Sex & Relationships

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?

It’s not easy being a wife.

Eight years ago, my friend Olivia was planning her wedding. She and her boyfriend Jack had been together for seven years, living together for four. He had proposed on millennium eve, and they’d spent more than a year organizing a lavish party across the country, where most of her large family lives.

However, two months before the big event, with most of the details in place, she called me. "I don’t think I can get married," she said.

"Well, that’s okay," I said, snapping into automatic support mode. "You don’t have to. There’s no reason you should marry Jack if you don’t think he’s right for you. Better to realize that now … "

"No, that’s not it," she cut me off in mid-support. "It’s not Jack. I just don’t want to be married. I don’t want to be a wife. I don’t want to have the kind of marriage my parents have."

I’ve known Olivia for almost 20 years now, and have met quite a few members of her family. They are from the Mediterranean, and conservative. Girls in the family are expected to become wives and mothers, and make that their priority. Though both Olivia’s mother and grandmother (on Olivia’s father’s side) had advanced college degrees, neither made careers of them. One cousin, Olivia once told me, is a cancer researcher who is making inroads in curing the dreaded disease. But whenever this cousin goes home for a visit, her family won’t stop berating her for being single and childless.

Olivia, a rebel from way back, shocked her parents when she and Jack started living together. Her mother took to calling her long-distance, tearfully quoting Dr. Laura Schlessinger. When Olivia and Jack finally got engaged, she stopped. And it became Olivia’s turn to worry about what she was getting into.

Olivia wound up marrying Jack, but I don’t think I quite understood the depth of her concern until I got married five years later. That’s when I truly understood what a socially fraught term "wife" is, and how, despite the dynamics of my own relationship -- and I find myself happily married to a wonderful man going on three years now -- it is often difficult and tiresome to deal with such baggage.

And lately, as the economy quakes and the feminist backlash continues, I worry that the progress wives have made will vanish. True, wifedom has changed in the last century. Just ask Gloria Steinem, who got married at age 63, saying she thought society had made enough strides that an equal partnership between husbands and wives is now possible.

She wasn’t kidding that progress had been made -– but that’s mostly because there was no where to go but up. Until the 1850s in this former British colony (English women had to wait until 1882), married women could not own property. Additionally, any money they had before the marriage (usually through inheritance or dowries) went to their husbands. A married couple was considered "one person," and that "one person" wasn’t female. He had total legal control, and that included any children, who inevitably went to him if she wanted out of the marriage even though, in most cases, he was definitely not the primary caregiver.

For all the supposed status having a husband gave you back then (and even now, since as girls we are still socialized to think our greatest achievement is to get married), it seems the only way to be your own person was to be a spinster (with its contemptuous tinge) or a widow. If you were a widow, you’d also better hope dear departed hubby hadn’t spent all your money. And if you had sons, your financial future pretty much depended on their mercy, since they had full inheritance rights -- not you.

In spite of that crucial law change (we’ve got Elizabeth Cady Stanton, among other early feminists, to thank for that), the whole "one person" concept of marriage lingers in 2009. I still get an icky feeling when I get mail addressed to Mr. and Mrs. Only His Name. In fact, one big wife issue from the start is whether you should take your husband’s name. I changed mine. First, I used it socially and professionally, and, just recently, legally. But many others hang onto their maiden name as a symbolic way of maintaining their identity in wifedom.

"I liked [my name]," says Monica, a management consultant who married her boyfriend of 12 years last year. "It was mine. Why casually set it aside, especially after 30-plus years? I like that by keeping it, people I’ve known over the years and who I’ve ‘lost’ can find me and reconnect online. There are people I’ve looked for, but can’t find due to name changes, and that’s really a shame."

Nina, an attorney who married her college sweetheart 15 years ago, also kept her name for identity reasons. "I felt I’d worked hard for my degrees," she says, "and wanted to keep them all in the name I’d earned them in. And also [I wanted to feel] that I was more than just ‘Mrs. Him.’"

Olivia kept her family name for "ethnic pride reasons." Her husband is from Northern Europe, and his last name is very different linguistically from hers. As someone who takes pride in her culture, even as she despairs of its sexism, Olivia couldn’t give up that part of her heritage. Interestingly, Olivia says her usually traditional father seemed "secretly proud" of her decision. Her mother was another story, though. And then there was Jack, who, for all his belief in marital equality, was put out by his wife’s unwillingness to take his name.

As for me, for years I resisted even thinking about it, feeling I was betraying all of my principles. But when the wedding date was set I changed my mind. There were many reasons, some more personal than others, but at the end of the day, I just felt the need for a change. I am fortunate to have a life partner who brings out the best in me; I find myself to be kinder, more patient and less bitter when I am with him.

