Helaine Olen reviews Primates of Park Avenue by Wednesday Martin, whose New York Times op-ed made the "wife bonus" a topic of online outrage.
Once she is safely on the inside of the local troop, [Wednesday] Martin finds that the women in it are “ruthless in their advocacy for their offspring,” and have turned mothering into a vocation. Yet by devoting their lives to their children, “marooned in their sex-segregated world,” as Martin puts it, they have given up their financial independence. They are dependent for their status on the men who earn the money and pay their bills. Divorce can lead to exile from the tribe. So can a spouse’s business setbacks. No number of Chanel pocketbooks, Lanvin flats, SoulCycle exercise classes, and fun with the girls can hide this fact. As a result, all too many of the women use Ativan and alcohol to get through their days and sometimes-sleepless nights.
And this is where Martin’s anthropological shtick runs up against—well, against Martin herself. Once she gains acceptance—or “goes native,” in anthropology speak—she doesn’t subject herself to the lacerating observations she makes of the others in the troop. It’s an understandable dodge, but it’s unsatisfying, all the same, because now she’s a wealthy full-time Upper East Side mother too. What has she done in her life that the other mothers, seemingly better set up, at least financially, cannot achieve? How does she manage to avoid turning to the wine cellar or prescription pad to get by? How does she avoid viewing her children as status objects and mirrors, like the women around her? For that matter, what does it feel like to need a spouse in order to afford the handbag you must have to gain prestige and acceptance in your world?
Instead of providing us with answers to these questions, Martin and a friend run the numbers on what it costs to maintain status as an Upper East Side wife (about $95,000 annually—for hair, clothes, Botox, and the like—“on the low end”) and congratulate themselves on being “cheap dates” compared to their peers.
For more from Pacific Standard, and to support our work, sign up for our email newsletter and subscribe to our print magazine, where this piece also appeared. Digital editions are available in the App Store and on Zinio and other platforms.