Book Talk – The Husbands by Chandler Baker, COVID-19 and Working Moms, and The Stepford Wives
The Husbands Summary
I immediately felt stressed when reading The Husbands by Chandler Baker because I felt so seen. Does Chandler Baker have a secret telescope into the homes of working moms? I think yes.
Nora is an attorney with a toddler and a well-meaning husband who doesn’t help nearly as much as he should. She’s drowning and no one seems to see it. And now I’ve just described the plight of millions of working moms.
When they find a house for sale in a perfect neighborhood, Nora is taken in by the strong, successful women, while dazzled by the husbands who keep the homes immaculate and dote on how hard their wives work.
The Stepford Wives
We get shades here of The Stepford Wives by Ira Levin, except with the focus squarely on the husbands. The biggest difference between the two books, though is that in The Stepford Wives, the women were already doing everything already. In their new iterations, they’re just expected to do it perfectly, pleasingly, and beautifully.
Contrast that with The Husbands, in which the wives aren’t necessarily striving for perfection. They just want help.
These dueling quotes from each book further show the different priorities:
“‘What’s wrong with Bill McCormick? Can’t he run a washer? I thought he was one of our aerospace brains.’
‘He’s taking care of Marge,’ Kit said, folding the T-shirt. ‘These things came out nice and white, didn’t they?’
She put the folded T-shirt into the laundry basket, smiling. Like an actress in a commercial. That’s what she was, Joanna felt suddenly. That’s what they all were, all the Stepford wives: actresses in commercials, pleased with detergents and floor wax, with cleansers, shampoos, and deodorants. Pretty actresses, big in the bosom but small in the talent, playing suburban housewives unconvincingly, too nicey-nice to be real.”
Ira Levin, The Stepford Wives
And there’s also this:
“In her immaculate kitchen she said, ‘Yes, I’ve changed. I realized I was being awfully sloppy and self-indulgent. It’s no disgrace to be a good homemaker. I’ve decided to do my job conscientiously, the way Dave does his, and to be more careful about my appearance. Are you sure you don’t want a sandwich?’”
Ira Levin, The Stepford Wives
And then we have this scene in The Husbands with Nora coming home after a long day of work to an even longer evening of work:
“In the kitchen, she (Nora) runs a wet paper towel over streaky countertops and peeks in Liv’s solar system lunchbox. Her nose wrinkles. She presses her sleeve to her nostrils and dumps out the slimy turkey and smashed raspberries and the half-eaten applesauce. The sight makes her pregnant stomach curdle until she’s successfully pushed the mess down the drain and run the disposal. She feels her blood pressure rising and wills it not to.
She walks upstairs, still in her high heels, wondering how she could be so eager to see her family, her favorite faces in the entire world, yet also feel a horror movie level of dread. ‘Don’t go in there.’
She can’t even say that these warring emotions are in equal measure. It’s more like they overlap; a perfect Venn diagram. The things she loves and those that drive her to madness are the exact same.
Hayden watches the news while Liv scribbles with a marker on a notepad.
‘Is it smart to let our four-year-old draw with marker on the carpet?’
Nora keeps her voice light, an honest question. But inwardly she cringes. She might have started with ‘hello’ or ‘how was your day.’ Might have kissed him on the forehead like a good wife.
‘They’re washable.’ Hayden peers down his nose at liv as though he has the whole situation firmly under his grasp.
‘Yeah,’ Norah kneels and starts gently capping the markers, praying that Liv won’t notice and throw a fit.
‘But, who is going to wash the carpet?’
Hayden sighs.”Chandler Baker, The Husbands
I could practically feel the stress and desperation coming off of Nora, more than partly because I recognized my own experiences in it.
While the plot goes a little off the rails at the end, the thing that really sticks with me is the conversation about working moms and the (oftentimes) remaining imbalance of household duties.
It gave me, a working mom myself, a lot to think about in the context specifically of the COVID-19 pandemic and its chilling effect on the women’s movement.
Here are some sources shown in the video and for further reading:
Bateman, Nicole and Martha Ross. “Why Has COVID-19 Been Especially Harmful for Working Women?” Brookings, October 2020, https://www.brookings.edu/essay/why-has-covid-19-been-especially-harmful-for-working-women/. Accessed 27 October 2021.
Chun-Hoon, Wendy. “5 Facts on Moms, Work and COVID-19.” US Department of Labor, 6 May 2021, https://blog.dol.gov/2021/05/06/moms. Accessed 27 October 2021.
Collins, Caitlyn, Liana Christin Landivar, Leah Ruppanner, William J. Scarborough. “COVID-19 and the Gender Gap in Work Hours.” Wiley Online Library, 2 July 2020, https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/gwao.12506. Accessed 27 October 2021.
Heggeness, Misty L. and Jason M. Fields. “Working Moms Bear Brunt of Home Schooling While Working During COVID-19.” United States Census Bureau, 18 August 2020, https://www.census.gov/library/stories/2020/08/parents-juggle-work-and-child-care-during-pandemic.html. Accessed 27 October 2021.
Huang, Jess, Alexis Krivkovich, Ishanaa Rambachan, and Lareina Yee. “For mothers in the workplace, a year (and counting) like no other.” McKinsey & Company, 5 May 2021, https://www.mckinsey.com/featured-insights/diversity-and-inclusion/for-mothers-in-the-workplace-a-year-and-counting-like-no-other. Accessed 27 October 2021.
“American Time Use Survey.” US Bureau of Labor Statistics, 25 June 2020, https://www.bls.gov/tus/tables/a6-1519.htm. Accessed 27 October 2021.
“The Primal Scream.” The New York Times, 4 February 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/spotlight/working-moms-coronavirus. Accessed 27 October 2021.
“Women in the Workplace 2021.” McKinsey & Company, Lean In, 2021, https://womenintheworkplace.com. Accessed 27 October 2021.