Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Time to revisit "Why I Want a Wife"

I remember the first time I read the essay, "Why I Want a Wife" by Judy Syfers.  It was published in Ms. Magazine before I was old enough to read, and I didn't read it until a high school English class.

(For those who don't wish to click through but haven't read it before, the basic premise of the essay is that if women had someone to care for the children, cook and clean, etc. then they'd be very happy to go to their nice offices and get paid.  It is a classic feminist essay, incredibly humorous and readable.  Oh, don't take my word for it.  If you haven't read it before, you should, so go click on it and then come back and keep reading here.  And if you haven't read it in a while, go re-read it.  It's better than you remember, worth your time.)

I brought home my hazy photocopy to my stay-at-home mother, waving it in the air and practically shouting at her.  "Look at this!  You need a wife!  Isn't this great?"

My mother was not amused.  She, rightly, felt that I was criticizing my father and their relationship together. I was critiquing her choices and judging them severely.

It is surprising to me more than anyone that some twenty-five years later, here I am, just as in need of a wife as my mother was.

Yesterday there was an article on The Huffington Post entitled Alimony for Cohabitators, Still, in 2012.  The article, by Elizabeth Benedict, examines the problem of women who receive alimony, and then use that money to fund their lifestyles with a new partner, whom they do not marry because then the alimony will end.  The article itself is relatively thoughtful: I agree that the problem she's pointing out is real, and that alimony reform makes sense.  But the comments to that post are what are inspiring this response.

The comments to the post contain a great deal of venom towards women, of the variety "She stayed home having fun while I want to work and then she left me, and I'm washing my hands of her, no way should I have to pay one red dime once we're divorced!"

As a former stay at home mother in the middle of a divorce, all of this impacts me....greatly.  We haven't worked out our finances for the settlement yet, but I fret over them every minute of every day, and not because I want to drain my ex dry (I don't), but because I'm struggling to make it work.

In my marriage - which one commenter has pointed out might be an anomoly, and was certainly sexist, and from the 1950s - he went to work, and I stayed home.  That meant that when Katherine was little, I was the only one who got up in the night to care for her, because he needed to be rested for the next day.  It meant that I did the cooking and cleaning, that I ran to the library and the dry cleaner and the grocery store.  It meant that I did all the school volunteering.  It meant that when our daughter was sick, I took her to the doctor, and learned how to clean myself up when she barfed on me, without ever setting her down because she wanted me to hold her.  He came home every day to a clean house, freshly folded laundry, a fridge full of food (his favorites, of course), a hot cooked meal from scratch, a happy child.  This freed up our evenings to hang out, watch TV, read, go for a walk, and have a good time.

Being a stay at home mom has its advantages.  I got to snuggle our daughter more than he did.  I was my own boss, deciding when to do what (but still getting the job done).  I got to push her on the swings, read her more stories, and enjoy her company.  I got to invite other moms and kids over, and laugh with them.  There is a lot of drudgery in being a stay at home mom (my ex didn't clean a toilet for a decade, but I certainly did!), but it also has joys.

The commenters pointed out that fathers are wage-slaves, and they painted a dismal picture of fathers' lives.  I call false (you can use the other word if you want) on that one.  I've been a working person, too, and it has plenty of advantages.  White collar workers who have gone to college, as is the case in my demographic, pick their careers.  They are not breaking rocks, or listening to the whine of a loud factory, they are sitting at desks or around tables, talking to colleagues about a topic that they are highly skilled in.  There are lunches out, conversations at the water cooler, shared jokes and camraderie.  There is praise, and there are raises.  There is intellectual stimulation, and the possibility of advancement.  When a project gets boring, an individual can go out and seek a new project or job.  It's not perfect, and there's lots of churning numbers in spreadsheets or annoying bosses, but it's not all bad.  Parts of it are pretty darned good.

So, in my book, up until now, it's a fair sum game.  Working has its advantages, and staying home has its advantages, and both have their disadvantages.  Together, it makes for a pretty nice home life: good food, more free time for everyone.

And then, where there is divorce, it gets ugly.

While I was at home cooking and cleaning and breastfeeding and then, later, helping with homework (with a lot in between those two!), my husband was slowly earning more money, gaining more experience that made him more valuable in his field.  My own career was backsliding.  I have a handful of college degrees and certifications (all paid for out of my own pocket, not his), and had the same income potential as my husband when I left the workforce to raise our daughter, but this has changed.  Now, nine years later, I am practically having to start from scratch (or so it feels).  Thank goodness for my great education and fabulous network, thank goodness for work experience, even if it's from long ago, because I was actually able to get out there and find a decent job.  But I'm starting from way behind.

