The companion piece to New York Magazine’s ‘The Retro Wife’.
When Damian Schwarzberger was a little boy, he didn’t really envisage the future at all. Damian liked to play video games, and think about losing his virginity. After he lost his virginity at fifteen, he instead imagined a fabled future time when he would have a girlfriend who would provide sex on tap, like fucking all the time. And punctuated in between video games and sex were his parents’ voices nagging Damian to start thinking about his future, as if there was a remote possibility that he might not follow the established path of his class and his family, spend a summer abroad in either Paris or Madrid, learn very little of the language, drink excessively, have a disappointing (consensual? he was never sure) threesome with an extremely drunk young girl [too many penises for his liking] which provided enough fuel for over a decade of bar-bragging, go to college (Penn), work in the city for a little while, then return to graduate school to become either a lawyer, a doctor or start up his own Hedge Fund. Damian expected to have several really hot girlfriends of varying races from differing socio-economic backgrounds who would do pretty much everything he fantasized about in bed (mainly missionary and fellatio), but knew that by the time he was twenty-eight he would probably settle for a white girl with an identical socio-economic and cultural background to his own. She would have a respectable career, probably in the Liberal Arts, a career which was extremely important to her sense of achievement, independence and well-being, a career which was ultimately disposable.
Now that Damian is thirty-five years old, he has found that he has achieved pretty much everything that he expected out of life, although he did once smoke crack at a party in Williamsburg which he’s worried may have ruined his chances at running for office, and he’s never told his wife about it because her father’s in AA and he knows it would really upset her. Damian, as expected, earns six figures, has two children, lives in Park Slope, and is married to Whitney, a former Child Psychologist who gave up her job after the birth of their first child because even though her job is really important for her sense of independence and well-being, the biggest challenge of her entire existence is being a full-time mother to Grace (3) and David (6 months). When choosing a mate Whitney settled on Damian after a careful consideration of his financial background and future prospects, and rejected Connor the Irish bartender who worked at Lucky Strike’s even though he was a really nice guy who would never cheat on her and performed excellent cunnilingus well, he’s a bartender and even though she intended to keep working for the rest of her life as an extremely successful Child Psychologist, her policy towards marriage has always been ‘Let’s pretend there’s only one income and it’s his – just in case’.
Damian is not a Koch brothers wannabe, nor a Steubenville clone who managed to escape the nineties unscathed because no one had cellphones when he was a teenage football star. Damian wears stained sweatpants and man-Uggs around the house (a modest three bedroom Park Slope brownstone condo). Damian has no problem purchasing Whitney’s chemical-free Heavy Flow tampons sans applicators on his own. He plays soccer on Sundays and generously encourages Whitney, who has let herself go a bit since having Grace and David, to do yoga and pilates online classes at home so she can tighten her pelvic floor a little, aspire to be the ashtanga-toned hottie she was when they first met six years ago.
Both Damian and Whitney find the assertion that “feminism has fizzled” because of families like theirs a comedic one.
“For couples of our economic class, race and background, I can’t really remember it being any other way,” puzzles Whitney, as she unpacks Wholefoods grocery bags (she does her own shopping) and hands me a bottle of home-brewed Kombucha and warm Kale chips straight from her (European imported) Aga oven. When Damian gets home at 9pm that night (Whitney is asleep on the sofa covered in baby sick) smelling faintly of booze and pussy after an afternoon in Flash Dancers Gentleman’s Club entertaining clients, he agrees.
“Honestly, I get that feminism has now paved the way for women to have jobs as if they’re independent, fully-functioning human beings who can have it all, but I find it deeply disingenuous to suggest women like Whitney were ever NOT going to quit their jobs and become utterly annoying self-absorbed Yummy Mummies. Yeah sure, some women of her background have careers until they’re retirement age, but most don’t. If you’re married to a guy who’s earning six figures – and let’s face it, only the upper middle class predominantly white economic elite is – the question should be ‘why the hell are you pretending that you’re making some kind of sacrifice by quitting work to look after your kids?’
