Putting the Care in Career

“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?




10 thoughts on “Putting the Care in Career

  1. I realized I will need a wife when I was in grad school. I asked my female professors how they stay sane and on top of housework – in hushed tones, all of them admitted to having a housekeeper. My husband and I are both highly career-oriented and we have two children. We’ve employed a full-time or part-time housekeeper for almost the entire time we have had children (there was one gap year when I did most of the childcare and housework on top of working part time – it was very hard). Having a housekeeper has required complicated arrangements and it eats up most of our income. In a perfect world, there would be different solutions, but in practical terms, having a housekeeper means that I can work a few extra hours every day (which in turn has lead to extra income). Both my husband and I have also been able to travel extensively for work. During our time off, we can focus on doing things together with children.

  2. My husband and I are both university professors and we have two kids. We share the chores quite well at home, but it’s still a lot of work. We keep saying that we need “a wife”, in the sense that we need someone to do the thinking, planning, managing. I don’t mind cleaning the house, but I hate being the person who decides when to do it. The same applies to my husband in other fronts. Making decisions is the part of the housework that is the worst for us. I suspect that this issue of not having a “full time housewife” affects more my husband than I, because he’s the typical white male professor who is expected to have a traditional marriage.

    • yes, whatever we say or think is the ideal, the phrase in the above post is still true (and was true for our family) ….”he is EXPECTED (my emphasis) to have a traditional marriage”…… It is these cultural EXPECTATIONS that constantly need fighting against, and the fight is exhausting.

  3. Thank you for this post! As a single mother of two children (one in college…yikes) and as an untenured professor, I feel this struggle daily. No time for a battery issue with the car, a standardized test battle at the elementary school, or God forbid strep throat. I am thankful for the supportive colleagues and parents in my child’s class but we are living without margin.

  4. Some of the language in this post makes me very uncomfortable, both as a queer woman and as a trans woman. I get what Dr Klotz saying, and I think the topic she raises is an extremely important one to address, but two things in particular bother me. The first, and probably most directly for me, is the comment on women’s “lifetime socialization”. Similar arguments have been used for decades to systematically keep trans women out of women’s spaces by perpetuating the idea that we’re really just deluded men, and that somehow the socialization of young women means that trans women can’t actually be “real women”. It’s one of the major reasons why trans women have been kicked out of Mich Fest (which drove a lot of similar policies to women’s spaces across the country), it’s kept us out of crisis shelters, it’s stopped us from being able to access women’s health clinics, it’s removed us from feminist movements, and it’s one of the main arguments that Janice Raymond used against us in Transexual Empire, which is one of the major works that directly lead to trans health care being removed from insurance policies, making it difficult to even just access necessary medical treatment. I know that’s not what Dr. Klotz was going for, but that’s what that kind of phrasing will bring to mind for nearly all trans women. Having a different childhood doesn’t mean that trans women don’t grow to have the same expectations put on us as other women do, nor does it mean that we don’t have the same pressures and expectations, or self-aimed guilt to do the work of care that cis women do. We carry the same weight that cis women do.

    The second point doesn’t bother me quite as much, since my problem with it is mentioned very briefly in passing, and that’s the hetereosexism in the post. The problem being addressed is very much a symptom of patriarchal expectations, but framing the argument as desiring a queer relationship instead feels disingenuous to queer relationships. Like you’re using lesbians to make a point about straight people, instead of highlighting some of the ways that same-gender couples do split work loads more evenly (among both queer women and queer men) and trying to take some of the examples of that to make straight relationships more equitable. I think it’s mostly that we’re treated in the hypothetical instead of as people with experiences in this area that bugs me.

  5. Thank for this, dualitea. I appreciate the critique. To clarify, I am in fact speaking as a queer woman here who continues to build a home life around non-normative desires and divisions of labor. I mean to point out the negotiation that goes on for me and my partner as we make sense of breadwinner identities and our own ideas about gender and labor. I am happy to speak one on one about what I mean by my queer family identity, but do not wish to do so at length here.
    As far as the lifetime of socialization, I can see how you would align my comments with a TERF view, and want to clarify on this point as well. I do not mean to state that the “wife” identity requires a lifetime of gender training to inhabit. Or that authentic women emerge from a lifetime of socialization. I do mean to point out a specific problem of male privilege in domestic and professional spheres and call out male socialization as I experience it in my world at this time. I also want to say that I am very appreciative of your comment because I did not think of how that particular phrasing about socialization would land. That is my cis privilege 100%.

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  7. I am commenting only on the first few paragraphs only. It’s late so I didn’t read all the way through but I do have a notion to add that may help your friend tremendously. The single parent thing is a total headache! No arguments there. But what she might do is teach her son to do his own laundry and chores. That takes her load off and he’ll build character while doing so. Ever since I was 6, I was doing the dishes at home and attending my parents every need. Because that is how I was taught. By the age of 9, I was doing my own laundry and pretty much everything else in the house. Now in my case, my mother never lifted a hand so I was left to my own devices, still, that is what children are for. Take him on down to the laundry room (or laundry facility) and show him how it’s done. If he’s non compliant then give him an allowance or whatever you deem best until he does comply. If he’s young than he has no choice but if he is a bit older than it’s about time he learns regardless.

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