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The Trials of the 21st Century Wife

Becoming a wife can still mean losing our independence — and it's not our husbands who are making us feel this way. So then who is?

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For Nina, it was biology and her husband’s career. "Nursing, coupled with his intense career, skewed the weight of domestic responsibility so far off the scale that it wasn’t even funny," she says. "As his career began to take off and my home responsibilities grew, my role as wage earner and equal partner -- and also my self-esteem -- became smaller."

This doesn’t happen to everyone. Roberta, a business consultant who has been married for several decades and has an 11-year-old daughter, shares shopping, cooking, laundry and childcare equally with her husband. "Labor is divided based on schedules, who is busiest, and who cares more," she says, "rather than any kind of traditional roles."

Roberta attributes this to the fact that she and her husband married when they were in their 30s. "We kept our money separate, took care of our own stuff, did things on our own," she says. "Not because we planned it that way, just because we were already grown-ups and used to caring for ourselves when we met." Even Roberta, however, has not escaped criticism from outsiders. "Pre-child, a shrink once told us that we were a little too independent," she says.

That prized independence often comes with making your own money, which leads me to my final piece of societal baggage: The wife’s career is never as important as her husband’s, particularly when kids are involved.

For Nina, it was yet another combination of kids and her husband’s profession: "For years I worked and earned more money than him and things seemed pretty equal," she says. "[At first] the only thing that created an imbalance was that his job as a medical resident was soooo demanding and unyielding and mine wasn’t as bad. I ended up picking up slack with things like waiting for the cable guy, sending out holiday cards, etc. Then we had kids."

One message I got constantly growing up from my mother was that I should never rely on a man to support me. My mother was a housewife through my childhood, and couldn’t have worked even if she had wanted to, since my father took us from country to country for his job, and most of those places wouldn’t give her a work permit. I saw how this created a certain dynamic between them: The person who earns the money has the power. I remember my dad saying once, quite sneeringly, that my mother really wasn’t very smart.

But she proved him wrong. When I started college (my father has never treated me as less capable or smart because I was female, though he is known to have plenty of sexist prejudices of his own), she enrolled in a community college, then university, then grad school. She was an A student, and got her master’s a year before I did. She then worked as a social worker for 10 years before retiring. For my part, I never hesitated to forge a career as a journalist (which now seems like a foolish move given the state of the industry, but that’s another story).

However, I find myself worrying that I have internalized some wifely baggage of my own. While looking for full-time work (I left my newspaper job almost a year ago to write a book), I don’t even consider jobs out of state. Apart from the fact that we have very good reasons to stay in Los Angeles, I guess I feel weird about asking my husband to pick up stakes. It is infuriating, and I’m not saying I won’t ever do it if something amazing presents itself or the economy forces my hand. But my reluctance is my main baggage, reinforced by those around me.

 
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