Overlooked in the culture wars, a new phenomenon has been emerging: domesticity without family, or with family lite. I’m thinking of my friends who have elaborate, Martha Stewart–like (though not Martha-inspired) domestic situations, either without husbands, or children, or both. You could call it housewifery by choice.
It used to be that women married for what was called “an establishment” in the 18th century: a house, a coach, staff and a social position. Now that we can get that without marrying, a fair number of “career women” turn out to be interested in being, well, housewives. (A touchy question I won’t get into here is how many women today would prefer to remain single if only they could earn enough to provide their fantasy “establishment.”)
I recognize some of the signs in myself. Without husband or kids, I married my house. By which I mean, a lot of the time that I would spend on wifely duties (other than sex), I devote to maintaining, upgrading and decorating my home.
I’m crazy enough to get the paint retouched every couple of months in the high-traffic rooms. The minute something breaks, it gets fixed. I’ve shipped antique tile from Italy and wood and lamps from Canada to adorn my place, and spent countless hours online sourcing everything from the perfect antique brass sink (only $60 on eBay) to the perfect waterproof patio coating.
My domestic obsession, like that of many of my husbandless or childless friends, is selective. I eat out as much as the next New Yorker, and I don’t do much of my own housework (though I do some of my own construction work; the heavier stuff is good exercise). I garden in the small way that my small outdoor space allows and am approaching self-sufficiency in cilantro, mint and basil. More to the point, the chief incentive in running my small business is to be able to pay for all of this.
Mainly, this is all a good thing. Since I work at home, it’s more important to me to live in a place that I find aesthetically pleasing. And I enjoy the compliments I get on my house, which (I am realizing at 48) will one day have to take the emotional place hitherto gratified by compliments on my looks.
(By the way, lest you wonder, my other domestic-fetishist friends are attractive people, some extremely so, and all started their obsessions with house and garden while still nubile.)
The only part that worries me is that I assume I’m single because I always put my career and adventures first—and precisely because I didn’t want to become a housewife. My late mother interrupted a successful career for 15 years to be a stay-at-home mom, which, she was finally able to admit, made her profoundly unhappy. Besides gardening, I don’t recall her liking much about her daily routine. She never enjoyed cooking, and I always thought she burnt the meat in revenge. Maybe, though, domesticity is another thing entirely when you get to choose it.
And maybe it is also a substitute for the sort of big family that few of us have anymore. Greta and David, friends from college (and married nearly that long), were childless for much of their marriage, until they adopted seven years ago. Now they are like other people and order take-out food frequently. But in their childless days, Greta made fantastic vegetarian meals—not a noun-adjective combo I often use—including, most elaborately, a seven-course vegan Seder. Decades before most of us had heard of microgreens, Greta was growing them at her Berkshires home. She also worked full-time in advertising.
Now she has her own small business, a 7-year-old, no nanny and no time to cook. But she doesn’t seem heartbroken about that.
Although she was single until 45, my friend Jane was the first person I knew who had several types of salt on the table. She’d designed her own exquisite—and huge—loft with the money she made as a film editor. She went to the 26th Street flea market every weekend and bought wonderful objects for her home, adding to collections of several different kinds of 50’s dinnerware and antique glasses. A spur-of-the-moment invitation to dinner meant a three-course meal with a choice of several gelatos or sorbets for dessert.
For a selection of homemade sorbets after every meal, though, you have to go to dinner at Patricia and Paolo’s country house. (Last time the flavors were basil, peanut butter and strawberry.) Patricia tends the enormous garden—30 types of tomatoes alone—while Paolo does the cooking. Every time I visit, I wonder how they do it. Each of the four guest rooms is exquisitely furnished and impeccably clean. Fluffy white terry bathrobes await in the wardrobe; fresh flowers are in the bathroom.
Patricia, a 50-year-old real-estate developer, admits that it’s costly: “It’s because I don’t have kids to send to private school and nannies to pay for that I can have the houses that I do.” But she and her husband and business partner do all the gardening and cooking themselves, and have a housekeeper come in only once a week.
Childless by choice, Paolo and Patricia aren’t building an estate for the next generation. The question is: Is their tending of house and garden and table a way of caring for themselves—maybe analogous to what others seek at spas—or is it more like being house-parents, in the way I sometimes consider myself a house-wife, with a beautiful building substituting for the kids they don’t have? Crudely put, is it a desire to care for themselves, or for something outside the self? Along with other cosseted house-guests, I’d answer that it’s a need to nurture.
Or, more cynically, it may be the reflection of an increasingly common anxiety about parenting. They may be members of a vanguard that prefers the love of a house to the raising of children who would eventually move far away and resent even their weekly phone calls. After all, the house will increase in value, and comfort them in their old age.
Ann Marlowe is the author of two memoirs, How to Stop Time: Heroin from A to Z, and The Book of Trouble: A Romance.