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Wifework excerpt

2002-01-11 22:01:02+00 by Dan Lyke 26 comments

Several happily married folks have asked why I'm so vehemently opposed to marriage. Via the Alternatives To Marriage Project mailing list, an excerpt from Susan Maushart's Wifework articulates a little bit of my feelings, and offers some perspectives on feminism and equality.

The gradual untethering of motherhood from marriage - and, by extension, of childcare from wifework - is probably the single most explosive issue in the debate about the future of the family.

[ related topics: Sexual Culture Political Correctness Sociology Marriage ]

comments in ascending chronological order (reverse):

#Comment made: 2002-01-11 23:00:31+00 by: Shawn [edit history]

While I generally support the downplaying of the importance of marriage, I feel it worth pointing out that my wife and I have managed to create exactly the setting that Susan was expecting yet never found:

Having children was now clearly a choice and, if you made that choice, you and your partner shared equally in the benefits and consequences.

Marriage was a piece of paper that changed nothing, with the possible exception of the willingness of relatives to provide kitchen appliances. As far as gender roles in marriage were concerned, they were about as relevant as embroidered linen napkins.

To be sure, we are not the norm. But I do believe that this way of living (where our marriage license truly is little more than a piece of paper) is possible. And I disagree with much of the rest of her outlook on male and female roles in society. If anything, I think attitudes like hers do more harm than good. Lead by example is my motto.

#Comment made: 2002-02-21 05:34:25+00 by: Uncorked

Yeah, I found the piece a bit incoherent, actually. Is it about marriage as an institution, or about parenting, or about single parenting? And why assume the one -necessarily- has to do with the other? I'm recently married, a feminist, and not planning to have kids, so I'm not sure what her 'analysis' has to say about my situation at all. In addition, I did not go home after our wedding and clean the bathroom!! Nor did I decide I should start cooking dinner. That whole "I got married and the next day I became a housewife like my mother" mentality is foreign to me. So, I hold myself up as another counter example.

Given all the flexibility available today (as opposed to 30 years ago), marriage, for strong, self-actualized adults, becomes what you make of it. Just my opinion, married since last April.

#Comment made: 2002-01-12 20:59:00+00 by: Diane Reese [edit history]

Chiming in to agree with both Shawn and Uncorked (sorry, dunno what else to call you). There was very little in Maushart's piece that I could relate to.

Women still seek husbands in order to provide fathers for their children.

Really? Well, I guess some women must have this in mind. Some of us get married as a way of affirming our mutual commitment, while surrounded by our friends, family, and support community.

I've been married since '87. Our oldest son attended our wedding, which was a pot-luck affair, in a tuxedo-stretchy with a balloon attached to his foot. We told our guests that their presence was more important than presents, so they all brought great food: no toasters to be seen. Neither of us has ever cleaned the bathroom floor, I don't think, unless it really needed it.

The best part of making a public commitment, for us, is that it kept us thinking about the commitment we made to each other. At various times in the last 15 years, it would have been easy to drift apart, to separate and go our own ways. But in a way, having made that public commitment to each other, we worked a little harder to find our way together. At this moment, we are closer and happier and just more flat-out in love than we've been at any time since 1986. For us, "being married" was the glue that kept us stuck through rocky times, and is a reinforcement for us now that we're sailing so smoothly.

I think Maushart just found herself the wrong husband(s), and got married with the wrong expectations. I think she's just a tad screwed up, personally.

#Comment made: 2002-02-21 05:34:25+00 by: pharm

I think Maushart just found herself the wrong husband(s), and got married with the wrong expectations. I think she's just a tad screwed up, personally.

Yup. That about summed up my response when I read the article in the observer when it was in my grubby paws a week or so ago. I think I lost faith with the author around the bath scrubbing paragraph too...

Apropos of this article; has anyone else noticed the tendancy of many 'feminist' writers to assume that their experiences apply to the rest of woman-kind? Is this a widespread phenomena, or am I just extrapolating from a few bad apples?

