Eilis O'Hanlon: 'Are career women secretly envious when a 'tradwife' drops out of the rat race?'

Some women, when they settle down and have children, want to stay at home and cook and clean and mind the house while their husbands go out to work.

That ought to be unremarkable, since it’s the way people have lived for countless generations, but it still appears to be controversial when a woman in the 21st Century says that life works for her.

This time it’s the so-called “tradwife” phenomenon which has sparked uproar, after a thirtysomething Englishwoman by the name of Alena Kate Pettitt, whose YouTube channel outlines her devotion to feminine domesticity, was discovered by the media and immediately treated as if she was the female equivalent of one of those apocryphal Japanese soldiers stranded on an island in the Pacific who didn’t realise the war was over.

It’s the equally mythical image of the 1950s housewife that Pettitt idealises, triggering career women everywhere who feel that their choices are being disrespected. How, they demand to know, can they possibly stay at home and play house when they need to earn sufficient money to pay the mortgage and bills?

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Isn’t that the point, though? More and more women have to go to work just to put a roof over their family’s heads – and, having done so, then need to pay for childcare, the average full-time cost of which now stands at €184 per week, rising to more than €200 in Dublin and neighbouring counties – even though, after all that, they’re no better off in many ways than women decades ago.

Are we all any happier as a result of working harder? Studies would suggest not. Despite thinking that the Ireland of old must have been a terrible place altogether, every indicator suggests that people back then were more content, less anxious. That includes women, who had much less freedom back in the day and so ought to have been thoroughly wretched and angry, according to received wisdom.

The tradwives are just saying they want something different in their lives. It’s not hard to see the appeal.

Staying at home to bake cookies and iron your other half’s socks isn’t for everybody, not least because it requires women to find men who are financially successful enough to support a wife and family on a single income – no mean feat in this economy – or to be prepared to sacrifice many material comforts for a principle. Not having access to your own money might also be psychologically unsettling for many, but that doesn’t automatically mean they’re under the thumb, any more than it does if a man lets his wife control the finances, just that they prioritise differently.

The whole submissiveness thing is a bit odd alright, and demanding that Himself earns all the money also puts huge pressure on men to keep earning and to not resent being made to do it all himself. But looking in from the outside, no one can really understand or judge the dynamics of another couple’s relationship, or how it actually works in practise.

Behind it all still lies the allure of being able to live on a single income, which was once possible and is now so rare as to seem almost magical, and maybe it’s a secret envy at those who’ve managed to buck the system and just do it which is what fires up the hostility that this personable and quietly spoken woman has attracted. Not every lifestyle choice has to work for everyone in order to be valid.

It’s bizarre that we live in a world that is cool with all sorts of non-conformist lifestyles – non-monogamous, polyamorous, hippie commune, whatever you like – but as soon as someone says they want to live in a traditional, two-parent-plus-kids household, in which she stays at home and cooks the dinner and he goes to the office every morning, suddenly it’s a problem.

Whatever happened to letting people be themselves?

It’s easy to mock the tradwives. Pettitt runs something called a femininity finishing school known as The Darling Academy, which sounds like the premise of a bad sitcom; but of course it’s nothing new. These movements come and go. A few years ago, it was all about being a “surrendered wife”. Now it’s tradwife. Old wine in new bottles. The same loud, angry arguments were had about it back then, too.

Tradwives are even being accused of peddling so-called alt-right propaganda, or of being white supremacists, even though homemaking is a very long way from being exclusive to Western cultures, and by some of actually opening the door to full-blown fascism. The number of things that are apparently evidence of fascism these days is staggering. Either that, or too many people have turned into thin-skinned hysterics who just can’t cope with anything that doesn’t conform exactly to their narrow-world view.

Instead of a stand-up row, it ought to start a conversation.

There’s an ingrained nostalgia in the tradwife movement for simpler times, but there’s also a serious critique of the pressures under which women increasingly labour. The endless unnecessary complexity of just getting through the day. The need to be doing all the time, instead of being. Everything feels piecemeal, rather than whole. Plenty of women would give it all up in a heartbeat if they could.

The tradwives have found meaning to bring order to the chaos. It may not sustain them long term; they may eventually find it too limiting, and want to break out, but that wouldn’t make what they’re doing right now wrong.

Perhaps the resentment other women seem to feel towards tradwives is precisely because they’ve found a sense of meaning that the rest of us haven’t. There is so much pressure on everybody now to define themselves according to their job, or how much money they make. If people stopped being so angry at the tradwives, they might realise they had a lot in common.

Alena Kate Pettitt was a marketing manager in the beauty industry before she made this switch and says “my self-esteem was rock bottom”. She found the office environment to be “toxic and unpleasant”, and wanted out. That ought to be relatable.

That tradwives also want to keep their distance from a Love Island culture which has reduced women to sexual objects should be equally understandable from a feminist perspective. The hook-up culture is meant to have liberated women, but of course it’s done no such thing, just made them more unhappy, more trapped.

It doesn’t have to be set up as a battle. Pettitt herself admits that she’s “cherrypicking” the things she likes about the past, and in no way defending everything about it that was wrong. It’s about how you describe things. If the tradwives said they were angry with the anxious, insistent nature of modern capitalist society which forces people to be cogs in an uncaring machine, she’d probably be hailed as a progressive guru.

In a way, the tradwives have tuned in, turned on, and dropped out, and found a way to be authentically themselves, which is the holy grail of modern identity politics. They’re just not given credit for it because they choose to express what they feel in words that make their critics uncomfortable.

So be it. They have the same right as every other woman to tell their stories in their own words without being shouted down by other women who, while paying lip service to the right to choose a life in the home, secretly feel contempt for those who don’t care what society thinks and do it anyway.

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