That's exactly what psychologist Deborah Williams did when she put her hard-won practice aside for her husband, Herb, during his peak playing years in the NBA. Schoolteacher Joan Waldman took a sixteen-year break to raise two sons and provide support for her husband, and she returned with an energy and creativity that helped her land a position as principal.

    What women want is work that works, work that fits into their new lifestyle. They don't want the work to dominate their personal lives, and they are driven to find a better way. Some—especially doctors, lawyers, and other professionals—stay in the same field and cut back on their hours, still keeping their hand in. Other women leave work completely until the time is right to return. The new traditional wife doesn't turn her back on her career. Instead, she finds ways to keep it simmering.

Creativity with a Twist

Because the new traditional wives have considerable work—and world—experience, they don't "hang it up" when they're no longer on the 7:03 train to the city. Instead they retool and use their talents in creative new ways.

    After more than a decade of writing catchy commercials at an advertising agency, Nina Salkin, a rabbi's wife, now uses those same skills in other ways—from editing a newsletter for rabbinical wives to producing a curriculum on Israel for her son's elementary school.

    Across the country the story is the same: numerous preschools now have pension plans for their teachers, thanks to "volunteer" CPA moms; church and community groups benefit from long-range planning and new fund-raising strategies devised by women who used to do the same for corporations. One mother we know capitalized on her organizational skills to coordinate volunteers for months of daily dinners for a family with a terminally ill mother. These women are not "wasting" their education as some critics might claim. They are using their training for other than paid work.

Shifting Gears for the Turns

Most new traditional wives make the decision to change their lives having an understanding with their husbands about taking turns. At some point, their own careers will get priority. It may not be the same career they left. Many women see this hiatus as a time to explore new avenues for other types of work. For some it is work that is emotionally as well as economically rewarding. For others it is simply work that fits into their lives.

    Preschool teacher Margo Litzenberg found it impossible as a young mother to continue working while her husband was flying Navy planes in the Persian Gulf for six months at a time. That doesn't mean she never plans to return to teaching. She expects that one day her husband will support her goal to get a Ph.D. just as she supported his dreams.

    Admittedly it's not an easy transition back to school or to the office, even one in a side room of the house. But these wives are counting on their husbands to help them ease the transition and help them find a new way of work.

Learning the Arts of Gratitude
and Sacrifice

Sociologist Arlie Hochschild writes, "When couples struggle, it is seldom over simply who does what. Far more often, it is over the giving and receiving of gratitude." We found that many women, as academics have documented, are by their very nature nurturers, taking great satisfaction in caring for others. Those we talked to emphasized that they relished giving a gift of their talents and time to their husbands and children.

    The wife of a doctor who works fourteen-hour days, Erica Miller, says, "His work is so important that we agreed this is the way our life is going to be. It's our arrangement. I like to be nurturing. I like being a wife and a mother and making a home, so I do see that an important part of our relationship is for me to be there for him, and I have made that commitment to him."

    Some critics might say she is making an incredible "sacrifice." If the supposed sacrifice is approached as partnering, it is no sacrifice at all. Moving from the Midwest to Arizona, Sharon Beeler put her own career on hold to help her husband establish his business as a Western artist. "We were busy [working] toward the same goal, so I didn't feel that I was sacrificing anything," she says. "Joe's career is what we're into and it takes both of us."

Forty Years of Mixed Signals

In 1963, Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique gave women permission to throw off their aprons. Seven years of cultural change later, Life magazine proclaimed the emergence of the women's movement with a cover photo of masses of women marching for equal rights in the nation's capital. One generation after another, women flocked to college and professional school and then joined the work force believing that they had to imitate their male counterparts step for step. Almost twenty years passed before another magazine, Time, acknowledged that the feminist movement had sputtered with a cover story that proclaimed, "In the '80s they tried to have it all. Now they have just plain had it." It's as if women were driving down a highway one way, were told to reverse course, and then miles later were told, "No, that's the wrong way too."

    The 1990s left women to figure it out for themselves, with no apparent "right" way. If a woman goes to medical school and chooses after a time to cut back her hours to stay at home, she's blasted by some feminists as a defector from the movement that fought for her to get a spot in medical school in the first place. If a woman stays home to care for her family, she's often faced with the taunts: "What do you do all day?" or "Isn't your mind going to mush?" Yet ask women who work full-time jobs and care for husbands and family, and most will agree that it's almost an impossible task. As Arlie Hochschild notes in her book The Second Shift, the extra burden that working women carry is often "the job that tears the family apart," amounting to the annual equivalent of an extra month of twenty-four hour days of work.

