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I grew up with a tradwife mom.
I'm the oldest of eight children in a traditional Catholic Quiverfull family that homeschooled.
My mom thought that Lori Alexander was a shining beacon of hope. And this article doesn't even bring in publications like ABOVE RUBIES or CREATED TO BE HIS HELPMEET (both publications are vile, promote abuse, and I do not recommend them). To my mother, the highest purpose of womanhood was to have a ton of babies and to educate them at home. We constantly had to prove that we were better than public school kids.
Here's the thing: tradwives can't maintain that lifestyle alone. They have to loop other people into the abusive cycles, and even then it's barely maintainable.
As the oldest daughter, I was doing my family's laundry at 6. I was practically running the household and homeschooling myself by the time I was 12. After the 6th grade, I educated myself. When I was 16, I was doing the grocery shopping and running errands for the entire family.
My story has a happy ending. There was a local university nearby, so I started commuting as a 17-year-old. My parents were so proud of their homeschooling achievement (as if they've ever actually helped me beyond elementary school). I went to grad school and married someone outside of that lifestyle. PhD and first tenure-track job at 28.
I am so grateful to be in a happy marriage and to earn my own money. I love my work. I like having a room of my own and a husband who sees me as a full person.
My teaching, research and advocacy is dedicated to undoing white Christian nationalism. I renounce my parents and all their works.
I could save myself, but not my sisters. They keep marrying men within my parents' sphere of influence. I wish I could save them, or even warn them in a way that they would listen.
To me what it boils down to is that these women have recognized that it is impossible to be employed, raise children, and do all the housework by yourself without becoming exhausted, miserable, and beaten down. But instead of realizing that the solution is some combination of MEN ACTUALLY HELPING AT HOME, a cultural shift back towards more community-oriented ways of raising children, and policy intervention, they think the solution is just to retreat into the home.
It makes me really sad, actually.
(Also, I feel very called out by that dc Talk line. It's not my fault that I was a 13-year-old who had limited music options!)
A sentence in your final paragraph leapt out at me in glowing neon letters.
"I have a sense of what their husbands are like."
THAT'S the story I want to read. I want Men's Health or GQ or somebody to do a deep dive, or a roundtable Q&A, or SOMETHING with the men who are married to these women. What do they think? Are they allowed to? Because I feel like COME ON — for all the submissiveness cosplay, these are some IRON-WILLED women who have manifested powerful media brands. The men are as vestigial as male praying mantises. They're there to supply a paycheck: food, clothing, a giant pickup truck or two, but also ring lights and makeup and hair dye. And they're there to help create another kid every once in a while. But are they voting stockholders? I don't really think so. And as a man, I want to know what it's really like to be married to a person like this. Because I don't think I'd last a week.
OH SHIT. Your last line.
I feel like I had a head start on these accounts as a white female teenager growing up in the South, and then a young mom in suburban Atlanta where there were absolutely impossible standards, even pre-Instagram. The photo on the beach in white clothing has been a thing since the early 90s, and it's such a weird signal of something...family unity? whiteness? wealth and happiness?
And every "tradmom" I knew had a job of some sort that they kept on the downlow! Photographer, clerk in a store, MLM stuff, writer for a food blog, childcare worker at their church, even working at a Hallmark store. It's like they had to have something for themselves even if it was just a "little job." (see Bama Rush for "little" stuff).
Loved this piece! The thing I also notice about all these women, besides their whiteness, is their thinness. This may just be partially a side effect of what the algorithms push and what our culture wants to look at, but it also tracks with my experience growing up in the church. There was always this sense that you would never be one of these beautiful, gentle, godly women if you were not thin and thereby conventionally attractive. This may also be because these kinds of girls had an easy time getting boyfriends in youth group or just kind of made the lifestyle seem the most appealing. Also the word "princess" is bandied about a lot in these circles, meaning a "royal child in the kingdom of God," and with all the Disneyfied cultural connotations of that word, I *never* actually felt like a princess. I have never ever been thin and spent a lot of my adolescence hung up on that fact, and so this kind of trend jumps out at me. All this to say, this aesthetic of a godly woman definitely predates social media, and I think it's a big part of why I never felt at home in any church, knowing I'd never be thin or beautiful enough resemble them in either looks or interests. It seemed impossible to be a true Christian woman without also being "beautiful," and that feels very reinforced by these Instagram personas.
It also begs the question: is God who you are really being beautiful for? Whose ideal woman is this *actually*?
