The Retro Husband

The Retro Husband

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?’

Juice

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.


51 Responses to The Retro Husband

  1. Matthew Summers says:

    Brilliant

  2. Luca says:

    WOW….Great piece Ruth!!! Food for thought.

  3. Zeppo Marx says:

    This is completely unrealistic. No way a couple like this would name their kids David and Grace, rather than Kierson & Brylee.

    (Seriously, this is incredible!)

  4. Truly S. says:

    This is quite funny and sadly true. The only thing that ruins the verisimilitude is the use of British phrasings throughout when talking about Americans (who don’t have “Agas” or use phrases like “Julie’s family were”).

    • Ruth Fowler says:

      Yeah, I’m quite lazy when it comes to ironing out my britishms. I take more care when I’m going to print but for the site I’m a bit of a slob. Sorry!

      • Truly S. says:

        Very nice–thanks for listening! A riotous and all-too-honest picture, I fear, of privileged white America today, where too many young women believe “feminism” means “I have a right to a fulfilling job that pays a lot of money, and if I can’t find one, or if I find one and it turns out I didn’t like it as much as I thought I would, I can always quit, have babies and tell everyone that it’s such an important job that it absorbs every second of my waking hours. My husband, of course, has to support himself, me and as many kids as I choose to have. If he resists, well, that’s not the CHOICE FEMINISM I deserve.” Baloney. That’s not feminism–that’s being a spoiled, privileged brat.

        Silly me. I thought feminism required responsibility, and extended to everyone the opportunity to raise children (instead of being told “You’re doing it wrong, you incompetent bumbler, let Mommy take over”). And being able to take care of yourself, not just throwing all the responsibility onto a man. Why should women get an easy escape hatch if we happen to find aspects of the working world less than thrilling, any more than men do? And why should it be that wealthy white people get all the choice, while everyone else still struggles along doing whatever they have to do to get by?

        And that nonsense in the original article about how women just naturally make better caretakers of children than men…all of these assertions completely un-backed by any serious science at all, just the usual evo-psych bullshit or “that’s the way we’re ALL raised, therefore it must be the natural order of things”…truly revolting. Thanks for the skewer.

        • Ruth Fowler says:

          you’re welcome and if you see any more glaring britishms, let me know. The were / was observation was a revelation for my american-language skills!

        • Dana Seilhan says:

          There are reasons women are better suited to taking day-to-day care of *young* children–in case you didn’t know, we didn’t always have crap in a can to mix in a bottle for the kiddies. Also when they’re born they are better connected to us because we’re the voices they’ve been hearing since they developed hearing in utero.

          There are also good reasons for men to do most of the supporting if they want an intact family and to see their kids grow up. They didn’t sacrifice any of their health and they weren’t the ones who actually had the baby. They need to contribute *something.* Especially as too many of them think throwing money at the kids constitutes “parenting” anyway. And women are paid less than men, especially if we’ve procreated. And personally, I don’t have children just to pay some stranger to raise them. That’s stupid. If you aren’t going to raise your own kids, don’t have kids.

          There *are* stay-at-home moms who earn money too. It’d help if we’d stop it with the neoliberalism and the free-trade agreements and the letting factories do all the work because there would be more job opportunities for the at-home parent, male or female, (I am also very cool with the idea of a house husband, especially once the kids are a bit older.) But we take away every little opportunity there might be for work at home in the name of “efficiency” and oh look, we have a mess now.

          Anyway the work world was built around men who had wives at home. It STILL assumes all employees are men who have wives at home. Women who are employed for pay need daycare for that reason–we don’t have wives at home, unless we’re lesbian, which most of us aren’t. Feminism was supposed to be changing that. NOW used to advocate for Social Security for homemakers. Now we’re so distracted by the abortion issue–justifiably, I don’t want to lose legal abortion, the outcome would be too dangerous for us–that we hardly have the energy to fight for anything else. So we still have to have these stupid arguments. It’s sad.

          I do agree with the general gist of this piece though. Too many liberals’ liberalism only extends to the male gender.

      • Lady Antonym says:

        No – leave the Aga in! I assumed you were being very clever indeed. It would only be imported by someone who knows nothing about actual Agas or how they work. I laughed at the thought of Whitney looking up from her novel or upscale British lifestyle mag, saying to Damian, “let’s get an Aga, dear!” She’d then have to pretend that it was wonderful and perfect, and hope that Damian wouldn’t noticed how high she’d cranked the air conditioning.

  5. A deliciously acerbic parody deeply rooted in realism…

  6. Cynthia says:

    This was absolutely great to read. Also slightly painful.