#Comment made: 2002-02-21 05:34:25+00 by: Dan Lyke

My experience is second hand, but I've seen several couples[Wiki], both parts of the marriage, think they could keep the relationship as it was before the marriage. But afterwards the social pressures of their families and their friends pushed them into a mode of relating which mirrored Maushart's experience. I beleive that those reporting their experiences here are the outliers, that the majority of people, even those with the best of intentions, find that marriage becomes a straitjacket.

I applaud the efforts of those of you who've managed to make it otherwise.

#Comment made: 2002-02-21 05:34:25+00 by: Uncorked

Yeah, sorry about that name thing... I've been readying Flutterby since back when it was just Dan, but only tried the comments feature again recently (after it failed a few months ago), and I expected to have to fill out a profile or something. Anyway, I'm Lyn of Uncorked.org, hence the username Uncorked. :)

Interesting comment about social pressures -- fortunately, we live hundreds of miles from each of our families, and they read our (very opinionated) websites, so they know not to push back on certain things. For example, I'd been writing about not changing my name for months (not blatantly, just occasional mentions in context, but m-i-l reads me religiously), so the site was a nice way to prime them not to bug us about this issue. Same for the numerous remarks I make about wanting to be a 'cool aunt' but not being real keen on the idea of parenting, so they know it's no use to fuss at us about that one, either. Interesting to use the site/journal that way, actually...

Also, our friends are all over the map on these things, so I haven't noticed much particular pressure from that sector, although admittedly there has been some (for example, the friend who insists on calling me Mrs. B-----). And there is the pretty consistent commentary about having kids and how we'll "come around" and what good parents we'd make, etc. That gets a little wearing -- we've only been married a few months; even if we did think we wanted kids, what's the goddamn rush? And we currently don't, and people know this, so it's just a little condescending.

#Comment made: 2002-02-21 05:34:25+00 by: Larry Burton

Gerri and I have been married since June of 1977. We've stayed together because we want to be with each other. We got married because we saw no advantage in not doing so. Both our parents have lived within twenty-five miles from us ever since we got married. There have been very few pressures applied to us by family.

My mother and father would have been married for 52 years this coming February had my mother not died suddenly this past Christmas. I never saw them fight in all that time. The support Gerri has given my father, my brother and me through the past couple of weeks alone is worth every minute of my investment in the marriage. Little things all through the almost 25 years makes it worth it every day.

I know that I'm a very, very blessed man in regards to relationships and few people have had the good experiences with relationships that I've had. I don't believe marriage is right for everybody, maybe not even right for most people, but when it is right nothing in this world can compare.

#Comment made: 2002-02-21 05:34:25+00 by: ebradway

But Larry, is Gerri married to Justin Thyme too?

Sorry, I don't want to make any other comments besides sarcastic remarks. This discussion has taken a turn that usually isn't seen on Flutterby. Although I want to support the direction the discussion is going in, I don't have anything positive to add, other than, maybe, my ex-wife (of eight years) and I have a very workable relationship that allows us to be very civil and adult for our daughter's sake.

#Comment made: 2002-02-21 05:34:25+00 by: topspin

There's some truth in the author's somewhat erratic writing, I think.

When I met my ex, she was young, gifted, and gorgeous. Over the years, she developed into a strong feminist, even becoming president of a chapter of NOW.

The pressures of society and perhaps of my unconscious expectations led her to often comment, usually as pillow talk, whether she was a "good enough wife" because.....the house is a wreck, I don't cook enough, I'm not here alot when you get home, etc. Sure, those statements may have covered some other issues sometimes, but there was clearly some pressure on her related to her role as a wife.

I think the "stay at home Mom" example from the author's youth and my ex's youth, may be the strongest driving force behind those comments. It's difficult to change that imprint, methinks.

Husbandwork hasn't changed that much. Wifework has changed and I think it leaves women to forge into new territory for themselves and leaving the comfort of Mom's example yields that wonder and waver over whether the path is correct...... and sometimes probably leads some women to scrub the bathroom floor, even when it doesn't really need it.

