Lisa Selin Davis - HOUSEWIFE

Lisa Selin Davis - HOUSEWIFE

Zibby speaks with critically acclaimed essayist and journalist Lisa Selin Davis about HOUSEWIFE: Why Women Still Do It All and What to Do Instead, a deeply-researched, passionate, and vindicating book that masterfully dismantles misconceptions and encourages women to choose the best path for themselves. Lisa reflects on her fascination with the concept of the housewife and then delves into the challenges faced by modern-day mothers who have to balance work, family, and personal fulfillment. She highlights the importance of redefining traditional parenthood and embracing a more equitable distribution of labor—which will require affordable childcare and flexible work policies.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Lisa. Thank you so much for coming on "Moms Don't Have Time to Read Books" to discuss Housewife: Why Women Still Do It All and What to Do Instead.

Lisa Selin Davis: Thank you so much for having me. I'm really excited.

Zibby: I loved this book, but I particularly love, on both Instagram and in the book, all of these retro ads that you have everywhere. It's just amazing. I did this project in college once where I had to analyze ads of a certain type when talking about same-sex marriage or something. It's so interesting how popular culture really reflects some of these things. Talk about that. Also, just tell everybody what your whole book is about. That was a lot.

Lisa: I'll start with the ads. Actually, you've just given me an idea. It would be great to have a coffee table book of ads directed at housewives over decades. They go from, let's say, in the thirties during the depression where they want women to give up their jobs so the few jobs there are can go to men -- they tell housewives the patriotic thing to do is to give up your job. Then in the forties, the right thing for housewives to do is to do men's jobs that the decade before they couldn't and shouldn't do now that their domestic skills actually apply in the munitions factory. Then in the fifties, it's back to, housewives should stay home. Here are all these amazing appliances that will make your life better and will please your man and make you raise the right kinds of kids. Then in the sixties, there are all these ads for pharmaceuticals that will treat your depression for how bad you feel about staying home.

Zibby: I love that one. This one is my favorite, by the way. It says, "You can't set her free, but you can help her feel less anxious." It's a woman with a mop all worried. Oh, my gosh. Anyway, keep going. Sorry.

Lisa: You could actually tell the whole history in these ads, which I hadn’t thought of before. It really shows you how society redefines women's work in all these different eras depending on what they need from women. They tell women what's normal for them. Obviously, that changes in the seventies when more women who don't have to work go to work. Then we enter a new era. The story can be told in ads directed at women and housewives alone.

Zibby: The ads today are interesting too. Now it's geared towards men. It's always showing different family types. It's really changed. Wait, go back to, where did your personal fascination with the housewife construct come from?

Lisa: It actually started right after I had a baby in 2009. I joined a moms' group. I am not a joiner. I guess I was technically in a clique in high school. It was kind of the "get stoned and go to the art room" clique, so it wasn't much of a clique. I just was not a person who joined groups, but I did it. It was actually fantastic. I've become much more of a joiner since then. This was in Brooklyn. It was during the great recession. It was a very confusing economic time, especially for me as a full-time freelance writer. I was like, I have a baby and not very much work. I have no idea how to figure out how much childcare to get. I just was very confused. Then one day, this mom who I didn't know wrote in response to -- I don't even know what we were emailing about. She wrote, "I was a housewife before I was a stay-at-home mom." I just thought, who is this? Who does that? I think with a little bit of judgement but also some kind of fascination of, I did not even know that was an option. It had never been an option for me. My husband did not like the idea at all of me not working. I tucked that in the back of my mind. Then during the pandemic and Trump's reelection, he kept tweeting about suburban housewives. Housewives, I'm getting your husbands back to work, which really sounds a lot like those old ads. When I looked into it, the person most likely to be a suburban housewife now was a poor immigrant woman of color. I thought, who is he talking to? Not too many people, but he's drawing on this vision of America that's very powerful but was very fleeting. I just got obsessed. I went down the housewife rabbit hole, and out came this book.

