For the good of my mental health and in an effort to be more present to my children, I’ve dialed back my use of social media. I may miss more cultural references as a result, but I’ve made my peace with the trade-off.
However, on one of my recent, rarer visits to Twitter, I stumbled across a piece from NBC’s Today on the so-called “Tradwife” phenomenon. As a married, stay-at-home mom whose professional ambitions are simmering while I care for my young children, I took the bait, thinking that mine might be the type of profile being detailed.
For those like me who are just getting caught up, the “Tradwife” movement centers around a growing number of millennial and Gen Z women who post content on TikTok and other social media platforms promoting a mid-century aesthetic and lifestyle. Their videos and resources celebrate traditional gender roles, homemaking, and the care of children. Many of these young women don clothing, makeup, and hairstyles emblematic of the 1950s.
“Tradwives” informally self-report high levels of marital satisfaction. Some attribute this to their husbands’ esteem for domestic and caregiving work, which they feel is vastly undervalued today, both culturally and economically.
Others consciously traded corporate burnout for more freedom and peace, a trend that the COVID-19 pandemic accelerated.
Twenty-five-year-old Estee Williams, a prominent face of the movement who left college to get married and pursue homemaking, says that her chaotic upbringing by an overworked, single mother left her craving stability in her own adult life.
“She worked all these jobs and then she would come home and try her best to make us really good food, have the house clean,” she remembers. “I saw the stress and burnout and I always knew that I did not want that.” Williams has embraced a posture of deference to her husband on most of their marital decisions, asking for permission to engage in social activities and to make purchases that cost more than $100.
View this post on Instagram
After taking a closer look, I can say with certainty that I am not a “Tradwife.” For one, I am disenchanted by my generation’s need to cultivate and project a highly curated, personal “brand.” After almost 20 years on social media, we have become accustomed to arranging our lives according to how they will be perceived online. Life feels like performance art.
Second, the Catholic tradition has taken great pains to communicate an anthropology in which a woman’s agency is understood, acknowledged, and respected. Yes, marital happiness is marked by compromise, and even mutual submission, for those courageous enough to engage Ephesians 5. But near-total deference seems to be a way of side-stepping decision-making and responsibility, key markers of adulthood. At best it’s a sign of immaturity; at worst, infantilization. The intellect and will are signature aspects of the “Imago Dei” (“Image of God”). We are expected to use them well.
Last, I find a conservatism steeped in nostalgia as problematic as a rigid progressivism that pursues future justice at all costs.
“Sufficient for today is its own evil,” Jesus tells us (Matthew 6:34). Idolizing the past or obsessing over the future means missing God’s activity in the present moment. For all of today’s troubles, our God is still the God of history, including our own.
Yet for all of my hesitations about the phenomenon, I have genuine sympathy for these young women. Reactionary movements don’t come out of nowhere. They seem to be imposing on themselves the order they crave but do not see in the wider culture. Any therapist will tell you that too much freedom is paralyzing. We need rules, maps, and guardrails — perhaps women even more so, as the mounting evidence of female unhappiness would suggest.
Even though women in the Western world have more social, political, and economic opportunities than ever before, they are reporting lower levels of happiness — not only relative to other women but to men as well. This is what two researchers dubbed the “Paradox of Declining Female Happiness” in 2009. New data suggests that young, liberal women are among those whose mental health is suffering the worst.
Legal scholar Helen Alvaré saw that the train was headed here five years ago when she wrote, “Now would be a good time to declare that the essence of the sexual revolution — unlinking sex from even the ideas of children, marriage or even ‘tomorrow’ — has been a failed experiment.”
She’s not alone. A number of feminist scholars of all political backgrounds are sounding the alarm. Consider these recent titles: “Feminism Against Progress,” by Mary Harrington; “The Case Against the Sexual Revolution: A New Guide to Sex in the 21st Century,” by Louise Perry; “Rethinking Sex: A Provocation,” by Christine Emba.
These authors examine how consensual but relationship-less sex, trading children for the C-suite, and having no ties to people or place have left the majority of women more miserable than ever. According to Harrington, they only materially benefit a small number of women at the top of the economic echelon.
And a recent study conducted by Brendan Case, Th.D., of Harvard University, confirmed that married women continue to fare better than their unmarried peers. They had better health outcomes overall, including “a lower risk of cardiovascular disease, less depression and loneliness,” greater happiness, and “a greater sense of purpose and hope.”
So in that sense, the “Tradwives” are onto something. Marriage and motherhood still provide women with meaning, purpose, and satisfaction, even if they are characterized as outdated or retrograde. And domestic work has immense value, in that raising children well pays dividends for family life and the common good. To discover that early on in life is a beautiful thing.
But my wish for these women is to understand something explored by the philosopher Josef Pieper — that tradition is not the same as “traditionalism,” or a longing for and recreation of the past. Someone who is traditional faces today’s questions and concerns head on, applying wisdom from the past as well as knowledge gained in the present.
For modern women dissatisfied with the path they’re on, such an approach seems more likely to inspire curiosity and even hope, with the help of peers and mentors who, instead of fleeing, can say to them, “Let’s find our way through this mess together.”