Holy shit this is eye-opening, terrifying, and so well written. Thank you for spotlighting how "#Tradwife content is not cute or inspirational or harmless; it’s the handmaiden of the Christian Nationalist agenda. It’s regressive, anti-choice politics in a housedress offering you quick and easy morning glory muffins." Here's the thing—I always considered myself "traditional" insofar as I married my high school boyfriend at age 21, we've been married for 33 years, I loved raising my two kids, and I revel in making my home. BUT I have a graduate degree, I developed a career, I am independent, and we have a marriage based on mutual respect and power-sharing. My point is, it's possible to be "traditional" in terms of being married long term and celebrate some aspects of homemaking, but not be passive and submissive. I would never want my daughter or son to view any of these #tradwife influencers as a role model, and I'm positive they would be as horrified by their world view as I am. Thanks again for this post.
This has put me in mind of a post by Chelsea Summers, in her blog, Pretty Dumb Things, many years ago. Recounting her experiences as a highly successful stripper, this post described a particular moment in her career when she focused her life on achieving a maximum of physical perfection, as understood in that scene. It’s a terrific piece (she’s a dynamite writer) in which she describes a sort of hypnotic bliss in the self-annihilation of becoming a perfect object. No thoughts needed: just gym, tanning, grooming, working, sleeping. No questions or choices. The tradwife/SAHG lifestyle strikes me as a more elaborate version of that.
I don’t see how you can be an actual #tradwife and constantly display yourself to an audience. Doesn’t that make you - modern?
As always, your writing is so insightful and connects dots that have been buzzing in my mind in the background but remained unarticulated. The self-annihilation theme also just resonates with what so many (putatively liberal and feminist) moms I know joke or complain about, like how moms take the majority of photos of their children, often with their husbands in the photos too. This mixture of moms being the seers but not the seen, undervalued emotional labor around documenting the lives of children, as well as how social media like tradmoms make moms feel inadequate if they are photographed even slightly unflatteringly to the point where they would rather just be erased from the narrative than being caught not performing motherhood well.
Because it centers on kind of the available models of and fantasy material for Christian women, this makes me think of an article I wrote in grad school -- so, like, 20 years ago -- comparing Christian and secular romance novels. Not long single-titles, but series ones like Harlequin etc. based on fairly strong formulas. I haven't actually sat down and reread the article in years and years, and my memory is a little fuzzy on a lot of it, but IIRC the most interesting difference I found was in the prevailing narrative about what it meant to fall in love and head toward your happily ever after. The heroes in the secular books were much more dominant figures than the heroes in the Christian ones -- they were, like, billionaire cowboy neurosurgeons, while the Christian heroes were much more just some guy. But the secular plots very often revolved around the hero being tamed by the heroine. He didn't believe in love and she taught him to believe, that kind of thing. He as a dominant figure submitted to something bigger than him -- love -- but did so because of a heroine who was typically less objectively attractive and successful but had force of personality on her side. And the Christian books didn't have that so much. The heroes already recognized something bigger than themselves in God (that may be why they were less dominant figures to begin with), but also they were less likely to be seriously changed by their relationship with the heroine. In these books for women readers, Christianity kind of constrained the available size of the fantasy on both ends: You don't get the dream of the billionaire cowboy doctor's masculine power and you also don't get to tame the man you end up with. A lot has changed over the past 20 years, but something still feels familiar.
This idea of erasure is fascinating. And terrifying.
My mom got pregnant with me in 1969 right before she turned 18. She was a SAHM until my dad walked out the summer I was 7. My grandparents weren't wealthy at that time, but were middle class enough to make sure we didn't fall through the cracks. Like we were poor but not quite poor enough to qualify for food stamps. Mom essentially raised me without help from my dad. She went back to college for a second degree (guaranteed employment) in nursing with the support of the grandparents, who looked after me. Despite her working life and benignly negligent parenting, her socialization patterns are strong. She erases herself by throwing out all "junk." There will be nothing left that reflects who she is when she dies. Her "pastime" is cleaning her house. She's smart and funny but shut off any creativity at an early age. It's heartbreaking.
I've done better for myself, sort of. I've always had a rich inner life and serial hobbies (yay, ADHD!). But most of my adult life has been about caring for family and the home. I'm terrible at the latter, and I'm burnt out on the former. My friends became so wrapped up in being parents, while I fought to maintain a sense of self while my son was tiny. He's a young adult, but still living at home because money. Husband is retired. I'm trying to shift responsibilities to others with limited success. I have zero time for myself. I'm out of the house 10 hours a day. Weekends are about garden care (hobby, but also a chore), lawn care (husband is not healthy enough to mow safely), and so on. I've done the calculus on going on strike. It would ultimately cause harm, so not an option. (I haven't given up, and I'm still searching for and trying different tweaks and solutions.)