  7. EH says:

    Fantastic! I wish NY Mag would have posted your piece instead of that infuriating article

  8. This is sheer brilliance.

  9. Ruth Fowler says:

    Thanks for all the kind words. Think this is the first thing I’ve ever written where no one’s called me an arsehole yet.

  10. Fantastic satire, totally nails it on the head in scathing fashion. Hopefully this will get around to eyes that will face a hard gaze into the mirror…

  11. Helaine Olen says:

    This is genuis. Genuis.

  12. Misplaced Sassy says:

    I love this, but I don’t think it reflects all – or even necessarily most – families in which the mother stays home. Sometimes, the lack of affordable childcare and social/economic support leaves little other choice. Most of us aren’t delusional about how detrimental this is to our own economic freedom nor are we unaware of the larger social implications. We’re just stuck trying to get through our tiny little lives as well as we can.

    “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.” Ha! I came to term with this long ago.

    • Ruth Fowler says:

      I totally agree – I’m fucking with only one type of family who don’t comprise the norm, they’re very privileged. That’s why I’m mocking the NY Mag article, for ignoring all these other families ; )

      • Misplaced Sassy says:

        I get it and I like it. I’m mostly mad at the media for continuing to focus only on that one type of family. Keep fucking with them!

      • Mookie Warlock says:

        Because if there’s one thing NY Mag targets, it’s the underprivileged. What is your point? That upper-middle class people don’t have to make decisions about their priorities because there are poor people?

  13. This is amazing and it broke my heart.

  14. Alphonso says:

    Thanks for your insight into my newly acquired neighbors. A fun read. A word of caution: You sound like you know too much. You might become them. Hell, Maybe you already are? Always remember that each of us (even the worst kind of image conscious, Decemberists lovin’, Donnie Darko was a world changer jackasses) are combinations of small choices captured at a specific moment in time. The difference between us, as “unique” human beings… infinitessimal. Whether you scavenge for day-old McDonalds or enjoy cracked amaranth with warm honey and Fage, we all know that there’s a bit of jackassery behind everyone’s curtain. It seems those you speak of are the ones who cannot even admit it to themselves.

  15. alcessa says:

    Well, thank you for giving my brain such … high density nurture? ;-)

    My first reaction after having read it all and trying to imagine the lives of these (= such) people: pride – as in: So it is a good thing I have always stuck to my “it’s self reliance, stupid” principle.

    Second reaction? Shame. “But I still wish quite often I could just win the lottery, step into my little bubble of calm and leave the (working & Co.) world behind! And I don’t even have children.”

    Third reaction – pride: “Yes, but I am still standing. And I’d NEVER expect my hubby to pay for my upkeep, it’s either the lottery win or nothing.”

    Fourth reaction? Shame again. “You do know your lottery idea is a trivial way to do escapism, don’t you.”

    And so on.

    Helluwalot of reacting, I’d say :-) (and pardon my English, I’m foreign :-))

  16. a1ctt says:

    I don’t think you’re an arsehole but I will say I don’t think you accomplished anything but making the problem worse. Instead of adding something to the conversation you just attacked and insulted anyone who has a different point of view than you. Essentially you took the Fox News approach to the feminism discussion and how people live their lives, “If you disagree I must attack and destroy you. Your tactic was “You think differently then me, that means you are a pathetic disaster and your husband must be a gargantuan sexist pig.”

    Instead of trying to understand a difference of opinion you lashed out and mocked anyone who falls into a specific demographic and mindset. When in reality there a wide variety of approaches, reasons and opinions about why they raise their family the way they do and if they think other families should do the same.

    • Ruth Fowler says:

      Hate to break it to you, but Damian, Rob, Julie and Whitney…. *aren’t real*. Please make sure you have someone with you for the next few hours. Would hate you to have to bear this load alone.

    • Dana Seilhan says:

      Disrespecting women isn’t a “difference of opinion.” It’s pathological behavior. Just because it’s the norm in this culture doesn’t make it OK. The culture is sick to begin with.

  17. [...] went on to read The Retro Husband and thought ouch. He’s talking about Noah. Only he [...]

  18. citykitty says:

    Thank you for this!! Love it.

  19. Compelled says:

    It’s like you’re in my head, writing down all the bad thoughts I have about some of the SAHMs I know. Brava!

  20. HappySurge says:

    Ruth, I really enjoyed the exacting detail and general acidity content of this piece. I’m not anybody, but you’re a good writer and I like the thoughts that you have in your head and the commitment to them you’ve demonstrated through these lengths your pen has traveled.

    I’d gladly read your worst science fiction.