Zibby: You can almost be a housewife without a husband. It's a lifestyle. It's the housewife lifestyle, domestic goddess. Parts of that really have been glamorized lately on Instagram, entertaining and cleaning with all these glamorous, new, beautifully -- with this new modern aesthetic to the cleaning supplies and all of it. It's become a different kind of choice, almost.

Lisa: Yes. We're grappling with that because I think what happened as a result of assuming that women will work and have children is, once again, we looked down on women who stayed home. I think there is a generation of women, a new generation, saying, I choose this, and it's a feminist choice. More old-school feminists are saying, no, it's not. This happened after I'd finished the book, but there were a bunch of articles about stay-at-home girlfriends who were not married. They just stopped working. I guess they had wealthy boyfriends. Sounds good. Sounds good to me. The problem is always the same thing. It's the same thing with women who dropped out of the workforce to take care of children. You just become very financially vulnerable. What I kept running into is, especially if you're -- I assume these stay-at-home girlfriends have some kind of contract. Even with the married women who gave up careers to stay home, if they got divorced later, we don't really do alimony anymore. They gave up their future earnings. Whatever debt existed in the marriage also would get divided between them. They would end up really financially vulnerable. I think that's what we have to deal with right now. If we want to have choice, which we should -- that's the goal. The goal is to have a choice about, do you want to raise your kids full time? Do you want to work full time? Do you want to work part time? We don't want to end up really financially vulnerable by the choices we make. That's where we haven't progressed. We've made all of this cultural change and not enough structural change. That's why we still do it all.

Zibby: I love how you have a whole thing on where this supermom -- you said it better -- super powerful mom came from and how we've gotten ourselves into this mess, essentially. How did we arrive here? It does feel that some of these roles are somewhat unsustainable. It's quite complicated to do everything. All this lip service to juggling, it's really like, it is sort of impossible, in a way.

Lisa: It is. I start the book with this commercial -- now I'm really thinking about commercials -- for Enjoli perfume. I think us Gen Xers will remember this ad. It was a hugely successful ad for this perfume for the twenty-four-hour woman. It's eight hours for work and eight hours for kids and eight hours for husband. What about the sleeping? What about the hours for yourself? For me, I thought, oh, that's what you're supposed to be, and I think for a whole generation of women. Okay, we're supposed to work and parent and be the domestic goddess. It isn't sustainable. A lot of that is because we didn't pass childcare laws and family leave laws. It's a little boring policy stuff, but it ended up being really important because there was this huge cultural shift of women working full time with nothing else changing. I felt like when I had a kid, my first kid, I was just kind of like, I don't understand the calculation. Childcare is so expensive. I also want to spend time with my child. I don't want to give up my career. It was completely unsustainable. Some of that would be helped by having really affordable, good childcare, really investing in that and really seeing that as patriotic. If you give families choice and if every choice is reasonable and good, you have the greatest chance of making good citizens, creating healthy young people. When I think about those ads and how much they shaped me, it also takes me to the Calgon ad of --

Zibby: -- Take me away.

Lisa: Take me away. Pretty soon after all of this change, the ads were kind of like, we know this is horrible for you, and here's another product you can buy. I do spend a lot of time in the bath, I will say. I guess that affected me too.

Zibby: I know, that is such a mom trope. Go relax. Take a bath. I'm trying to convince people to read. I'm like, it's not like you have to go take a bath. You can just open a book. You don't even have to run the water, and you've already escaped, you know, because it's so hard. [laughs] 

Lisa: That's true. You can escape anywhere with a book.

Zibby: That's right. Thirty years from now, let's just say, when your child -- I have kids around the same age -- are, not our ages, but getting there -- yeah, maybe, my kid. Anyway, doesn't matter. In thirty years, where do you think the housewife and the mom life will be?