Whitney stirs and wakes up, breast milk seeping stickily across her ‘American Apparel’ white v-neck plain T. When she moves, she’s left behind a stain on the faux-suede cream sofa. Damian looks at her as she speaks, without any appearance of affection or desire.
“I understand why the attention is on families like us. We are the vanguard of sexual equality and feminist action. Deeply privileged white people who recycle, shop at Wholefoods, vote for Obama and agree with the drone program should be who this country looks towards when assessing the success or failure of feminism. I did my degree in Women’s Studies and I’m a white woman, so I know that feminism, as a predominantly white middle class movement, is what me and my friends make it. And we’ve decided that there is nothing wrong with adhering to traditional gender roles. If you’re not a stay at home Mother, feeling the calm and control that comes with that self-defined role and the security of a six figure male-earned income, then maybe it’s time for you to question the opportunities and choices you’ve made in your own life, rather than judging ours.”
Damian nods and fetches a Brooklyn lager from the fridge. David starts to cry, and so Whitney gets up to nurse him while Damian goes into the spare room to fall asleep over a simulated rape scene on YouPorn featuring two mustached white males and an Asian girl who claims to be sixteen but looks more like eighteen.
For every Whitney, reaffirming her life choice as a stay-at-home Madonna dependent upon the moderate salary (1.5k) paid by direct deposit into her (still separate) bank account each week, there is a Damian, who is more than happy to support his wife’s Converse wearing assertion that child-rearing and pickling requires resources of creativity, energy and ingenuity which was denied her by an Ivy League education and a professional career at the top of her chosen field.
“I really love the way Whitney and I have nothing in common any more except two children I only spend any quality time with at the weekend. It doesn’t bother me that our sex life is mediocre or that my wife isn’t a size 2 anymore, because it gives me the perfect excuse to play into the next phase of my existence: Hypocritical, misunderstood male. Because we’re Liberals and occasionally smoke Weed, people don’t expect me to have a girlfriend in Manhattan who I fuck every Thursday night, and whom I reward with a modest salary, a little below Whitney’s. It seems such a deeply conservative, asshole thing to do, but it’s actually just another way of affirming our traditional gender roles. The best thing is that because Whitney’s so fulfilled by child-rearing, she just doesn’t need as much sex or attention as she used to, which makes my life a lot easier.”
Most of the Liberal cisgendered heteronormative parents (who have homosexual and black friends, even a couple of Asian acquaintances, but don’t know any decent Mexicans) in this affluent white neighborhood have decided to homeschool their children in a collective-type environment where they can club together and pay for the best tuition from underpaid struggling academics striving to complete their PhD’s. As their children learn how to make compost tea, the Mothers blog about their experiences on WordPress sites with innovative and expensive designs on the BlogHer network, spend time updating their facebook pages with adorable pictures of their offspring taken on their Canon C-300’s (which are used only in the ‘automatic’ mode because no one understands aperture) and talk about the story they’re pitching NPR on reclaiming Modern American Motherhood and how it saved their marriage and their identity as a woman.
From Julie Darwin’s perspective, giving up her career was a no-brainer.
“Some days I just have to pinch myself. My life is so easy. It’s so rewarding to live this way.”
Julie and her husband, Rob, decided to change their lifestyle after yet another mini-city break in Venice (Italy) with their four children, Bouji, Kali, Krishna and Puja, where both of them were exhausted and sleep deprived. “We looked at each other and went: “Exhausted and sleep deprived? This isn’t what modern parenting is about. This isn’t what we were promised.” Julie earned less than her husband working at a non-profit which worked to eradicate sex-trafficking in the DC area. “I knew that my job did more good than Rob’s. It’s unbelievable the numbers of sex-trafficked American females working under the delusion that they have agency as sex workers! They really need good Liberals to make them realize that they’re contributing to the vast numbers of brown children shipped to American urban areas for pedophiles to abuse. But at the end of the day, we had to assess: could we still shop at Wholefoods five times a week on 120k a year plus benefits? The brutal answer was: probably not.”