Changing my name seemed appropriate for this new self.

It helped that he had no expectations that I would, and that he made no demands at all. (He does, however, sometimes seem a bit too pleased for my comfort.) And when it came to my parents, my dad took me aside shortly after the wedding and told me he was glad I changed my name. My mother is one of the worst offenders when it comes to the Mr. and Mrs. His Name Only thing.

Similarly, I was a quite appalled when my mother, though a self-identified feminist, started expecting me to be solely in charge of house duties once I moved in with my husband. This, mind you, is a woman who dislikes housework A LOT and has had help, in one way or another, my entire life. My grandmother was a wealthy society girl who had probably never washed a dish until she married. My mother learned to cook and be a housewife in school, and while she is a marvelous chef, her cleaning skills have never been impressive.

That is why it drives me nuts when I host dinners, and she seems surprised that I expect my husband to help clean up. Apparently, I am also supposed to be very grateful for this. Never mind the time I spent planning, shopping, cooking, setting up, etc., while hubby was on the Internet. To his credit, he has no problem with this, and is far tidier than I. Note, I didn’t say cleaner, but he’s definitely tidier. I attribute that to the fact that he lived alone for many years before I met him, but in any case, it’s a happy state of affairs.

However, it seems most husbands are not like this, even if they started out that way. "When we moved [for the third time] for his career, I lost my job and became a full-time stay-at-home mom," Nina says. "Welcome to the ’50s, minus the pearls and heels. Now that I’m home he leaves the dishes on the table when he’s done eating and expects me to take care of house and kids … I often feel like a servant in my, granted, very lovely and paid-for-mostly-by-my-husband, home."

Even when they work, though, wives can’t escape doing more housework than their husbands. A recent UK study showed women do an average three hours of housework a day, compared to their husbands’ 40 minutes. And, as the recession continues, they can expect more, since housekeepers and maids have become a luxury. This trend is being called "insourcing," says Kate Harding, a blogger for Salon who married recently.

"If you believe domestic work is worth X dollars when you can afford to have professionals do it but zero dollars when you can’t, what does that tell us about how much we value ‘women’s work’?" she writes in a recent feature for Broadsheet. "And if women are usually the ones who end up taking on that zero-dollar labor, what does it tell us about how much we value women’s time?"

Some of that time, apparently, should be spent taking care of your husband, as if, perhaps, he is a fixture in your home that needs buffing and polishing. Susan, a health and nutrition professional who has been married three years, puts it best: Wives, she says, are automatically expected to have an "animal husbandry degree, department primate, homo-sapien."

"If Paul has gained weight, I’m ‘feeding him too much,' and if he goes out of the house looking less than band-box perfect, I’m the one ‘not dressing him properly,’" she says. "He’s not at fault if I gain weight -- then I’ve ‘let myself go’ -- or wear ugly clothes. But somehow when we married, people expect that he got a full-service personal trainer, chef, and valet."

This only gets worse, apparently, when children come into the household. Parenthood -- should you choose it, though society rarely presents it as optional -- changes the dynamics between many couples, and not necessarily in a good way. Martha Brockenborough’s recent article on parenting.com, "Mad at Dad," generated thousands and thousands of comments, and hit many nerves. She wrote about a survey conducted by the magazine that showed many women were utterly frustrated by their husbands’ inability to co-parent:

"I know I’m not the only one who gets Mad at Dad," she wrote of her own experience with the phenomenon. "Whenever I see the phone number of a certain close friend on the caller ID, I know she needs my understanding ear because her husband has dropped a wad of cash on electronics while telling her she can’t have someone in every other week to help clean, or because he let the kids eat junk food and play video games while she was running errands, and now they’re glassy-eyed and glued to the ceiling. Meanwhile, his whiskers are in the sink and his boxers are on the floor, making her feel like she’s married to nothing more than a hairy man-child."

In short, even the most equal relationships between husband and wife can devolve when kids are involved. "My marriage went into the toilet after we had our son," says Olivia, who now has two children with Jack. Suddenly, she felt Jack was shoving most of the childcare burden on her. It was a combination, she says, of exhaustion, his fears of inadequacy as a parent, and biological issues, since she was breastfeeding.

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.

In spite of all the wifely expectations I have mentioned, though, most of the women I spoke to seem happy to be married. Most love their husbands and are not sorry for marrying them. We all, however, dream of a day when the baggage disappears completely. And I still believe marriage is what you make of it. That hasn’t changed since I said it to Olivia eight years ago.