Lisa: That's such a good question. I have not thought about that. I wonder if we'll be continually having culture wars still about what women should be doing and what women's work is. I think that with each generation -- I interviewed a few millennial parents. They were much less concerned about what women should do and what men should do. They were much more amenable to dividing the task of domesticity by skill. Of course, some of that is affected by gender stereotypes or by whatever we're, maybe, prone to based on sex. I think men are feeling much less worried about being emasculated by doing childcare and housework. Hopefully, what we'll have is a vision of the family where people can work out on their own how it works best for them without a lot of cultural noise telling them that whatever they've decided is wrong. Hopefully, we will have more structural support. We will have really good childcare for those who need it and some way to protect stay-at-home parents financially so that if the marriage falls apart, they don't end up really poor and struggling. That sounds nice.

Zibby: That does sound nice. That sounds great. I wonder about the effects of having nonbinary parents. What does that look like? Maybe the concept of gender itself gets continually deconstructed over the next couple decades. Then automation increases. There, maybe, are fewer home things that -- if your fridge can reorder the groceries and a drone is dropping things off at your front door and a robot is doing the vacuuming, then you're all good. You can just sit and read your book.

Lisa: Oh, yeah, I admit I'm very attracted to the robot vacuum. We have so many cords everywhere and are so disorganized. I think I can't ever get a robot vacuum. That is one vision. I did do a bunch of research about same-sex parents. There's not a lot of research yet about trans parents. It was pretty interesting in same-sex couples. I don't know if this is accurate, but according to one study, lesbians have the highest divorce rate, but there is much less bickering over who does what based on how masculine or feminine each woman is. However, in gay men's relationships, there was a big difference. If there was a more feminine man and a more masculine man, the feminine man was expected to do more of the housework. They had, kind of, gender roles based on masculinity and femininity in a way that women didn't. I don't know how accurate the data is about the lesbian divorce. I think more conservative people would say, yeah, we need these gender roles. When you don't have them, when it's all confused, it breaks down. That would be another way to interpret it. I'm not sure how to interpret it because there's not a ton of research. I did feel like, through this book, I -- we had a very uneven distribution of labor in my marriage. 

Zibby: I read that.

Lisa: It wasn't about, man does this, and woman does this. It was about, he worked more hours than I did and made more money than I did. I felt like I had to do more because I really needed to protect his job. I worked at home. I think with the women, they're sort of like, we're both women, we should both be doing everything because women do everything. If there's a similar situation of one person works or makes more money, the other woman is like, on some level, but you're a woman, so you do everything. We ended up redistributing the labor in my marriage, but not in a very traditional way. Now my husband does all the cooking. He does most of the shopping. I was thinking about that, what if the fridge orders the groceries? He wouldn't like that because he loves going to the co-op and doing the shopping, whereas I find our food co-op to be intolerably hippie fascist. I hate going. I liked cooking, but there were things that I was doing that were really hard for him in terms of the big picture of parenting. What do we need to do for the kids now so that they get to a place later? He took over all the cooking. He cleans the whole kitchen too. It really helped. I have more time. It took me a long time to get used to it. I was like, I have a little extra time, I have no idea what to do with it. I haven't had this experience in years. Of course, I worked more, but I like that. I like to work. I like to exercise. I did more of that too. I really feel like it's so much more about the distribution of labor in this very unromantic way, a successful marriage, a successful family. It's probably not what most people are thinking about. I think it's really important so you feel supported. Whatever way it makes sense to break it up to you. It's not going to be the same in every family. Lots of families don't have two parents.

Zibby: My husband does cooking, cleaning, all the food shopping. He's into the food. He's so good at it. I have been taking care of all the logistics, which I hate because I'm also not good at logistics. Give me as many loads of laundry. I don't mind that at all, and the kids' stuff. I do all the kids' stuff, everything. The logistics and the, okay, which flight -- the other day, he organized some transportation that we needed somewhere. He was like, "Oh, I took care of it." I was like, "You did?" He was like, "Yeah, you told me that was your love language, and so I did it." I was like, "It is my love language. Don't give me another sweater the rest of my life. I don't care about jewelry." If you have a car waiting for me at the airport or something like that, that is everything to me. I guess just knowing your buttons and having someone who cares enough and can help.

