The following excerpt is from an essay adapted from Heather Boushey’s forthcoming book, “Finding Time: The Economics of Work-Life Conflict.” Read the full essay here, originally published in the latest issue of Democracy.
American businesses used to have a silent partner. This partner never showed up at a board meeting or made a demand, but was integral to profitability. That partner was the American Wife.
She made sure the American Worker showed up for work well rested (he didn’t have to wake up at 3 a.m. to feed the baby or comfort a child after a nightmare), in clean clothes (that he neither laundered nor stacked neatly in the closet), with a lunch box packed to the brim with cold-cut sandwiches, coffee, and a home-baked cookie. She took care of all the big and small daily emergencies that might distract the American Worker from focusing 100 percent on his job while he was at work. Little Johnny got in a fight on the playground? The American Wife will be right there to talk to the school. Aunt Bea fell and broke her hip? The American Wife can spend the afternoon bringing her groceries and making her dinner. The boss is coming over for dinner? The American Wife already has the pot roast in the oven. Even if she had a job—and a certain percentage of American wives, like my mom, worked and had to work despite suburban cultural expectations—she was still the primary caregiver when work-life conflicts arose. The presumption was that she would be the one at home.
This meant that for decades, the American Wife gave American businesses a big, fat bonus. Her time at home made possible the American Worker’s time at work.
This unspoken yet well-understood business contract is now broken. Moreover, it doesn’t look like we’re going back to it anytime soon. Nor should we. American families look different today. Wives—and women more generally—work outside the home because they need to and because they want to.
“Finding Time: The Economics of Work-Life Conflict” will be available on April 19, 2016.