“I need a wife.” In a meeting last week, my female colleague says this to me. “I need a wife.” She is a divorced mom of two sharing parenting responsibilities amicably but not equitably with her ex. She sent her son off on a camping trip with school and he returned to his dad’s house with a suitcase full of dirty laundry. Even though her son stayed with Dad for a few days, the laundry ended up coming home to Mom still caked with grime, still stuffed in a suitcase. My colleague is understandably perturbed by this and she has to make a choice. Does she spend her time and emotional energy doing the laundry, feeling pissed off? Or does she spend her time and emotional energy explaining to her former partner what 50% of the parenting responsibilities actually means? Either way the burden of care is hers. When she says she needs a wife, I can relate. What would it be like to have someone at home with a lifetime of socialization on how to perform the labor of care? For the academic women all around me, this is the dream.
If you’ll pardon the fairly binary, heterosexist connotation of the dynamic I have set up here, I’ll try to explain my yearning for this magical person that my father had, and my older male colleagues had, and even some of my male contemporaries have still. I want a wife because success in academia is predicated upon shared labor- the university career only works alongside the equally demanding and time-consuming work within the home. I have seen older male colleagues whose wives edited their manuscripts, ironed their shirts, made their lunches and dinners, raised their children, paid their bills, set up their doctor’s appointments. . . the list goes on and on. How else could these professors have focused so singularly on their scholarly work? How else could they have achieved such professional success?
Many people are writing about the persistent inequities in domestic labor in the US. Anne-Marie Slaughter in particular calls for us to create a work world that has room for caregiving responsibilities. She knows from personal experience how caring for children and aging parents can derail a career, and how women disproportionally experience these challenges. I am just starting out in the profession and already trying to plan for the caregiving responsibilities I see on the horizon. My mother’s health is very poor and she cares for my disabled brother. I can imagine a rapid shift in my familial responsibilities occurring at any time. Despite having a supportive partner who does take on a massive amount of domestic labor, I return to the socialization problem. My mother would never feel comfortable with my partner taking care of her and against all of my critical, feminist impulses, I feel the nagging guilt of a daughter who is uninterested in and ill-equipped for the work of care.
I’m also thinking about self-care here, another topic that I can’t seem to read enough about because I am constantly failing at it. Two personal favorites are Rebecca Schuman’s piece on an elaborate skincare routine for academic women and Sarah Ahmed’s powerful take on Audre Lorde’s quote, “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” I have to remind myself this semester, and every semester, I can’t do anything of value without my health and wellbeing.
So with that in mind, what do you do to take care of yourself? How do you negotiate caregiving labor at home with partners and extended family? And perhaps most importantly, how can we make care possible within our academic institutions as the social category of “wife” shifts, and all of her responsibilities need a new place to land?