Lisa: I agree. I never expressed it that way. I might tell my husband that is my love language too. When I come home and the living room is vacuumed, I feel so good. Part of this is, I work at home. It is really messy. I never expected to have not only a messy, but a dirty home. This was not my vision. My kids are messy. One more than the other. It's hard to work sometimes. It's hard to clear my mind to work. I don't even have my own workspace. We do have a little office in our apartment, but I share it with my husband because now he works at home. That's cluttered and messy. Anytime there's just a cleaned-off surface, I feel so good. That makes me think about what I feel like is the big takeaway from this book.

Zibby: Thank you for getting us back to the book.

Lisa: Which is not necessarily the love language, but actually, I do think that's important. One of the things that really surprised me was discovering that what we think of as the traditional family, the nuclear family, was really an anomaly in human history and even in American history. We subsidized all kinds of families, for instance, to move West along with the railroad and gave them really, really cheap land and then set up all of these community institutions, churches. There weren't funeral homes, but people would get together if somebody died. We replicated the clan of early human in all kinds of ways basically until the 1950s. Until then, a lot of people lived with extended family. They lived either rurally or in tighter-knit communities. There was some suburban expansion in the twenties, but even then, it was very connected to city centers. 

When we moved out to the suburbs, which was also very, very heavily subsidized -- the government paid for the highways. They subsidized mortgages. They paid all of these people to leave their extended clans and cities and take up in their own private families, in their own little private townhouses with their private yards instead of public parks and their private washing machines instead of the laundromat. Look, a lot of that is really great, but it ended up establishing that as the norm when actually, it had never happened before. All of a sudden, this very human clan is gone. All of these people who are saying, we need to get back to the traditional nuclear family, are conjuring a very recent anomalistic kind of existence. I felt like what I learned from doing this research was that you need to make your clan in whatever way you can. If you have money, you pay someone to clean your house, maybe a nanny. You replicate what's called alloparenting. It takes a village. If you don't, if you don't have enough money for all those, for a housekeeper and whatnot -- that makes me think about The Brady Bunch. They had six kids, but they also had Alice, the housekeeper. If you don't, there are all kinds of ways. 

There are babysitting co-ops and moms' groups, to a certain extent, where we shared information. Instead of living in an extended family and a close-knit community where there's generational knowledge passed down -- we don't have that, but we came together and shared. Here's how you wean. Here's information about sleep training, or the opposite, attachment parenting. That feeling that I had early on of, I can't figure out how to do this by myself -- there is no roadmap. I don't understand. That turns out to be a common feeling and quite a normal reaction to the way we live now. I remember thinking -- I live in an apartment building, so I was like, all these other women are home making dinner by themselves. Why are we not helping each other more? Why aren't we just slightly more, you make dinner Tuesday for my kids, and I make dinner Thursday for your kids? What I tell women now, women who are pregnant or who have kids, is try to figure out what your plan is. Make your plan in any way you can. That actually made me feel better about how hard it was.

Zibby: It takes a village. A hundred percent.

Lisa: It takes a village. It's a cliché for a reason, right?

Zibby: It's absolutely true. Lisa, thank you so much for coming on, for talking about Housewife, and even the cover. Now how are we going to get this coffee table book out in the world with more ads?

Lisa: Don't you love that?

Zibby: I love it so much. I love it. I just love it.

Lisa: I think it would be such a cool project to just look at how, essentially, men advertise who women are supposed to be and what they're supposed to do over these eras and how it changes in response to cultural and historical events. I think that would be cool and fun.

Zibby: Totally cool.

Lisa: Let's do it.

Zibby: [laughs] You can do it. I'll read it. I'll buy it. I'll buy it and put it on my coffee table. You should have it come out timed to Mother's Day. 2025, Mother's Day, there you go.

Lisa: Okay. Next up. I love it. Thank you, Zibby. This was great.

Zibby: Thanks. Nice to meet you.

Lisa: Nice to meet you.

Zibby: Bye.

Lisa Selin Davis - HOUSEWIFE

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