The point of all that is that despite all the progress we've made, the pressure to stuff ourselves into these roles permeates everything including our psyches. I applaud everyone who resists and pushes back. I'm an archivist, and I've process a couple of family collections with materials from the mid-20th century.
TL, DR: The glorification of #TradWife life is disturbing. People who identify or present as women are constantly subjected to pressures that tell them whatever lifestyle they choose is wrong, This trend is more pressure. Women are so often still seen as roles rather than people. (I think men can be trapped similarly but have more avenues to break free of it.)
The point about self-annihilation is so so smart, and also reminds me about what I think whenever I see this content, which is: this is definitely at least sort of a kink thing, right? The presence of sexuality in these kinds of posts (the trads more than the girlfriends) feels far more intense for being absent.
I was parenting small children in the early 2000s, and as result of trauma history (and some idealism about communality in parenting) I got drawn into the Attachment Parenting space. No one much was on the internet in those days (Thank God, or the hole I ended up in might have been much, more deeper.), but the virulence of the Attachment Parenting gospel was strong enough that it didn't really need the internet. And it boiled down to self-annihilation, exactly as you say. As in, if you were properly encouraging attachment as a parent then you would carry your child around all day. If you put them down for any length of time then they would experience attachment anxiety and that would be utterly traumatic for them and it would be ALL YOUR FAULT. Of course you should breast feed, and on demand 24 hours a day. If you made your child wait for the breast because you needed to do something during the day or (god forbid) you actually needed to sleep at night so that you were not so dangerously tired that you might do yourself, your child, or someone else serious harm then, again, they would experience abandonment and trauma and it would be ALL YOUR FAULT.
Attachment parenting gurus loved to talk about how we were "meant" to live in villages, and in that schema children were experiencing such an ideal childhood that their feet never touched the ground until they were toddlers and they never, ever cried. The reality was that in order to be a stay-at-home mom you had to have a husband who made 6 figures so that you would have the extra money and time to participate in endless mommy and baby play groups, yoga classes, and the like, instead of being trapped at home alone doing endless loads of laundry (so many shit-covered cotton diapers on top of everything else), totally touched out, desperate for your overworked, underpaid spouse to come home so someone else could hold the baby for JUST A MOMENT, but also dreading their return because it wasn't like you had showered for days because YOU CAN'T SHOWER WITH A BABY IN YOUR ARMS and they might want to have sex. Except you're so touched out the thought of sex is literally disgusting.
I would have likely had some mild post-partum depression regardless, but submitting to that insanity and the horrible guilt I felt every time I wanted even a moment to myself as a result (How could you possibly traumatize your child so wantonly, you selfish bitch!) dropped me in a depressive hole that it took years to climb out of.
The last line had me thinking: are these women the other side of the extreme #girlboss #momboss coin? When I really reflect on this, in both cases I don't know much about either of the archetypes, outside of what's shared for well...influencing. Both feel tired and exhausted, both feel preachy. Both seem to be reacting/perpetuating the increasing expectations placed on women today in the public square (just in opposing directions). If women are in a general state of duress, certainly some will over function and others will retreat into the self. The van diagram overlaps more than I'd originally think - the line truly turns in to a circle somewhere!
I haven’t even finished but the chilling reference to the Federalist Society reminded me of this quote by Edward Bernays, nephew of Freud and father of the field of public relations (propaganda) whose breathtakingly impactful work was appropriated by Goebbels in Nazi Germany: “The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country. We are governed, our minds are molded, our tastes formed, and our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of…. It is they who pull the wires that control the public mind.”
I had no idea "stay at home girlfriend" was a trend. That makes me so sad. Capitalism, patriarchy, white supremacy, and Christian supremacy are powerful forces encouraging some people to attach themselves to their rung on the ladder, and it's very, very depressing to see people participate in their own oppression. There's nothing wrong with working out and relaxing and taking care of your skin. But there is everything wrong with centering these activities as what is *valuable about you*. And there is everything wrong about perpetuating the belief that what women give to the world is "physical beauty" (as defined by racist, ablest, etc. norms) and nothing else. It is harmful to the woman practicing the value, and it is harmful to the society being shaped by the value.