Pretty Sure I Deserve A “Wife Bonus”

Perhaps you too hate-read this piece in the Times over the weekend, entitled “Poor Little Rich Women,” about the real housewives of Manhattan: elite, highly educated, competitive Stay At Home Moms, as seen through the eyes of an anthropologist.

“It’s easier and more fun,” the women insisted when I asked about the sex segregation that defined their lives.

“We prefer it,” the men told me at a dinner party where husbands and wives sat at entirely different tables in entirely different rooms.

Sex segregation, I was told, was a “choice.” But like “choosing” not to work, or a Dogon woman in Mali’s “choosing” to go into a menstrual hut, it struck me as a state of affairs possibly giving clue to some deeper, meaningful reality while masquerading, like a reveler at the Save Venice ball the women attended every spring, as a simple preference.

Then the author gets to the best part: the wife bonus. (!!)

I overheard someone who didn’t work say she would buy a table at an event once her bonus was set. A woman with a business degree but no job mentioned waiting for her “year-end” to shop for clothing. Further probing revealed that the annual wife bonus was not an uncommon practice in this tribe.

A wife bonus, I was told, might be hammered out in a pre-nup or post-nup, and distributed on the basis of not only how well her husband’s fund had done but her own performance — how well she managed the home budget, whether the kids got into a “good” school — the same way their husbands were rewarded at investment banks. In turn these bonuses were a ticket to a modicum of financial independence and participation in a social sphere where you don’t just go to lunch, you buy a $10,000 table at the benefit luncheon a friend is hosting.

As Dr. Spaceman might say, “Everything about this is disgusting.”

When I was pregnant, a very nice rich lady asked me what my husband was going to buy me as a “push present.” I looked at her blankly, so she explained, showing me the diamond-encrusted thingamabob she had received as a reward for going through labor. Later, she emailed me a link to a necklace company that sells expensive trinkets and I went a-Googlin’ to see how prevalent the tradition of “ugly mom jewelry” has become.

Answer: prevalent enough! Even a mainstream site like runs pieces saying, “You deserve a push present.” Because of course, this is capitalism, we live for excuses to make the people who care about us spend money on useless crap to prove their affection.

The cutesy nomenclature might be new but the transaction isn’t. My mother, I was chagrined to learn, got a full-length mink coat from my father after she gave birth to her first child, a son. “What would Daddy have given you if you’d had a girl?” I demanded. She shrugged: “Something. Earrings, maybe.”

Excuse me while I go to the cemetery and rant at my father’s grave about patriarchy.

OK, I’m back. So! Wife bonuses.

It made sense only in the context of the rigidly gendered social lives of the women I studied. The worldwide ethnographic data is clear: The more stratified and hierarchical the society, and the more sex segregated, the lower the status of women.

Financially successful men in Manhattan sit on major boards — of hospitals, universities and high-profile diseases, boards whose members must raise or give $150,000 and more. The wives I observed are usually on lesser boards, women’s committees and museums in the outer boroughs with annual expectations of $5,000 or $10,000. Husbands are trustees of prestigious private schools, where they accrue the cultural capital that comes with being able to vouch for others in the admissions game; their wives are “class moms,” the unremunerated social and communications hub for all the other mothers. …

a husband may simply ignore his commitment to an abstract idea at any time. He may give you a bonus, or not. Access to your husband’s money might feel good. But it can’t buy you the power you get by being the one who earns, hunts or gathers it.

Um, why don’t the wives in question have access to the money brought in by their husbands? If you jeopardize your financial future by stepping out of the workforce to maintain hearth & home full-time, the least your husband can do is share the fruits of his labors with you to minimize your feelings of economic instability.

Besides, an employee gets a bonus from a company because an employee and a company are not supposed to be “one flesh.” They haven’t vowed anything to each other. Christ on a cracker! Marriage is family, not a hierarchical business transaction. At least, not anymore, right?

Amanda Marcotte at Slate offers a tart response:

Americans love to emphasize the role of the dependent housewife or the stay-at-home mom as just as much a “real job” as that of any woman who works outside of the home. You often see infographics, articles, and social media memes about how being a stay-at-home-mom is the hardest job that anyone ever worked and how, if it were paid fairly,every housewife would be making all the money.

In theory, then, wife bonuses should fit right into this narrative. If it’s a job, then it should be treated like one, with bonuses and promotions based on performance reviews. But of course, the whole “stay-at-home motherhood is a real job” meme was never really about the actual work of housewifery. It’s a defensive maneuver, a way to argue that just because a woman is economically dependent on her husband doesn’t mean her marriage is sexist or any less equal than a marriage in which both spouses work. Wife bonuses, however, remind us that if stay-at-home motherhood is a job, then that means your husband is your employer.

Other folks express skepticism about the “trend,” like this former banker quoted by Business Insider: “’Do the girls joke about it when they’re drinking wine with their friends and call it a ‘wife bonus’? I’m sure they do. But is the ‘wife bonus’ a real tangible thing? I seriously doubt it.’”

Another Wall Street type quoted considers the big picture: “’If ever a day goes by where I regret moving my family out of the Upper East Side seven years ago, I’ll just return to this article and remember what kind of rat race I could be suffering through just to keep up with people I don’t even like.’” Amen.

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