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Wife bonuses and the Primates of Park Avenue

posted by Jason Kottke   May 18, 2015

Primates Of Park Avenue

Wednesday Martin is an anthropologist and author whose upcoming book, Primates of Park Avenue, examines the wealthy stay-at-home moms of Manhattan’s Upper East Side like any other primate troop.

After marrying a man from the Upper East Side and moving to the neighborhood, Wednesday Martin struggled to fit in. Drawing on her background in anthropology and primatology, she tried looking at her new world through that lens, and suddenly things fell into place. She understood the other mothers’ snobbiness at school drop-off when she compared them to olive baboons. Her obsessional quest for a Hermes Birkin handbag made sense when she realized other females wielded them to establish dominance in their troop. And so she analyzed tribal migration patterns; display rituals; physical adornment, mutilation, and mating practices; extra-pair copulation; and more. Her conclusions are smart, thought-provoking, and hilariously unexpected.

Martin wrote an opinion piece in The New York Times about her findings called Poor Little Rich Women.

And then there were the wife bonuses.

I was thunderstruck when I heard mention of a “bonus” over coffee. Later I overheard someone who didn’t work say she would buy a table at an event once her bonus was set. A woman with a business degree but no job mentioned waiting for her “year-end” to shop for clothing. Further probing revealed that the annual wife bonus was not an uncommon practice in this tribe.

A wife bonus, I was told, 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 — how well she managed the home budget, whether the kids got into a “good” school — 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.

Women who didn’t get them joked about possible sexual performance metrics. Women who received them usually retreated, demurring when pressed to discuss it further, proof to an anthropologist that a topic is taboo, culturally loaded and dense with meaning.

Please note that Martin’s book is a memoir…not an anthropological study, a memoir. I can’t wait to see how they turn this one into a movie.

Update: Polly Phillips in the NY Post: I get a wife bonus and I deserve it, so STFU.

These pricey pairs of designer footwear will join a lineup of Jimmy Choo, Manolo Blahnik, Diane Von Furstenburg and Rupert Sanderson heels and a closet crammed with handbags from Prada, Chanel and Anya Hindmarch. Every single one was bought with one of my annual bonuses — the nod from a happy boss for a job well done.

But, in this case, the boss in question is my husband, Al. The role he’s rewarding me for is my work as a stay-at-home wife and mother. And the luxury labels are purchased with the “wife bonus” — 20 percent of his own company bonus — that I’m proud to receive for putting his career before my own, and keeping our lives together.

After all, he readily admits that, without me staying at home with our 19-month-old daughter, Lala — not to mention the support and understanding I offer when his work intrudes on our home life — he couldn’t do his job. And he also knows that if we hadn’t followed his career abroad, I might still be doing very well in my own.

Weird thing #1: Phillips refers to her husband as her boss. No ironic scarequotes. He’s the boss. Which seems to be a point in favor of Martin’s thesis of a lack of empowerment.

Weird thing #2: Why the hell call it a “wife bonus” if their income is completely shared and they each get 20% of the end-of-year bonus? I mean, it seems completely reasonable and equitable that they each get some mad money to spend however they want on above-and-beyond items. Why load that arrangement down with the icky “wife bonus”?

Update: Remember when I said “Martin’s book is a memoir…not an anthropological study”? This is why: it turns out Martin monkeyed with the timelines quite a bit to create a better narrative.

She says she attended grueling exercise classes at Physique 57 to lose her baby weight after her second son’s birth. But the upscale gym did not exist when she claims to have exercised there.

She also describes a posh party where the guests bring the hostess gifts from an upscale macaroon shop. But Ladurée didn’t open in New York until 2011, four years after she had moved.

While at a lunch date just prior to the party, Martin and a friend do an accounting of how much their over-privileged peers spend on personal grooming, clothing and transportation. Her friend refers to Uber, even though the car service didn’t debut in the city until 2011.

The Times reports that the book’s publisher will append a note to future editions of the book explaining the tinkered details and timelines. (via @jtaylorhodge)