Executive Wife Envy and Stupid Assumptions

I used to hate on executive spouses, specifically executive wives.

Executive, common definition:

executive [ɪgˈzɛkjʊtɪv] n 1. a. a person or group responsible for the administration of a project, activity, or business b. (as modifier) executive duties an executive position.
My definition:
executive: a person in an organization who
  1. is responsible if things get messed up (often in a very public way)
  2. makes the same base amount of money regardless of hours (aka salaried)
  3. can in theory make much more depending on incentives (aka bonus, stock shares)
  4. is consistently on call because of said responsibility
  5. spends all of their time leading, forging new paths, and creating new opportunities... that is, when they're not too busy dealing with bureaucratic nonsense, putting out fires, and complying with whichever new law Congress passed this week
  6. the poor person with a company-paid cell phone and laptop with push email notifications and an inherent inability to truly "get away from it all"
  7. the person who gets publicly canned if something, anything, goes horribly wrong
Note, this definition applies to everyone from the CEO of a major corporation (and CTO's, CIO's, CFO's, etc all the way down) to the sole owner of a small business (farm, restaurant, etc.).

I used to think executives were vicious, money-grubbing, trampling-on-the-little-people capitalist bastards.

Until I married one.

Executive spouse, my old definition
  1. trophy wife
  2. stay at home wife/husband/partner
  3. baby-maker
  4. homemaker
  5. dependent female
  6. spoiled brat who doesn't need to work 'cause spouse works for everything
My new definition:

  1. spouse whose duties comprise of running a household and taking care of matters executive cannot take care of
  2. appointment maker, chauffeur, child care specialist, pet care specialist, family organizer, nurse, lawn and garden care specialist, person who waits at home for the repairman, emergency contact
  3. spouse whose necessary qualities are complete flexibility combined with patience, grace, and the restraint required to not throw the offending Blackberry in the lake while on vacation
  4. the one who "handles it" so the executive can focus on work with the complete trust that the details of their life are handled and their home life is not falling apart
  5. the cheerleader and emotional support of the executive
  6. the person who "executes" all duties pertaining to home and family
I used to absolutely despise executive spouses, specifically executive wives. This probably came from my extreme working-class childhood and spending too many years in Scottsdale surrounded by "trophy wives". I thought they won the spouse lottery and spent all their time living off of the hard work of their spouse while relaxing and wearing designer clothes.

Then, like marrying an executive changed my perceptions of executives, becoming an executive wife changed my perception of all women in my position. I realize now I based my views on a logical fallacy.

Logical fallacy: the public front reflects the personal reality

This is the fallacy of "you look like this, therefore you are this". You look like a bum, therefore you are a bum. You look successful, therefore you can easily afford that new car (even if it's not true). You look carefree, therefore you are carefree.


This is simply not true for the executive spouse. Even if the day has been hell, the kids have been driving you nuts, you've been cleaning dog shit off the porch or cleaning up child vomit, or you've been mowing the lawn all day, that doesn't mean it's acceptable (or a good idea) to look like that's what you've been doing. You may wear many hats, but you can't wear all of them at once. Just like you tell your spouse to "leave work at work", you need to be able to do that as well. That means putting on clean clothes, fixing your makeup, and brushing your hair before the executive gets home.

There is another, extra part to the equation that often gets missed; the executive is not the only one working their job. Often, the spouse is an integral part of the job. Unlike many other jobs, being an executive isn't about what you do, it's about who you are. A huge part of the job is appearing responsible, capable, reliable, stable, and looking like you have good decision-making skills.

If the executive's spouse shows up at their office with a wailing toddler and a baby in a dirty diaper while wearing sweats and crocs with messed-up hair, that shows badly on the executive. The executive can't even make sure their spouse has good clothes and parenting skills, how can they devote the time and attention needed to that million-dollar contract?

Yes, the spouse could just avoid going to the office (although sometimes that's really not possible), but they can't avoid all business functions or interacting with the executive's co-workers. Also, if the executive shows up to work in wrinkled clothes with a baby-vomit stain because they've been too busy taking care of the kids when they get home, that also reflects badly on their availability and focus.

Part of the job of the executive's spouse is to handle home matters in such a way that the executive can devote full time and attention to their job. If the ideal is a productive, focused, brilliant executive the best way to achieve that ideal is through a calm, stress-free home life for the executive. That means the spouse must handle everything needed and do it in such a way that the executive feels unencumbered by guilt and worry at work.

Sweats, crocs, messy hair, messy kids, a messy house, and no clean clothes? Worried and stressed.

Good clothes, makeup, hair and nails done, clean and happy kids, a tidy house, and a closet full of wrinkle-free business-wear? Relaxed and ready to spend time with the family.

The "trophy" wife who gets her nails done, does her hair and makeup every day, and wears good clothing? She earns that every day by contributing to the success of her husband. Her day may have been hell and full of challenges, but she will not for a moment burden her husband with what went wrong at her "work" by whining about how hard it is. She may bitch the same way he bitches about whatever irritation happened that day but she will in no way insinuate that she can't handle it.

She's earned those Manolos she's wearing.

Now here's my confession: I have yet to earn my stripes in this regard. The same logical fallacy above messed with my head for way too long. I assumed being an executive wife would be easy, because it looks easy. So when I ran into difficulty I assumed it was because I was incompetent and got into a horrendous shame/guilt spiral.

I never understood that looking so in control and so at ease is a lot of work. The absolute apex of the art of homemaking is making it look easy. The appearance is for the sake of the executive, not the truth of the situation. If I allow myself to look like I've been dealing with chaos all day I'm defeating the purpose of dealing with the chaos: making sure life's little details are handled and there is no undue stress on my already stressed husband.

Some people turn their money into toys, or entertainment, or outward signs of wealth. People in positions of high responsibility tend to turn their hard-earned cash into peace of mind. The ideal for people who work in high-stress environments is to come home to a stress-free, relaxing, comfortable, drama-free family and house. This is what makes it possible for them to achieve so much at work.

I've been entrusted by my husband to turn his cash and my time into peace of mind and a harmonious home. I've not been so good at it, but I'm working hard at getting better at my job. I'm even making progress.

That being said, there's laundry to do, pants to hem, dinner to make, and makeup and hair to touch up before he gets home.


SLL79 said...

I am married to an executive, and I often struggle with the role of executive wife. None of my friends are executive wives, and I grew up with blue collar parents in a farm town. I need to find some way to vent or find friends in a similar situation. I get my husband needs me to be the family's boss, but it's crazy hard.

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