Get a ‘wife’

Functioning households need two days of domestic labour a week. Guess what? Working couples don’t have the time.
Get a ‘wife’
Suki Dhanda

If there is one dilemma that confounds working mothers more than any other, it’s the issue of priorities. What is more important, the exhausting fulfillment of a serious career or the exhausting fulfillment of raising a baby? Is it possible to have both, and if so, at what cost?

Gaby Hinsliff is familiar with this modern conundrum’s pincer grip. As the political editor of the U.K.’s respected Sunday broadsheet the Observer, and the new mother of a young son, Hinsliff found herself, at the age of 37, in a classic double-bind. On the one hand she loved her job, on the other she loved her son. Both were fascinating, fulfilling and unapologetically demanding. Both required ample amounts of her best and brightest self every day—day in, day out, without fail. Both were slowly, but inexorably, driving her insane.

For a couple of years after maternity leave she stuck it out; working the Tuesday to Saturday schedule her paper required, employing a full-time nanny, juggling bedtime duties with her PR executive husband depending who was working late, pulling in favours from family and friends during party conference season, and so on. “I loved my job, it was the best job in the world, but I began to feel more and more torn, more and more sleep deprived,” she said in a recent phone interview from her home in Oxfordshire. “If you’re happy doing that kind of job with small children, either your partner is doing something much more low-key than mine was or you must be very comfortable with the idea that you can delegate the child-care side to someone else.” In the end, she quit and moved out of the city to the leafy, pastoral “Shires” (also known as London’s “gin and tonic belt”) where her husband had been offered a good job and the cost of living was significantly lower. In other words, she joined the ranks of self-employed, part-time, stay-at-home parents. Or, to use her term, Hinsliff became the “half a wife” her family—and every virtually working family—so desperately needs.

This logistically tricky and emotionally fraught transition is thoughtfully chronicled in her new book Half a Wife: The Working Family’s Guide to Getting a Life Back—a book that she wrote, fittingly enough, on her newly freed-up freelance writer’s schedule. But don’t mistake Hinsliff for a neo-traditionalist proponent of the so-called “Mommy track,” i.e. the place where ambitious, educated mothers with viable careers go to die, only to be reborn as charity sale cupcake bakers. On the contrary, Hinsliff is all for female breadwinners and stay-at-home dads. The key notion here is her concept of the “half wife”—i.e. the roughly two days a week of concentrated domestic labour she has calculated is necessary to keep a professional family functioning and healthy. Every parental unit needs “at least half a wife” to operate smoothly and efficiently, according to Hinsliff. This “wife” can take the form of shared labour between partners with flexible working hours, help from in-laws, paid outside contractors, or (as in her case) one parent biting the bullet and going part-time.

While Hinsliff is now a passionate advocate for self-employment and flexi-time in the private sector (shortly after leaving her job she sat on a government task force looking at the creation of more flexible working hours for working families), she is also familiar with the inevitable loss of status that comes with taking one’s proverbial nameplate off the office door. “When we moved out of London and applied for a mortgage to buy a new house, I remember having to fill out a form and under occupation writing ‘journalist’ but then having to qualify that with ‘freelance’ and it feeling very strange. It’s the murky career territory where people feel the need to apologize for choosing self-employment. We say, ‘I used to be’ or ‘I’m only part-time’ because we’re used to judging ourselves in terms of status and title and rank.” Hinsliff says that while she misses the rush of working at a large organization, the trade-off is ultimately more than worth it. “When I think of what that status and that rank cost me, I mind less not having it.”

One of the deals she made with herself when leaving her full-time job was to take on new challenges she couldn’t have otherwise contemplated. One was writing a book. The other was starting a blog and establishing a social media profile. She now has nearly 16,000 followers on Twitter and posts frequently on policy and family issues on her popular blog

Hinsliff is interested in the ways government policy and private sector employers can come together to support working families through the creation of more flexible working hours, job-sharing, telecommuting and the like. She warns that many working parents ignore the world of politics at their peril. “Most people experience politics as something very distant from them, but if you have children politics is in every corner of your life. It’s in the hours we work, the child care we’re offered, the price of real estate. All those pressures bearing down on family are the result of decisions made by government.” Moreover, she is quick to point out that working family life is not just a women’s issue and has been treated as such for far too long. “It’s also about the choices fathers make at work and the choices that leaves for their partners,” she says. “Men are starting to want more time with their kids. If you think being a good mother is a toxic issue in the workplace, just try asking, ‘What’s being a good father?’ ”

The crucial thing, says Hinsliff, is that domestic labour (i.e. “wife duties”) needs to be fairly shared. She rejects the notion that women are more “naturally inclined” toward child rearing and says that couples owe it to their marriages to work toward an equilibrium. “The risk of divorce doubles if both partners work and the woman does all of the domestic work, but that risk is nullified if domestic work is shared,” she says, adding with a dry laugh, “Of course my husband would be the first to admit he’s not exactly a domestic goddess. But we’re working on that.”