Elizabeth Wurtzel has an interesting piece in the Atlantic, in which she touches upon whether or not Ann Romney’s – Mitt’s unemployed, 1% wife, whose dressage champ is going to the Olympics! – actually, you know, works. She states “I am going to smack the next idiot who tells me that raising her children full time — by which she really means going to Jivamukti classes and pedicure appointments while the nanny babysits — is her feminist choice.”
This surprised me, because I generally think of Wurtzel as being a very critical, non-judgemental thinker.
Fun story: I grew up doing dressage. My mom does dressage. I had a wonderful nanny. Due to various aspects of my upbringing I cannot pretend I am not backing Ann Romney’s horse in this race.
Now that we have had that fun full disclosure, which potentially means that you can dismiss my opinion as biased: I think Ann Romney is absolutely right to say that she works.
However, I think Ann is trying to give people the impression that she was simultaneously changing the diapers for six colicky infants, and I don’t think that was the case. I doubt that. I do think she works, but then, I think the kind of work done by wives of 1%ers is very, very different.
Being a rich mom — even with five sons, bless her heart — is not even sort of a job. Housekeepers there, servants there: it’s not just that being a wealthy wife is not work in the way that being a corporate litigator or a corporal in the Army is work, it’s that it doesn’t even involve picking up Lego pieces and putting away GI Joe dolls or much of any of the stuff that makes being a mom a job…It is not a selective position.
I feel fairly confident in saying that being married to a man like Romney is a very selective position, and it would be very hard work. She has servants for housecleaning and a nanny? Great. Her job has nothing to do with changing diapers. Her job has little to do with vacuuming. What her job, very likely, has to do with is keeping her husband happy.
Oh, I think this is a job where you get servants and nannies. You get all kinds of perks. And all you have to do in return is be perfect all the time.
I remember once having a conversation with my grandmother in which she mentioned that Paris Hilton was detestable. I asked why, and she said that Paris simply spent all her family’s money on clothes and going to parties, and never worked at anything. I pointed out that my grandmother admired, say Babe Paley or Gloria Guinness, who could be said to do the same. She stared at me for a second. “That’s very different,” she said, “those women were married.” I asked how that was different. “When you are older you will understand how well behaved you have to be for that kind of marriage.”
She was right. I do, now. And that really is the key thing – you have to be well behaved.
Or rather, you have to be behaved in the right way, which just means how your husband wants you to behave.
Look, if the money you are living off of is not yours – if you did not earn it or inherit it – then be clear, you are working for someone. If your husband is providing you with all the money you live on, you are in a situation where your husband is your boss. Now, if you hate your current job, and you do not like commuting, this seems like it might be a preferable alternative. If your boss is your husband, you probably have a nice boss. You have a boss who loves you! Who you love! That’s great. And maybe it seems wildly, unbelievably easy to make him happy.
But – let’s say you and your boyfriend are two independent people, both of you working away at your own jobs. Let’s say he does something shitty. I don’t know what you consider shitty, but whatever that is, he does it. You’d probably call him out on it, yes? You might yell at him. That seems reasonable. Maybe you’d talk to him about how upsetting that shitty thing he did was. Sure you would. That’s how you respond when your friends and equals do things you don’t like.
Would you talk to your boss that way?
No. You would not.
And I think that is where the work element comes in with women who are supported entirely by their husbands.
Try to think about all the times that you have lost your temper, or sulked, or generally behaved in a way that was not your best. Now begin to think about a world where every time you behave that way your job is simultaneously in jeopardy. The truly working aspect of this is that the person you would generally get to relax and be in a bad mood around is something that you can no longer do.
So: you have to be in a good mood.
ALL THE TIME.
I don’t know about you, but I am completely incapable of doing this. I cannot conceive of a relationship where I was on my best behavior at all times. Or I could, but it would have to be some kind of relationship where my husband was a spy, who was constantly away in Soviet Russia, and I had to be on my best behavior only during the occasional weekend that he was around. He could be around, like 4, weekends a year and spend the rest of the year trying to assassinate Trotsky. So, I could do this only if my husband was a time traveling spy.
Because perfectly behaved is not how people are. That’s how robots are.
I have bad moods. I yell. I don’t, say, jump into fountains with my clothes on, but it seems like the kind of thing I could do. I’m Zelda goddamn Fitzgerald.