#Comment made: 2002-02-21 05:34:26+00 by: Diane Reese

topspin writes:
there was clearly some pressure on her related to her role as a wife

I'd like to explore where such pressures come from. (And more directly, I'm exploring within myself why I've never felt them.) There are always societal expectations about norms, but what is it that makes some people sensitive to having to meet those expectations (sometimes despite their better judgement) and others able to ignore them or not let themselves be affected? Is it exposure to media images? Does it depend on how traditional, how conservative, perhaps how religious, your family of origin is? Does it come from a sense of inadequacy or insecurity? (If so, why don't more men have a related version of the syndrome? Or is the stereotypical mid-life crisis "put the buxom 20-year-old on my arm" guy thang a tangible indication of such insecurity?)

You are so right, topspin: if you compare the "wifework" my mother did and what my life is like, it's light-years apart. But my mother always used to mumble and sometimes outright grouse about wishing she'd been able to have a job after the war (WW II) ended, that she was antsy playing "stay at home Mom", and even that she'd always dreamed of being a chorus girl/entertainer on Broadway. Perhaps having always heard her wishing she'd been supported in having a less "traditional" wife-life, combined with my father's complete support of me in whatever I did (I was in 8th grade chemistry class before I ever realized that there were people who thought there were things girls could or should not do), left me more immune to those societal factors.

I think I should stop taking up Flutterby comment space on this, and go put some of it in my own weblog.

PS to Lyn of Uncorked: I've been married twice (once for 2 years in '78, then for real [and for 15 years so far] in '87), and I've never had another name other than Diane Reese. I remember it was considered really strange in '78 that I didn't change my name, but gee, this has always been my name and I always liked it and wasn't changing who I was, just who I was associated with. I just never gave it another thought. Yeah, so people sometimes call me "Mrs. Perkins", so what, I answer to that too, I know they mean me, I'm not going to be pedantic about it. I was interested to read that someone marrying recently (e.g. you) found the non-name-change decision to be challenged -- I'd love to hear more about that, since I'd assumed it was a non-issue anymore. (Guess that shows you how far off the mainstream I am, huh.)

#Comment made: 2002-01-13 22:53:57+00 by: Uncorked [edit history]

Name change definitely not a non-issue. Although few are surprised, many are curious, and some choose to be cheeky and subvert our intentions anyway. A colleague of mine, who's about 43ish, once put it this way: "Women who change their names upon marrying -- they just don't take themselves seriously as professionals." Given that our line of work involves publishing and bylines and such, I am inclined to agree, controversial though that may be.

My hometown paper was supposed to publish an engagement announcement. They waited too long, so published a wedding announcement, and in it they changed my name. I sent them a letter-to-the-editor and got snarky about it. Details here.

What we told everyone when the issue came up before the wedding was, looking very serious, "Well, we talked a lot about it, and after giving it a lot of thought, Steve has decided to keep his name."

ebradway: what "turn" are you referring to? (Just curious how this is so different from other threads)

#Comment made: 2002-01-14 04:05:55+00 by: Pete [edit history]

Diane Reese - I was in 8th grade chemistry class before I ever realized that there were people who thought there were things girls could or should not do.

I'm in no position to put it into play yet, but that's been one of my explicit promises to myself on child-rearing for a while.

Uncorked - Just prior to reading this I had a long conversation with some more conservative friends (an engaged couple) on marital name changes. In my life it has risen to conscious thought with two very different women. One I would never have expected to change her name. The other because of her attitudes toward tradition, I would have considered it a serious warning sign if she had told me she didn't want to change her name (she eventually sent up other flags...).

Two college-forward friends of mine that got married to each other (after having one of their three children) have each kept their names, but the day-to-day email interactions and planning and joint communications have made a collective noun for their family a practical necessity. This year I got a Christmas card from the McFarmisters.

Nothing legal, of course, but it is definitely there. Something else to include your ruminations.