Rob, who is rolling up Julie’s recycled rubber eco-friendly yoga mat on the opposite side of the room, chimes in: “Julie’s family was really disappointed in her decision. They gave her a lot of grief. Poor Julie spent a whole three months agonizing over her decision to quit. People don’t realize the kinds of stresses involved in making a decision to quit your job for no reason other than you can afford it. But when they see me contributing in ways which are not traditionally gendered – like picking up Julie’s yoga mat – and they see how happy Julie is cooking organic healthy food for our four well balanced and amazingly advanced children [Five year-old Boujis is taking SAT's in the fall], they can see how incredibly important Julie’s lack of ambition has been for our marriage and the sanctity of our family unit, while for me it reinforces the innate feelings of male superiority and paternalism I’d always felt as a middle class white male growing up in Ohio.”
“We really wanted to be a power couple when we got together in our early twenties,” says Julie softly. “We were both going to work and raise our kids together, taking on equal responsibility. But my commitment to my job meant Rob had to take on a lot of female-gendered roles, like cooking and cleaning, and we rarely had sex because we were both tired. It just wasn’t fun. We were sleep deprived, overweight, and had a healthy bank account.”
Rob laughs, as if the answer was simple and under their noses the entire time.
“We thought one day: Wow! We’re not taking advantage of our economically superior position as educated cisgendered heterosexual white people! We need to start capitalizing on this shit. Julie can stay at home working on her blog and tweeting about the kids, I can spend more time earning money and feeding my sense of self-importance. I mean – fuck everyone else who doesn’t have our opportunities in life. If you’re a single black mother on welfare, that’s your problem. We have mediocre sex at least once a week now and Julie’s blog had fifty unique page views last month.”
The fastest growing religious movement in the United States is American Exceptionalism. It’s easy to see the appeal. The belief that a country founded on Imperialism, Racism, Slavery and Civil War is actually the greatest democratic country on earth and given Divine Right to be so, that America has absolutely no responsibility to history, and thus has no obligation to address deep inequality, is an alluring one. In a sense, we can see the (re)emergence of The Retro Husband as a deep expression of the paradoxically forward thinking, and yet deeply regressive selfishness of the economic vanguard. It’s not so much a story about women and feminism, but a story about men and conservatism. The Retro Husband is a story we’ve seen before, in many guises, but American Exceptionalism has put it in skinny jeans in a hipster suburb and pretended it’s cool, like pickling. Damian agrees. “My skinny jeans don’t actually fit anymore, but Whitney still has them in the closet.” Rob enjoys the way Julie, who plainly has zero literary skills and no clue how to handle a camera, demeans the careers of writers and photographers by suggesting loudly and drunkenly at parties that she’s using this time as a stay at home Mom to write a book and relaunch herself as a professional in these fields. “I find it really cute that she keeps deluding herself that she has any exceptional skills or talent other than being patient when the kids are actin like shitheads, and letting me fuck her when she’s asleep. The plain fact is she’s just a normal human being who will never have an impact upon the world in any meaningful way, but feels like her existence is only justified if she claims to have the potential to be – exceptional.” He ruffles Julie’s hair affectionately. She doesn’t notice because she took too much Valium and is drooling on his shoulder, her eyes half open, the pupils rolling back into her sockets. “It’s sweet that she wants to be special. It’s sweet that she can’t face the fact raising ungrateful kids and keeping the lawn tidy and juicing every other day is about the sum of her contribution to the world while I’ll keep being a bigoted white male, just as men have done for centuries. I love her for it. If it was any other way – I’d feel emasculated.”
And with that Rob goes off to sext the twenty-three year-old law student who’s interning at his firm this semester, while Damian spends the evening vainly trying to pour his flab into skinny jeans.