If you are in this position, if you are married to someone who supports you entirely, you cannot have your Zelda moments.
Being a good wife – however your husband defines that – is now your job. You are an employee. Your job is now providing an enjoyable environment for this man who is giving you all the money to go to Jivamukti classes.
And it’s a 24/7 performance. You’ll no more get to lose your temper and behave badly than you would if you were in an office.
Or, of course, you could. In the same way you could start really flouting your boss’s preferences, rolling into the office drunk and swearing at him or her. Maybe your boss would love this and let it go. Seemed like that worked in Office Space. Or maybe they would not.
I am going to vote that the latter is more likely.
And if they do not let it go, they can begin looking to hire someone who makes their environment more pleasant. Now, maybe in a normal job that would not be such a terrible thing. If your boss became demanding, or weird, or generally someone you did not love working for, you could say “Well, my time at this company has built up my resume, I’ve advanced in my field, I’ll go elsewhere now.”
However, if you are a professional wife, your time with your husband has not built up your resume. Your time with him has actually significantly weakened it. Because time itself will generally have weakened it.
Because, very likely, one of the main things you will be contributing to the relationship is your youth, beauty and sense of awe.
And this is diminishing all the time.
Think about how you would feel if every day you spent at your job made you less employable in your field anyplace else.
You’re sitting at your desk right now, the clock is ticking, and every second mores means that it is more likely that if you get fired you might really, truly, be unable to ever work in the same way again.
That’s rather frightening, right? You’d better be really good at your current job.
Oh, and if you signed a pre-nup, which you very likely did, because they are de rigueur now, if you are let go there may be almost no severence. And you have no other skills.
You would likely not agree to work at any company where that was going to be the case.
Why? Because that is terrifying. That is a terrifying position to be in. And I think the more you become aware of that, the more you’ll realize that these women do have to be performing perfectly all the time. This seems so much like being a kind of tight-rope walker. It seems fearful. And the fact they manage it at all is sort of stunning.
And, of course, you may begin putting up with things you would not normally put up with. In a time when those marriages were more common, Babe Paley’s husband threw furniture at her when he went into rages and cheated on her constantly. She stayed with him. Being Bill Paley’s wife was, after all, as Truman Capote pointed out “the best job in the world” (he also pointed out that she had no other skills and children to support).
Meanwhile, Vincent Astor – a man so unpleasant his club had to have solitary seating because no one would sit with him at lunch – pretty memorably wouldn’t allow Brooke to see her children. Brooke said “I think I made him happy. That’s what I set out to do. I’d literally dance with the dogs, sing, and play the piano, and I would make him laugh.” Meanwhile, he wouldn’t allow her to see her children from her prior marriages. Her friend Louis Auchincloss said, “Of course she married Vincent for the money. I wouldn’t respect her if she hadn’t. Only a twisted person would have married him for love.”
Now, hopefully, you have a husband who is not Vincent Astor or Bill Paley. It’s possible you’ll have a very nice life, but remember, it will be nice because of your husband’s munificence. Regardless of that, keeping one other person happy all the time just seems like so much work. To me.
Now, maybe you are incredibly well behaved and never lose your temper and are a goddess of calm and cool. I guess you would be very well suited to life as a professional wife, then.
And I think that’s a skill, and I think it is a really impressive skill. I’m in awe of women who can be in a good mood all the time – or appear to be – without trips to the lobotomobile.
I don’t necessarily think being a professional wife is a bad job, and I think you could argue that the perks make up for some of the difficulties if you really, really love exercise classes. I certainly do not think it is a worse job than anything else built around service. I do not think being a housekeeper is a bad job, or being a personal trainer or being a life coach. I think all of those are fine jobs for people whose interests and talents align with them. I just think it is a very rare individual who has that particular professional wife skill set.
I do think that being a professional wife is a riskier job, because if you have a brain filled with only one man’s preferences it isn’t going to help you in the same way “having cleaning skills” would help you if you end up fired. However, it is a riskier job with a higher potential for reward (the housekeeper will not be going to whatever exercises classes Wurtzel is sending these ladies off to).
So, yes, yes, I think this is a hard job. I think this is a much harder job than, say, the one I have, or, really, for that matter, the on Elizabeth Wurtzel has.
And honestly? If you’re not a goddess of calm and cool, never go that route. You don’t need that much work. Go easy on yourself. Just be half of a power couple.