When my husband leaves the marriage, he takes his earning potential with him, and over the years, he's gotten ahead.  I am way behind him now.

Now, I could go on and on about how unfair it is that he expected me to cook and clean even on weekends and vacations, and saw no issue with laying on the sofa napping as I ran around caring for our daughter and lives.  I won't talk about the Christmas when we (yes we, both of us) invited his family for the big meal, and he napped for two hours in the morning and two hours in teh afternoon until I woke him up in a panic and said "Come on!  I need help!  There is a lot of work to do for this dinner and you're still napping!" and he said, "But it's Christmas!"....because it never occurred to him that it was Christmas for me, too, and that I had been cooking and caring for our daughter the whole time, even when he was napping.  No, I'll let you read Why I Want a Wife and let that essay make the argument for you.

But even if our marriage hadn't had blatant sexism built into it, even if it hadn't been so unhealthy, when he leaves this marriage, he has more than when he started, and the ability to sustain his own lifestyle.  I work just as hard, for just as many hours, and I earn much less, because of the time I took off.  I'm not fond of the idea of taking his money, because I'm fiercely independent by nature (yes, I know, my marriage doesn't reflect that, but I'm making up for lost time now) and I wish I could do it all on my own.  But unless I remove our daughter from her school, move to a different neighborhood, and uproot HER life, I can't make it without some help.  I don't want alimony, but I need it, and I've earned it.  Our decision to have an at -home parent and a working parent was entirely mutual, and I will not willingly be the only one to bear the cost of that decision.

But aside from alimony, I really do need a wife.

When I come home at the end of the workday, I've had a very different day than his was during our years when I was a stay-at-home mom.  First, I have to get up super early to take care of the dog, the house (throw in a load of laundry, etc.) and get myself ready and looking professional for work, before I wake our daughter up, make her breakfast, prepare both of our lunches, and get both of us out the door.  (My got up leisurely, drank the coffee I made, and left me to manage the rest, caring only for himself in the morning, stopping at his favorite coffee shop to read the paper a bit before heading to the office.)  During the day, I carry my cellphone everywhere, because if the school calls, I need to answer, knowing that I'm the one on duty.  (He went to work knowing that she was taken care of and that I'd handle whatever came up.)  Like him, I spend a day at work, and some days are great, and some aren't.  After work, I go straight to pick her up on the way home, walking in the door with her to immediately clean up the breakfast dishes and make dinner as I get her settled with homework, without a chance to change my own clothes.  (He walked in the door, where our daughter and I were waiting for him, and said 'Hey I need a few minutes to get settled', knowing that I'd manage things.)  I make the dinner, I serve the dinner, I clean the dinner, I fold the laundry, I return the phone calls, I wonder how to get her to the well-child check up without missing work.  (He enjoyed the dinner, then had some down time before bed.)

He has elected - his choice - for limited time with our daughter, seeing her mostly on weekends.  Our daughter is worth all of this work, and I am glad to have her with me as much as I can, but still, my reality is very different than his.

If I had the life my husband had during our marriage, I would jump up and down with gratitude.  The idea of walking in the door to a happy child and a hot meal is almost more than I could bear: the beauty would be blinding.

The good news in all of this?  I'm told that in 2012 there are men who cook, and who know that cleaning a kitchen means that you have to not only put the plates in the dishwasher, but the glasses and silverware too, and that the pots on the stove need to be cleaned as well.  I'm told that there are men who don't mind sharing duties on weekends, and don't expect a woman to do it all even when she's working.  I'm not bashing all men here, I'm sharing my experience with one man, and I look forward to the day when I find myself an entirely different kind of man to share life with.  Household chores aren't the only thing I want in a partner, but they'd be a nice piece of the puzzle, don't you think?  (Hot sex, hand holding, a hiking partner, and a good conversationalist are also on the list, just in case you're wondering.)

I'm PollyAnna, optimist.  One day I will find a partner who doesn't expect me to put more effort in than he is willing to make, and will appreciate me, just as I appreciate him.

But until then? sure would be nice to have a wife.


