Washington Times

June 8, 2000

Return of the housewife

Suzanne Fields
Washington Times

Erica is 23, an investment banker on the fast track of ambition. Not long ago she was struck by a retrograde idea. She no longer wants to climb the ladder of career ambition. She wants to marry that cute guy in the cubicle down the hall.

Shades of Bridget Jones. But Erica is real. Let him stay on the fast track, she muses; I'll take care of the house.

Surely only Phyllis Schlafly could uncover such heresy. Erica is no doubt featured in one of those stodgy conservative family-value magazines. Right? Wrong. Erica is nestled in the pages of the June issue of Cosmopolitan magazine. She's featured with other Cosmo readers with similar dreams. They're called "the new housewife wanna-bes."

You've got to give the Cosmo editors credit for courage in recognizing the enemy and then writing about her. Erica does not want to follow the career path of Helen Gurley Brown, founding femme of the single sexy Cosmo ideal. She wants what most 1950s women wanted: a husband who comes home at the end of the day to a dinner she has prepared herself.

She may serve sautéed scallops in olive oil, a radiccio salad followed by an espresso mousse, instead of macaroni and cheese, iceberg lettuce with Russian dressing and raspberry Jell-O topped with Cool Whip, but she's eager to hear the mantra: "Hon, I'm home."

These housewife wannabes were discovered by market researchers who track such trends. Youth Intelligence, a tracking firm in New York City, finds that 68 percent of 3,000 married and single women between the ages of 18 and 34 prefer the domestic life if only they could afford it. Another poll, this one by Cosmo, of 800 women found the same trend: Two-thirds would prefer the quality of full-time home life to moving up the hierarchy of ambition in a corporate office.

"It's no fleeting fantasy — these women honestly aspire to the domestic life, and many will follow through with it," says Jane Buckingham, president of Youth Intelligence. Being a housewife is hip. The stresses aren't synthetic. Mom can take Johnny to the playground or the doctor, which is a lot more gratifying than dealing with a jerk in Tuscaloosa about a late delivery of widgets.

We're talking about women who want to cater to their nesting instinct — enjoying family life and friendship with other young mothers.

How did this turnabout come about? Several ideas suggest themselves. The work mystique, as any working stiff knows, isn't all it's cracked up to be. Getting to the top is difficult. Once she arrives, the treadmill accelerates. The higher up she goes, the less personal power a woman has for enjoying her life. Experience, competition, high-intensity drive in the cold, cold world makes housewifery look cool by comparison.

A growing number of women want a different kind of power in their lives, says Ms. Buckingham — power to control their time, to feel safe and to reduce tension. They want to enjoy the civilized aesthetic, not the windowless rooms in a high-rise office tower that aspiring bankers, lawyers and editors live in on the way up.

Women understand well the difficulty of finding a good man. There's always a new generation of nubile young women coming on. They listen closely to the ticking of their biological clocks as they watch their older sisters struggling to get pregnant. They dread confronting the deadline of fertility.

These wistful women believe there will be an expanding job market when they choose to return to the working world later. The baby boomers will retire, probably about the time women of Generation X and Y women return to the job market. High-tech computer systems already make it easier to stay in touch with career information without being a professional.

Some men, spoiled and soft, will resent taking on a full-time breadwinner role. Of the 500 men Cosmo polled, 70 percent said they'd be proud to support a wife and children. Thirty percent had reservations. But new houses are being built with kitchens, rather than living rooms, and that will be the center of the hearth for mom, dad and the kids.

You can hear a woman's yearning expressed plaintively by Gwen Stefani, the pink-haired sultry songbird of the punk-pop group No Doubt: "I always thought I'd be a mom," she laments with piercing lyricism on her newest album:

"How'd I get so faithful to my freedom?

A selfish kind of life. . .

When all I ever wanted was the simple things . . .

A simple kind of life."

Suzanne Fields is a columnist for The Washington Times.

Copyright © 2000 News World Communications, Inc.