Happy Housewives

 by Stephanie Berger
 published on Thursday, March 9, 2006

On the cover
Photo illustration
Nursing junior Jessica Gubbels says she wants to do it all --- be a successful nurse when she's young, and be the perfect stay-at-home mom once she has kids.
Photo illustration
Nursing junior Jessica Gubbels says she wants to do it all --- be a successful nurse when she's young, and be the perfect stay-at-home mom once she has kids.

Marina Mercer has already done more by 11:00 a.m. than some students do all day. The nursing freshman is on the women's volleyball team, and has to practice every morning for two or three hours. Her blonde ponytail bobbing as she walks through a labyrinth of corridors at Wells Fargo Arena, Mercer explains that she only had to practice for two hours today because she's been sick.

"You don't really get days off," she says, pausing to unlock the door to the locker room. Sitting down on a maroon leather couch, Mercer looks like the poster child for the University in her corresponding gold "ASU Athletics" T-shirt.

Mercer is at ASU on an athletics scholarship that she got recruited for when she was a junior in high school. Mercer is also extremely smart; she got straight A's her first semester at ASU. But she says she is no stranger to academic success; she had a 4.4 GPA in high school and balanced multiple extracurricular activities.

Someday, Mercer would like to go to medical school and become a doctor like her sister, who is currently studying medicine at the University of Arizona. But Mercer has other goals as well.

She'd like to become a trophy wife.

The term "trophy wife" brings to mind the image of a gorgeous, young woman, married to an old, rich man. This hypothetical beauty doesn't work a day in her life, and is her husband's perfect "trophy." In return for her company, her husband pays for her every whim and pampers her.

However, Mercer says this type of woman gives her concept of a trophy wife a bad name.

"I want to be irreplaceable," she says. "I want to be a great mom and a great wife. I want to stay in shape and be pretty, but more importantly, I want to have a good job and to be socially respected. I want it to be like, 'wow look at this girl that I won. She does it all.' That's my trophy wife definition."

Mercer isn't alone in her desire to do it all. Female students and women in general no longer have to fight for the right to take their places among the male lawyers, doctors and executives that have long dominated the corporate world. But some women today do feel they face a unique pressure: the desire to use their degrees to land high-powered jobs, while at the same time raising children and keeping their husbands happy.

While students like Mercer make plans for their futures, women in high-power positions, like associate professor Angela Trethewey, are living proof that while possible, "having it all" is a challenging endeavor.

"I admire young women for wanting to do it all, but you can't do it all yourself," says Trethewey, who teaches classes in organizational communication. "There's no way that I could feel like I was successful at my job and at parenting if I didn't have a partner who was willing to make compromises."

"You are my trophy wife"

Trethewey and four other women sit at a long conference table, chatting about hair dryers and children. But after the small talk, the women get down to business.

Trethewey says that women who choose to stay at home and raise children can be underappreciated.

"As a society, we don't value caretaking. We don't value domestic labor," she says to the other members of the Project for Wellness and Work Life, an ASU group that studies research on the intersection of private, domestic life and world of work.

Trethewey adds that women are given an unfair burden by society when they are forced to decide how they are going to solve the work-parenting dilemma.

"It's always, what are the choices that women must make in terms of parenting?" she says. "Those tasks should be shared more broadly."

As a working mom with a husband who is flexible enough to co-parent with her, Trethewey says she is extremely lucky. She and her husband both work and care for their 7-year-old, Anna. While she teaches Monday through Thursday, her husband stays home with their daughter -- taking her to school, doing homework, playing with her and often making dinner for the family. Friday through Saturday, Trethewey stays home with Anna while her husband works at Costco.

"Both my husband and I just love being parents, and we both think that's our most important work," she says. "But I get fulfillment from my work [at ASU], and I can't imagine not doing that. I think in many ways it makes me a better parent to go to work and feel intellectually engaged, and do things that are important to me and will continue to be important to me when Anna goes off to college," she adds.

Trethewey says that when she thinks of "trophy wives" who do nothing but cater to the needs of their families, she worries these women are too dependent.

"You should prepare to be self-sufficient," she says. "We expect men to be able to take care of themselves, and it's really important that we encourage young women to do the same."

"My husband says, 'you are my trophy wife,'' Trethewey says. "But he's just kidding. He knows I don't like that term."

"I just want to be around"

Mercer says she has complete respect for women who work full-time, but if possible, when her children are young, she doesn't want to be one of them.

Mercer would like to get married sometime between getting her undergraduate degree and graduating from medical school. She'd then like to take six to eight years off to raise her children before going into practice, hopefully with her sister or uncle.

"My mom was an executive. She was always at work and never around and I don't blame her for it --- she was the most amazing mom," Mercer says. "I just want to be around. I want to take the kids to ballet class and take them to piano and swimming lessons," she says.

As a freshman, Mercer has plenty of time to perfect her plan. While she is currently single, she says that she has a few prospects, and that she wouldn't marry anyone that she wasn't in love with first.

"Ideally I'd fall in love as soon as possible, and depending on what the guy wanted to do, we would either get married before I went to med school or during," Mercer says.

