Friday 19 January 2018

Meet the Manhattan mothers demanding a 'wife bonus'

They run their Upper East Side homes like domestic CEOs and work tirelessly to improve their family's social standing. And now, according to a new book, they want an annual perk from their Wall Street husbands

The mother of all jobs: Charlotte in Sex and the City is a stay-at-home mother
The mother of all jobs: Charlotte in Sex and the City is a stay-at-home mother

Celia Walden

Women are noto-riously bad at asking for bonuses. Which is why I did my homework and created - as suggested - "a master plan". I waited "the appropriate amount of time" (in my case, five years), made sure the big boss was in a good mood and took him out to lunch ("somewhere intimate, where there will be no interruptions"). I eschewed any usage of the word "need" (stinking, as it does, of desperation) in my pitch - which was "backed up with reports, charts and documentation of my positive performance" - and I tried to "remain respectful" as he stared slack-jawed back at me, before throwing his head back and roaring with laughter.

Asking my own husband for a bonus simply for being his wife was never going to be anything less than preposterous. Yet according to an author of the forthcoming memoir, Primates of Park Avenue, this is what a glittering tribe of crispy-haired Upper East Side Manhattan wives do every year - depending, of course, on how well they have managed the domestic budget, socialised, upheld a variety-filled performance in the bedroom… and succeeded in getting the kids into a 'Big Ten' school.

Wednesday Martin, a social researcher who has been immersing herself in the lives of "Park Lane Primates" for over a decade, explains how the "wife bonus", as she has called it, works in practice.

"It might be hammered out in a pre-nup or post-nup, and distributed on the basis of not only how well her husband's fund had done, but her own performance - the same way their husbands were rewarded at investment banks. In turn, these bonuses were a ticket to a modicum of financial independence and participation in a social sphere where you don't just go to lunch, you buy a $10,000 table at the benefit luncheon a friend is hosting."

So far, so laughable. Only Martin's book isn't a pastiche, but a serious, anthropomorphic study.

And it's all true. I've lived on the Upper East Side - I know. I've watched this brittle brigade tirelessly work through their exhaustive body admin schedules and three Flywheel classes a day - not to mention the intensive labour that comes with being what Martin calls "the Glam SAHMs", glamorous stay-at-home-moms. The mothers run their home lives as domestic CEOs, outsourcing and managing the nanny, the housekeeper, sleep trainer, thumb-sucking guru and child etiquette expert on her hands-free has become their full-time job.

"These women are anxious and hypervigilant about being perfect wives and mothers," Martin tells me. "Whereas middle-class mothers are more likely to be working and come from a common-sense tradition when it comes to parenting, the more educated and privileged mothers tend to work from a script called 'intensive motherhood'. While their husbands make millions, the privileged women who I met tend to give away the skills they honed in graduate school and their professions - organising galas, editing newsletters, running the library and bake sales - free of charge."

But under this arrangement, women are still dependent on their men. Add in the real stressers of intensive motherhood and Martin believes it all combines to make these women feel frustrated, anxious, on edge…"

And angry? "Yes," she laughs, "very, very angry."

Well before children are brought into the equation, Martin explains in her book, female behaviour on the rarified stretch of the Upper East Side north of 63rd Street and south of 94th Street has been skewed to encourage what is known in field biology as "intrasexual competition" - epitomised by male rams battering their heads together. "Only because the sexual ratios favour men on the Upper East Side, where there are two women of reproductive age to every man of reproductive age, the men are the ones with the coy, choosy behaviour and the women are the ones bashing their heads together.

"Men have succeeded in concentrating their privilege in this area and the women there are largely economically dependent," Martin goes on, "because having married rich, powerful men who run hedge or private equity funds, they are free to not work - even though many of them are smart, with advanced degrees from prestigious universities. The fact that they don't work gives the men still more power. So the women have to court and re-court their husbands over and over."

There's nothing romantic about that courtship, either, which Martin describes as taking the form of "a tense perfectionism".

"One Upper East Side psychoanalyst told me that, other than the world of professional modelling, she had never seen a culture where women were under so much pressure to be thin and beautiful - and where she had encountered so many eating disorders.

"When you shun food so that you can consume your calories in alcohol," explains Martin, "that puts you in a bad mood and primes you for stress, anxiety and anger."

That degree of harnessed aggression among Park Avenue Primates may have been off-putting when I was trying to find girlfriends to play with in Manhattan, but for the Upper East Side men to whose arms they perilously cling, it's nothing short of gold dust.

"The man's status, woman's status and childrens' statuses are all linked," says Martin, "so these women are often the uncompensated communications hub of the whole family. They will be expected to attend three, four or five events every single night of the Season."

Of course, shades of this will be identifiable to every wife who has ever squeezed herself into an LBD and followed her husband to a business function filled with lip-smacking primates. Which makes me wonder whether, come December, asking for a "wife bonus" would be so preposterous after all.

The Primates of Park Avenue, by Wednesday Martin (Simon & Schuster, £16.99), is published on June 7.

Irish Independent

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