Women Who Want Domesticity

M. Mokros
First-prize winner (tie) - essay

She is on the fast track to success. The apotheosis of the young, modern woman, she is fiercely competitive, independent, self-possessed and altogether irrepressible. Never in repose, she misses not a single kick in kick-boxing class, works part time at a marketing firm, snags A's in her classes, has job offers galore, and in her free time, sends off applications to law schools.

Mind you, she does not want a career.

"I don't want to work at a frantic pace. Slowing down to raise my children, pick out tile for the bathroom, and walk the dog in the afternoon enthuses me," she says.

A member of the generation of young women groomed to run like bulls through the workplace, she is Jennifer Wojnarski. At 23, she is one of a growing number of goal-orientated, well-educated young women who secretly dream of playing house. Gladly, say Wojnarski and women like her, would they give up their professional goals - calling the shots and earning enough money to buy 60 pairs of Prada shoes - for a husband, a white picket fence, a baby, and a living room that actually gets lived in. Certainly not every woman today fantasizes about having dinner on the table promptly at 7:00, but to ignore women like her would be to deny the facts.

Privileged though they may seem, these women are hardly a minority. For the first time in 25 years the number of mothers with infants working outside the home dropped, according to the U.S. 2000 Census Bureau's Current Population Survey. What's more, 68 percent of women between the ages of 18 and 34 say they would prefer to stay at home and raise their children to working outside the home, according to a national poll conducted in 2000 by the Manhattan-based market research firm, Youth Intelligence. Cosmopolitan magazine, which commissioned the poll, proclaimed this 68 percent "the new housewife wannabes."

The two polls reveal a startling paradox: in the face of an intoxicating blend of unprecedented opportunities and the freedom to seize them, what is emerging, at least in some women, is a renewed desire for domesticity. The desire is most apparent among young women armed with six-figure educations and impressive resumes. Instead of marching off to work, they would prefer to devour bridal magazines, take flower-arranging classes, and set time aside for girls' knitting night.

When asked to explain this ironic trend, young women and experts alike cite reasons ranging from a cultural backlash to the fiery feminism of the 1960's and 1970's to the timeless and unrelenting instinct to mother that is so difficult to reconcile with professional goals. But these explanations beg the question, Is this a move backwards, or an empowering new position for women to take? And will contemporary feminism realign itself to include this irony or shun it?

"The desire for domesticity is part of feminist cycle," says Dr. Gilda Carle, a relationship expert and professor of psychology and communications at New York's Mercy College. Carle views the return to June Cleever as a natural backlash to the women's liberation movement several decades ago, a complicated response to the notion that they could do or be anything they wanted when they grew up- anything, that is, except become a stay-at-home Mom.

Carle does not see their desire to stay home as an anti-feminist choice. Feminism plays an obvious part in their decisions and desires. Members of the first generation of grown-up latchkey kids, many of them came home to an empty house after school or spent hours waiting at a daycare for their working parents to pick them up.

"Women ran into the workplace - almost on a dare - saying yes, we can do it! And who suffered? The children," Carle explains. "These women do not want their kids to feel the way they did, growing up."

Jessica Thornton, a 22-year-old assistant account executive at Hill and Knowlton in Manhattan, represents the flip side of this experience. Her mother stayed home to take care of her, and she appreciates that. Despite the fact that Thornton is well on her way to professional success, she wants to stay home to raiser her children so that they have the same sense of stability and security her mother provided her by staying home.

So, in what seems to be a corrective rebound, young women, even those whose careers are in full swing, plan on relinquishing some or all of their professional goals in order to raise children they have not yet conceived. Baking cakes, running errands with children - the very domestic routines cast off by women a generation back because they were so mundane and confining - now have an exotic appeal to a generation of women prepping for power suits.

Maggie Heltzel, a 24-year-old college graduate from Cleveland who is deciding which teaching position to accept among a bevy of offers, says that her 20's are proving to be an empowering and singular age. "For the first time in my life, I feel freedom in its entirety," she announces with convincing fortissimo. However, she acknowledges that along with freedom come jumbled feelings of anxiety about how to reconcile her professional goal of becoming an English professor with the draw of domestic life and motherhood. "I like the idea of a home and putting dinner on the table," she admits. "To me, these thoughts, whether attainable or not, provide comfort and a form of escape." Maggie, who lives on her own, says she is ambivalent about how to live out this time in her life and calls the decision process a difficult one. She, like many of her peers who face an overwhelming number of career options, sees domesticity as forbidden fruit.

Because of expectations placed on young women by their parents, the men in their lives, and even other women, many will admit their desire to stay home and raise a family only to the most trustworthy of friends and of those, only to the ones they suspect feel the same way. Even then, such enticing desires are often expressed in hushed tones and with half-raised hands in a gesture characteristic of a guilty and reluctant confession.

The reason for some young women's shame, said Dr. Phyllis Chesler, a renowned authority on feminism and women's studies, is because women have internalized the views of society - a society that now expects women to have successful careers. What's more, Chesler says, women who consider themselves feminists eschew the idea of women staying at home.

The feminist conviction that women belong in the world of work makes feminism strangely sexist, said Chesler in a recent interview. Even women who want to return to the home no longer think it is acceptable to do so. They think they should be on the stock exchange floor instead. "Women have won the right to be men," she explains. "Women have not won the right to be women."

What about childbearing?

"From the start, gender is hardwired in us," Chesler says. "Some feminists would die to admit this, but women are as close to the apes as they are to the angels." In other words, even while not every woman wants to be a mother, the biological role of women as child-bearers is undeniable. A career-driven woman who experiences the pull towards motherhood cannot deny the struggle that results. And, regardless of the many roles women play today, the motherhood instinct in many cases is going nowhere, Chesler says.