  1. Oh my many times did I say during my marriage that I needed a wife??? How about twice a week for 10 years! And I didn't have full-time kids. I have four stepchildren. But taking care of X required more work than all four kids put together! Because the kids respect me, while X never did...just felt entitled to having his needs met and napping while I took care of the kids and got that holiday meal ready. I made an unconscious effort to involve the kids, especially the boys, in getting ready for any event so that they would be good to their future partners. I really understand this post. Bright side (there's always one): Once X was gone, daily life suddenly became MUCH easier. I wasn't catering to or cleaning up after the largest child in the house! A few weeks Pollyanna...a few weeks... Brenda

  2. I hold the full responsibility for this male entitlement on the mothers who raise them! I have been married twice. The first husband was raised by a single mother who expected help in managing the household from her four sons. They all became men who did not need to be asked to pitch in on the housework and childrearing.I raised my son the same way,lead by her example.
    My second husband was raised by a woman who allowed her sons to feel entitled and to believe that females were put on earth to serve males. Wow, what a culture shock that was for me( and for him when I refused to agree to those terms)!
    Bottom line - It's all in how they are raised.
    It IS mom's fault this time.

  3. I could feel my blood pressure rising as I was reading... I could write for two hours on this topic.

    You hit the gist here, when you say:

    When my husband leaves the marriage, he takes his earning potential with him, and over the years, he's gotten ahead. I am way behind him now.

    Even for those of us who kept working full-time while mothering, we still typically lag behind or stagnate, because we are also the primary caregivers to the children (and other extended family members as well).

    And as you say, the other spouse walks off with the earning power (and frequently, a drop in the bucket when it comes to child support), and the "wife" who is left?


    Spiral downward financially.

    Does it happen to everyone? No. But pop over and read my stats (pulled from AARP) on yesterday's post. They don't just apply to women over 50.

    I hear you, and I get it. (I've lived it.)

  4. This was the best post I have read on the subject and you need to send it to Huffington post to be published. Seriously. It sums it up perfectly. Beautifully written, perfectly said and 100% spot on. Bravo.

  5. Brenda, I wish you knew how often I've thought "I'll be able to breathe again!" thanks to your notes here, and how much I appreciate those words. I believe you, and I'm counting on it, and your encouragement has really helped me. THANK YOU!

    Mary, I think you're onto something. Bryan is the youngest of four, and I think he has a pretty major sense of entitlement. Bless you for raising your own son for being more responsible.

    BLW, I've been reading you, and I know you get it. It makes my head spin that we are in this position, and that somehow we are expected to be okay with it. It's NOT okay, and it makes my blood pressure rise, too.

    And Lee - that is the nicest thing that anybody has said to me in ages. You really think so? Your compliment has me floating! THANK YOU! I'm almost afraid to try - but maybe I will...

  6. One thing I told my husband when the kids were little was that I envied him his lunch breaks. To me, being able to eat lunch without worrying about ANYONE else's lunch was the height of luxury.

    And I agree...this quote "When my husband leaves the marriage, he takes his earning potential with him, and over the years, he's gotten ahead. I am way behind him now."

    I'm still married, but just recently returned to the workforce. But not at my "expected" earning potential, and not even near the field my degree is in. It is frustrating - a combination of being a military family (moving all the time) and choosing to stay at home because of my husbands unreliable work hours- has now made me pretty much a non-starter in my original field of work.
    I wouldn't trade those years of being a stay at home mom for all the tea in China. But it would be nice that employers see life experience as just as important as work experience.

  7. Navhelowife, I know what you mean about envying lunch breaks. I used to envy my husband his commute, of all things. He could listen to NPR uninterrupted, and nobody would be grabbing at him, spilling things on his clothes. Such a funny thing to envy, but it tells me how deep in it I was at that point!

    I actually believe that my return to the workforce is nearly as stressful as my divorce. It is so difficult to pick up after a long career break, and the financial hits feel unbearable some days. I wish that society, not just employers, saw the value in stay at home mothers. Maybe dialogues like this one will help move that discussion forward....

    Thanks for visiting here. I hope you come back!

  8. Fantastic article.Thanks for providing it.

  9. You make a compelling case for why alimony is needed and a fair end to a marriage... if it is calculated fairly. If alimony is awarded for a reasonable period, its fair. If alimony is awarded for life, not fair. If alimony is adjusted as circumstances change, that would be fair. However, if the payer experiences a job loss, sickness, or disability and is driven to jail for being unable to make payments, not fair. Some states like New Jersey have draconian alimony laws. Other states like New York have more moderate and fair laws. Surely alimony is needed, but they must be fair.