    The decade saw a continuation of the much publicized mommy wars. That battlefield was lined on one side by neo-feminists, who want all women to have babies first and then a career, if at all. They waged a war with books and TV talk shows against the hard-line feminists who believe that any woman not working full-time is a traitor to the cause of gender equality. Some feminists argue that those moms-at-home are part of the reason that women are still making only seventy-five cents for every dollar earned by men. Yet some women—the new traditional wives—managed to find what could be called a third way. This solution was first proposed in 1986 in Sequencing, a book by Arlene Rossen Cardozo, who suggested women divide their lives into three stages: full-time work, full-time mothering, integration of both. The concept of sequencing never received the widespread media attention it deserved. Perhaps it was an idea before its time. Instead, most of the women we talked to charged full steam into their careers with blinders on. Only when they hit a mental wall that signaled a need for change did they look to a serendipitous solution rather a long-range plan.

Who Wrote This Script?

How then do some women manage to successfully navigate change? That's one of the questions we sought to explore in this book. The short answer for most of the women we interviewed is that marriage is a joint commitment by both spouses to a certain way of life and that, for a period of time, a husband's career and child-rearing take priority. Sometimes that situation lasts for only five or ten years. In other marriages it has evolved an ongoing lifestyle.

    When we marry, many of us do not have uppermost in our minds the notion of making the marriage, rather than the individuals, paramount. That idea evolves over time. Sometimes the seeds are planted in childhood. Erica Miller idealized a loving and nurturing family life with lots of traditional festivities. On the other hand, Maureen Canary saw the lights of Broadway as her goal, not a house in Connecticut with a dog and two children and an actor husband.

    Where do our expectations for marriage come from and how does that influence the choices we make? In part, our expectations rise out of what Dr. Xavier Amador," a New York psychologist who counsels men and women about relationships, calls our "marriage script." Translated, a marriage script is the vision in our mind's eye of what our marriage will be like: a white house with a picket fence and lots of happy kids, or arguing, bitter parents, or mothers juggling job and family, exhausted all the time. Dr. Amador, author of Being Single in a Couples' World, points out that the problem with the marriage script is that it is often out of date, "written" in our childhood years, and not based on present-day reality. For women in particular, the marriage script is troublesome because the basic assumptions regarding work, independence, and responsibilities keep shifting as our culture's view of the politically correct role of women evolves. So a woman in her mid-thirties who started thinking about marriage and family and career in the early 1980s may have the do-it-all model engrained in her mind. Yet reality brings a different set of circumstances that makes do-it-all impossible.

    Dr. Amador notes, "Women are getting two different cultural scripts about who they should be in America. A lot of baby boomers grew up getting one script and then what emerged was this other script. And your personal script has everything to do with what happened in your own family. So if you feel that your mother gave up way too much and she resented it, [you think that] if you do the same, you [will] lose your identity. A lot of women I've worked with are really worried about losing their identity, that they'll get married and they'll become Mrs. So-and-So, that they're not going to be themselves. And some [other] women are not afraid of that."

    This book validates the feelings and choices of millions of women, who have often been given the cold shoulder before, but now, at the dawn of the new millennium, reflect a shift in the culture. We found women who were deeply in love with their husbands; women who had made their marriage and children a priority, a silent minority who chose to "go against the grain." For some of these women, it means supporting their husbands' career choices while placing their own on hold. For others, it means more than being supportive, it is coping with difficult and sometimes disturbing situations. It is an ordeal to uproot a family when your husband is transferred, to go to parts unknown. But dozens of women told us that the unexpected rewards they got back were far greater than the ones they gave. Some of the rewards were tangible: unexpected business opportunities, comfortable homes. Others were not quantitative: increased self-esteem, a better understanding of who they are as women, and a greater connection with their spiritual side.

    A hallmark of this group of women is that after ten, fifteen, even twenty-five years of marriage, they still admire and respect their husbands. We found women who make a commitment to putting the marriage before individual needs, who approach marriage as larger than the sum of the parts, and they are eager to talk about it. They have, dare we say, good news to tell and we share it with you now ...

What People are Saying About This

Joanne Brundage
Joanne Brundage, Founder and Executive Director, Mothers & More, the network for sequencing women

...Kaufman and Quigley do an excellent job of putting names and faces to this important emerging trend of 'sequencing'-moving in and out of the paid workplace as family responsibilities ebb and flow. This book is a must read for women struggling with work/family decisions

Margie Johnson
Margie Johnson, Chairman of the Board, Mothers at Home

...These women's stories bring to life a savvy counterculture unabashedly investing their skills, education, and imagination to yield a balance they crave in family life....

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