The dash towards equality in the workplace has diminished the role of women as caregivers and stay-at-home wives, making the decision to stay home almost shameful, Chesler believes. Husbands have come to expect the extra income that working wives bring into a household and working women have begun to view those who opt for domestic life as betrayers of the feminist fight.

"I worry about the looks I'll get from working moms," says Andrea Runyon, a 23-year-old third-grade teacher in Charlotte, N. C. who has always wanted to be a homemaker. She had a difficult time deciding on a career - something she knew was expected of her - because all she ever wanted was a husband and a family.

Runyon fears not only failing to meet other people's expectations, but also feels wary about breaking her own unwritten rules - rules that are embedded in her psyche after years of hearing the do-anything-be-anyone-you-want-to-be credo.

"I'm struggling with self-induced pressure to pursue a rewarding and challenging career replete with executive positions," says 23-year-old Jessica Hileman, who is currently running the gamut of mandatory rotations at a Cleveland hospital required to become a registered dietitian. Hileman's boyfriend recently accepted a job in Michigan and she is wrestling with whether to abandon her career plans to follow him there, where she could work part time as a personal trainer, take dance lessons, and spend the rest of her time at home.

"It seems so simple: Go west, be happy, have a wonderful life with the person I love. However, I have this little place inside me that is holding me back from doing that," she says. Hileman's confusion is indicative of the possibility that feminism today may have to revisit the presumption that all young, well-educated, intelligent women make career-goals their top priority. She fears that one set of expectations for women may simply have replaced another.

"Weird" is the way Jennifer Miklos, a 25-year-old public relations professional in Chicago, describes the pressure she puts on herself to remain independent. Even though she would happily abandon her career to stay at home with the children she hopes to have, right now she feels compelled to keep working in the name of self-reliance. And she says that her married friends who are ambivalent about their decision to stay home expect her to remain the independent one in the group. "If I wanted to quit my job and have kids next week, I would almost be letting them down," Miklos says.

All the same, some in the vanguard are ready to wear the badge of domesticity with open pride - women without doubt or nagging guilt. As Wojnarski says, "Even though society has fed women a bill of goods, convincing them that they want every opportunity in the workplace, I don't feel like less of a feminist for admitting that I like the security that a husband and family offer." Chesler would see Wojnarski's unabashed sentiment as the emergence of another version of feminism with enough room under the umbrella for executives and housewives alike. The important thing as far as feminism goes is that women have choices, she would claim.

While some might think that such comments would outrage women's libbers of the '60's and those of today, Mary Jo Marchionni, a career and personal coach for women, says instead, "What we are seeing here is a bunch of smart, young women who have decided to live the way they want to live, not to be put into some mold."

And no one can deny that some smart, goal-orientated women start thinking about motherhood in their 20's. "Every woman has an inner challenge between traditional female role and ambitious, successful woman," said Melissa Dodd, a 26-year-old voice actor and writer in San Francisco.

While Carle is not convinced that the desire toward domesticity is an inherent one caused by the ticking of the biological clock, she does believe that the recent burgeoning of home decorating, cooking shows, and knitting circles harks back to the primordial hunter-gatherer mentality. The popularity of dating shows and shows like "The Bachelor," in which young single women vie for a man's marriage proposal, reflects the attitude of many young women she interviewed for her book, Don't Bet on the Prince. According to Carle, finding a husband is more often than not part of a young woman's domestic dreams.

"Beautiful and accomplished women are still waiting to be 'saved' from their own allegedly 'banal' lives by some man," she said. Carle, who has received thousands of emails from professional women saying that they are waiting for a Prince Charming, calls these women's careers "a temporary mechanism until they meet Mr. Right." The idea that a woman needs a man to better her position in life is an old-fashioned one today, but some young women admit that they view marriage not only as a way to indulge their romantic Cinderella notions, but also as the ideal financial opportunity to pursue dreams that they believe would otherwise be impossible.

"I'll scrape by until I meet someone who will support me," says Natalie Stevens, who is currently pursuing a master's degree in journalism. "I want to write, not as a job, but when I feel like it."

Some young women also cite as a reason for settling down sooner the recent reports in the media that female fertility begins decreasing at an earlier age than previously thought. A "20/20" segment that has spawned a national conversation about the role of timeliness in fertility seems to have jolted some young women into changing gears.

"Now that Time magazine and 'The View' are telling me that my eggs start to decline at 27, my 20's aren't so fun anymore," says Runyon. "Instead, they are stressful and pressure-filled."

"Confused," "stifled," and "mortified" are words young women use when they realize their chances of successfully bearing children dwindle the longer they put off marriage to pursue professional goals. The predicament may lead some young women to choose a domestic lifestyle despite a bevy of professional options. The dilemma, according to Chesler, stems from the fact that the much-touted idea that young women today can be anyone they want is an illusion.

"Motherhood is a hero's journey," Chesler says, "but, it is mocked and devalued in this society. Women's biology is devalued even though it is sacred." When a young woman realizes that limited maternity leave and more covert workplace attitudes force mothers into diminished professional roles, suddenly her slew of options boils down to two. She can either be an upwardly mobile careerist - or she can be a mother.

Marchionni agrees. "There is an either/or mentality in society around family and work, and it always falls on the woman to make the sacrifices," she says. The new trend towards domesticity shows that not every young woman today sees making the decision to be a mother as a sacrifice.

"I walk through the park and see babies. I stop and see who is so lucky to make them smile," says Stevens, one of many young women who view motherhood as an invaluable privilege and something they want to experience not in tandem with a full-time career but on its own.

Whether feminism today can expand to embrace such an unflinching attitude remains to be seen.

© M. Mokros

M. Mokros lives and works in New York City. She is currently writing her Master's thesis at New York University.

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