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KPBS Commentaries

Lately I've been thinking that I need a wife. I'm talking about a wife in the traditional, June Cleaver-1950s era variety. Someone who makes sure the grocery shopping gets done and plans meals (home made, take out or in a restaurant, I'm not picky). Someone who manages the kids' schedules and gets them where they need to be. Someone who greets me at the door, hands me a drink and tells me to relax before dinner. Someone like my mother.

I've floated the idea to my husband, that perhaps he would like to take on the role, but this hasn't materialized. While he has no problems with changing gender roles, he points out that while his flexible schedule would allow for some of what I want, a full June Cleaver transformation wouldn't fit our budgetary needs. So, I'm aiming for something in between. The trouble is we are part of the first generation of couples where the responsibility for bringing home the bacon is shared with domestic duties and child care. We are pioneers without role models for this partnership that I envision.

Although both of us are open to change, neither of us can escape our own innate and learned impulse to behave like a traditional wife/mother and husband/father. But this paradigm doesn't work because we aren't living traditional lives in the old fashioned sense of the word. We both need a wife -- but only one of us looks like one.

I've been thinking about this a lot lately, probably because my mother recently stayed with us for several months and I got a taste of what it would be like if I had a wife. There's no denying, the experience was sublime. Since she's left, I have no idea how I managed before she came.

For nearly five months she shopped, cooked, kept the house neat, did pinch hitting child care, ran errands and enveloped all of us -- especially me -- in a blanket of love and support. When she left, I realized what I'd been missing. It's always harder to lose something than to never have it in the first place. Growing up, I was aware of what a nurturing wife and mother she was but until she stayed with us, I hadn't experienced it from the perspective of being a mother myself. Beyond the practical help she provided, which had a huge impact, she was there for me, as an individual. She literally asked me about my day, poured me a glass of wine, shooed the kids away so I could change my clothes and take a breather. Then -- depending on my energy level -- she encouraged me to play outside with my children or sit and read the paper while she finished dinner.

Her presence and her support made me realize how deficient I was and all working mothers are in this level of unconditional support. It's no one's fault, it's just a phase in a life with young children. But, when you're living it, it can seem like a very, very long phase.

Although my mother worked part-time throughout my childhood, there was no confusion over who was in charge of managing our household, she pretty much did it all. I vowed to myself that my marriage would be more of a partnership -- and it is. But, I am still the wife/mother only a generation away from the wife my mother was, and there are some habits that are hard to break.

As a new wife and mother I instinctively took on many of the household/parenting management duties in my marriage and my husband never complained. I am not unique. Like many mothers, I do the shopping and meal planning, coordinate all major family activities from school and camp, to sports and play dates to doctor's visits and holiday and vacation plans. I fill out all of the paperwork for such activities, write all of the notes, call the other mothers, etc. My husband is willing to help whenever asked but there's where the equality in the relationship falls flat. I'm troubled by the fact that as a society we haven't gotten past traditional gender roles. We still define what men do in the house as help yet what women do in the workplace as opportunity.

Armin Brott, author of The New Father and The Expectant Father addresses this reality by recommending that women look at the problem from the perspective of their husbands or partners. While a woman is more likely to measure what her husband does around the house against what she does, men usually compare themselves to their fathers or their male friends. Looking at it this way, husbands who "helps" minimally may see their contributions as significant. In addition, while women have had years of direct or subtle training and influence on the expected duties of childcare and running a household, today's fathers are the first generation to be expected to actively participate in their home life, well beyond just "helping."

Brott also recommends that couples redefine "work." Says Brott, "When dividing up responsibilities, many couples have trouble defining what, exactly, the term 'work' means. In many families, for example, couples err by neglecting to give parenting the same weight as ordinary chores. Yet child care takes at least as much time, and may be just as tiring, as shopping and mopping. So even if your partner is wrestling with the baby while you're making dinner, things might not be as unequal as they seem. True, he may be having more fun, but somebody has to do it. And if he plays with the baby today, he can fix dinner tomorrow while you wrestle.

The challenge for any working mom is the realization that it takes work to get to the point where the division of duties comes naturally. Even then, someone has to assign tasks, and in the home, the wife/mother is usually expected to take the lead. I'm almost through mourning my mother leaving and I'm almost ready to stop looking for a wife. When I'm ready, I'll take up the leadership role I've been given, make a list of duties to split with my husband and schedule one day a week on the calendar when I can do nothing after I leave the office. That may mean I can't go home. But I know just down the road there's a coffee shop or bookstore with my name on it where relaxation is my only task.

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