The mansion on an oak-lined street in New Orleans is one of those drop-dead gorgeous homes that give visitors serious real estate envy. It’s not just the furnishings that impress, or the original artwork. Rather, it’s the serenity. The owners, an empty-nest couple, entertain every weekend, host fund-raising parties and welcome houseguests monthly, yet there’s zero clutter: no stray bills, keys or to-do lists lying around. Just an aura of spaciousness, order and potted orchids blooming in sunny rooms. It’s as if a witch had cast a declutter spell.
This picture-perfect tidiness is the work of Kay Morrison, who three years ago decided to create a business out of the fact that too many people have too little time to manage their domestic lives. Through her company, The Occasional Wife (theoccasionalwife.com), New Orleans residents can hire a helper who, for $40 an hour, will shop for groceries, plan a birthday party, organize closets, hold an estate sale, prepare a house for the market, manage a move, help set up a dorm room, buy presents or research housing options. Pretty much anything except clean house (“That’s the one service we don’t offer,” Morrison says).
The mansion’s owners are regular clients who pay for a spectrum of services, including sorting their mail and paying bills when they’re out of town. Today Morrison has brought over a team to install shelving in the couple’s home office. Wearing a retro-style sundress—wide belt, full skirt—Morrison looks every bit the classic 1950s housewife as she directs a “wife” (a recent college grad who majored in chemistry and is good with a hammer) and her handyman helper.
Morrison came up with the wife idea one particularly harried morning in 2004 when she was working about 70 hours a week as an executive at Starwood Hotels and Resorts. She was frantically packing for a business trip while trying to help her husband, Camp Morrison, manage breakfast with their kids (Flynn, then four, and Annabel, two). Exhausted, she suddenly stopped and sighed.
“What this family needs is a wife,” Camp said. A private detective, he already knew the difficulty of juggling half the child-care load.
“Hey,” Morrison shot back, “give me a little credit here. For a woman who’s traveling all the time, I think I’m doing a good job.”
“You’re right,” Camp said. “We need an occasional wife.” He explained that this was the title of a 1960s sitcom about a single “gal” who lived in an apartment complex and sometimes pretended to be married to her executive neighbor. What the family could use, he went on, was “someone to fill in now and then when too many balls are dropping.”
Morrison began fantasizing about the possibilities. For 21 years, she’d worked her way up in the hospitality industry to become a global accounts director with Starwood. She drove a Jaguar and earned a healthy salary, plus fabulous bonuses. But she hated the travel: She was on the road at least two weeks a month, often overseas. Why don’t I start a wife business myself? she thought. Soon she was doodling logo designs on airplane napkins and brainstorming possible services to offer.
Then Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans. In August 2005, the Morrisons fled to Alabama, continued on to New Hampshire and finally settled into a colleague’s vacation home in Massachusetts. Back in Louisiana, four feet of water flooded the family’s 1920s bungalow. But throughout the chaos, Morrison never stopped working, fielding phone calls from Starwood clients on her cell. To cope with the anxiety, “I baked a cake every night and washed it down with a six-pack of beer,” she says.
When the family returned home in February 2006, Morrison threw all her energy into her kids, her house and her job—Starwood named her its Outstanding Salesperson that year—but inside she resented the time away from home that her work required. Her lowest point came in August, when a business trip caused her to miss Flynn’s first day of kindergarten. “I thought, why? So I can drive a Jag and carry my laptop in a $500 Coach case? That’s crazy.”