But Mercer says she knows that after graduating from medical school and then taking time off to raise children, going to work will be challenging.

Studies have shown that women who take time off from high-powered careers to raise children have an extremely difficult time re-entering the workforce. The 2005 Harvard Business Review article, "Off-Ramps and On-Ramps: Keeping Talented Women on the Road to Success," discusses a study done of more than 2,400 women and 650 men in lucrative, high-powered positions. The authors, Sylvia Hewlett and Carolyn Buck Luce, came to the following startling conclusions: 43 percent of women leave the workforce at some time, while only 24 percent of men take the same "off-ramps." Of women who seek "on-ramps" after their time away from the office, only 74 percent return to work, with only 40 percent returning to full-time jobs.

In addition, women who do make it back into the workforce lose an average of 18 percent of their earning power if they were absent for less than three years, and 37 percent if they were absent for more.

These figures are made more disturbing by the fact that the average length of time women took off from work was only 2.2 years. And according to this study, 58 percent of women take these "non-linear" paths in life.

"Don't push your views on other people"

In her pink jacket and flip-flops, nursing junior Jessica Gubbels says she wouldn't be trophy wife material even if she wanted to -- she says she's far too laid back to wear makeup and high heels to class every day.

But Gubbels' goal involves more diapers and burp rags than fancy cars and evening gowns, anyway.

She says she would like to graduate with her nursing degree and be a traveling nurse for a few years before settling down and having kids. But if possible, she'd like to be a stay-at-home mom and have her husband support the family.

Gubbels and her current boyfriend have been dating for five months, so she says that they've only discussed marriage casually. She says her boyfriend's mother stayed at home, and that he wouldn't mind her doing the same if they could financially afford it. But, Gubbels adds that she doesn't like to set any plans down in stone at this point in her life.

"I had this whole plan lined up, and as soon as I had gotten it down on paper, it seemed like nothing actually went the way I wanted it to," she says. "The second I put the pen on the paper I stopped going on dates. I seriously think it was bad karma. So the second I said, 'Just live life and forget about it,' that's when I met my boyfriend."

Although Gubbels emphasizes that school will give her the training necessary to work if she has to, she hopes that staying at home will be an option.

"I hope to be at home with my kids," says Gubbels, whose mother worked part-time from home for the studio that Gubbels danced at.

"I think because of that my childhood was completely different than some people who had to go to day care," she says. "If given the opportunity, I would much rather stay home than work, but I think if push comes to shove and you need to get things done, and you need money and you're struggling, I'm not the type of person who will stay at home and say, 'Oh, we're out of money? I just spent it on my $200 bag."

Gubbels says her nursing background will always give her something to fall back on, and provide her the kind of self-sufficiency that Trethewey says is so important.

"The best couples are people who are their own person -- you are yourself, he is himself, and then together you're 'we' or 'us,'" Gubbels says. "If I need to support myself, I'll get up and do it."

But Gubbels doesn't think she'd feel unfulfilled if she stayed at home, and she says she disagrees with women who see stay-at-home moms in a negative light.

"Taking care of kids and a house is just as challenging as running a corporate office," Gubbels says. "If I am the one who opts to stay home, that's something that I want. If I'm lacking something, I will choose to do whatever I want to make myself happy. You being in the workplace or you staying at home - that's your own personal preference. I see it as the same thing as religion: Don't push your views on other people."

Besides, Gubbels says, men are better suited for the working world.

"Because of how society is structured, men make more money and have a stronger will to feel a sense of pride and worth with their families when they're able to provide for them," she says. "I think that's just part of male nature - women always had the more nurturing, child-bearing roles."

Trethewey agrees that in today's society, both men and women still feel like they must adhere to certain gender roles. Trethewey says that while women are hesitant to pursue their ambitions, men feel like they have to support their families.

"Our understanding of what it means to be a good man is still pretty much tied to that breadwinner model," she says. "That limits men's ability to participate in other aspects of their lives that could be really fulfilling, like raising children."

"Obviously going to be hard"

All of these women agree that in the long run, finding balance in their lives will make whatever paths they take easier.

"If I was married to somebody that also had a full-time job, I think my daughter's experience would suffer," Trethewey says. "You have to have a partner that's willing to meet you halfway, and take on some of the domestic work and some of the child care."

Gubbles says that it's important that husbands appreciate their wives, whether they work in or out of the home.

"I think that a lot of stay-at-home moms don't get the respect that they need or want. It's important for the husband to show how much he cares for his wife and be proud of her for what she's done," Gubbles says. She adds that couples must be willing to grow and change together.

"When you get married, you have to agree that you're going to change together and work together," she says.

And Mercer says that she knows that making these agreements and balancing a family and a job will be tough. But she is willing to attempt to accomplish her unconventional trophy-wife ideal.

"You can't go to the spa every Thursday and get a massage and get your nails done, but you can find time to take your little girl to swim practice," she says. "It's a lot of selfless acts which are obviously going to be hard, but in the long run it's all worth it." "

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