  21. Blond Beast says:

    Don’t get us wrong, Damian is a monster in a thousand different ways, but at least he’s not ‘a Koch brothers wannabe.’ Zing! You know, to some, this might sound like a bewildering, content- and context-free semiotic placeholder masquerading as an insight. But for those who’ve never spent a minute outside the snuggly confines of their ressentiment, it’s an EPIC burn!

    What a fascinating snapshot of a constellation of -isms in its death throes this is. Behold masculinity on a tightrope, in which fickle feminism’s demand for the compossibility of the incompossible renders a man’s every choice a choice between the effete and the barbaric. To wit, the author condemns her made-to-order straw man, Damian, for being both too rapey and too utterly conventional in his bourgeois sexual appetites, as if movement feminism could wield cultural and moral cues like a scalpel instead of an axe — as if it were as easy as Occupying*** something-or-other to manufacture a race of men with perfectly reconstructed gender politics who were still juuuust sadistic enough to keep the sex “authentic.”

    The author’s world — a world menaced by sexual violence even, and perhaps most of all, in the toniest corners of the West; a world that’s sexual violence, as they say, “all the way down” — terrifies me as it would any decent person. If she has good reason to think her world is the world we actually live in, she has my compassion. If she doesn’t, she has my pity. Either way, I can’t imagine what it must be like to have one’s every thought leaden with the dread of violation, as the author’s seems to be. Chalk it up to white male privilege.

    Of course, in this nightmarish hellscape of hers there are a *few* good guys! For one, the “underpaid”, “striving” ABDs reduced, by cruel Fortune, to teaching at elite prep schools. Competent amateur photographers, for another! And, though it is only implied, I assume we can add folks whose study abroad experiences were more immersive than Damian’s–if not, to be sure, quite as spiritually and intellectually rewarding as the author’s.

    But seriously, great satire about how people tend to form all-encompassing worldviews that vindicate their banal lifestyle choices. It works on so many levels!

    The author makes some modest efforts to carve-out a niche in the post-imperial utopia that’s surely arriving the day after tomorrow for Western elites who “get it”, like her. (And really, what better vantage from which to condemn the West than the Fenland spires of Cambridge!) But what’s ultimately vindicative about this piece is its self-destructiveness. It’s an essay length argument that people like the author have nothing to say. Its logical conclusion is self-immolation.

    Go ahead, Damian and I will wait — and watch. This is just the kind of sick shit we’re into.

    ***See, that’s our version, on the cultural Right, of your vacant Koch brothers shibboleth. Everyone can play!

  22. fellow King's lady! says:

    This is amazing. You’re really fucking good. and correct, and this is important.

  23. Mike A. says:

    Women who scribble: as critiqued by a scribbler.

  24. Linden says:

    Brilliance. Sheer brilliance.

  25. [...] so-called feminist “retro-wives.”  Inevitably, this hi-larious fiction in turn inspired a foul and NSFW (but delicious) parody.  Perhaps just as inevitably, the women profiled in the original article complain that their [...]

  26. [...] really sexist and sexualized notions of how to interact with women (and women sometimes being complicit in those notions). And I’m not [...]

  27. Dumb Bob says:

    If I don’t get it, is it likely because I’m too rich or poor?
    Or is it that I’m just dumb?

  28. [...] when in reality she got pregnant when she had no intention of having kids. Oh, and here’s a parody of the original [...]

  29. [...] is fair play, and Ruth Fowler’s The Retro Husband makes the most of it. So smarmy & darkly humorous, I wish I could really belly laugh over it. I [...]

  30. [...] of satire that Paul Rudnick dished out in The New Yorker last week. (But not, I should note, before Ruth Fowler beat him to the [...]

  31. Spusan says:

    Oh man, this made me feel so good. I’ve been basically raging to my boyfriend for the past year at the increasing amount of pathetic stupidity in “modern feminist” articles. Mmm, you parody so good. Dulled my rage a bit. Prob. should start knitting, right? Like how my grandma used to do. ‘Cept she did it to actually clothe her four kids in 1950s China.

  32. Tobi-Lea says:

    The whole women and men should both work while they pay someone from a lower socio economic background to come and raise their child while they work is all very well and good in theory…( not really) but in practice it is just stupid. People don’t have children to not raise them. I really like this piece and how it is written and how it makes me think HOWEVER I still despise any piece bashing stay at home mothers. It’s unnecessary and it is always women without children who have big opinions on something that is really actually none of your business. (I don’t have children I am just sick of reading this kind of shit from apparent feminists) I like your writing style a lot but you women bash to much in a few of your works here.

  33. Erin Elizabeth says:

    Thank you! Great!

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