#Comment made: 2002-02-21 05:34:26+00 by: Diane Reese

Pete: the day-to-day email interactions and planning and joint communications have made a collective noun for their family a practical necessity

Why did this come about? When we need to, we refer to ourselves as the Perkins-and-Reese family, or vice-versa, but never felt any other need. In school, work, or financial situations, I introduce myself to people with my own name and my affiliation with the kids or Charlie, using their last name, and just figure the people I'm talking with are snappy enough to get the picture. In this era of blended families, there are lots more complicated family name dynamics than ours. What do remarried parents/step-parents do differently when their last names don't match those of the children they're with?

#Comment made: 2002-02-21 05:34:26+00 by: Pete

Diane Reese - Well, the fact that they have twice as many syllables per name might have had something to do with it.

#Comment made: 2002-02-21 05:34:27+00 by: Shawn

If so, why don't more men have a related version of the syndrome?

I'm of the opinion that we [men] do. It's just not talked about. In our society a woman who is insecure about herself and her place in life is "normal". A man who is insecure is "weak".

#Comment made: 2002-02-21 05:34:29+00 by: Dan Lyke

I too think that there are male symptoms to the problem, but I can't point any specifically out. My experiences with men and marriage come from talking to older men who are uncomfortable with their marriages and how those relationships have affected their lives. But it's hard to see how they changed as a function of the marriage, whereas I've talked to a few younger women who thought they could hold back the cultural pressures, and found they couldn't.

#Comment made: 2002-01-15 21:20:25+00 by: Shawn [edit history]

Um... I'm confused now. I wasn't referring to male symptoms of the problem of women being "type-cast" into wifework roles. (Which is what I think you're referring to...?) Rather, I was saying that men suffer from a similar type-casting - just that they tend to suffer silently.

I'm not surprised that [many?] older men are unhappy in their marriage. They're likely to still have expectations that, IMO, are no longer applicable.

As for the younger women you reference, I think the trick is not to try to hold back the tide but rather to let it flow around you. That's what I meant by my "lead by example" comment. Don't fight so hard to change the world. Instead, demonstrate that your way of life does work. Make your life an example. Less arguing and more doing ;-)

I remember a passage from one of Susie Bright's books (of which I own several ;-) where she talks about the surprise she felt when she asked a room of [female] university students whether they wanted her to talk about a famous feminist (can't remember her name) or about orgasms. Her shock came from discovering that not a single woman in the room recognized the name of the feminist. It was then that she realized that they (the feminist movement) had been successful - at least to a certain degree. If things have changed so much that [a majority of] young women no longer feel that they are being held back, then I think we can safely call that 'progress'. (I'm paraphrasing and doing a poor job of it. If anybody is interested, I can try to track down the passage. I think it's in The Sexual State Of The Union.)

Certainly, we haven't achieved the ultimate prize, but let's not cheapen the journey (and the sweat and blood and tears of those who've walked it) by refusing to recognize the significant gains that have been made. Stand upon those steps and continue to walk forward.

#Comment made: 2002-02-21 05:34:31+00 by: Larry Burton

Part of the type-casting I see is when men stay home from work to tend to a sick child. I've been given a little grief over it but I've never been refused time off when I've asked. I've seen guys refused time off over it because that was the mother's job.

#Comment made: 2002-02-21 05:34:31+00 by: Dan Lyke

Shawn, I guess I was looking for examples of men who went into marriage expecting to be able to treat that marriage by some set of rules outside of the culturally accepted norm, and couldn't. Know plenty of women for whom that was the case, know plenty of men who went into marriage expecting the cultural norm of marriage, and a few of both who manage to keep their own rules, but can't pinpoint any men in particular that I'd finger as feeling coerced by the culture after marriage.

Various friends will undoubtedly now speak up and prove me wrong.

#Comment made: 2002-02-21 05:34:32+00 by: Shawn

Dan, I'm still not following you. I think the problem is the vagueness. Could you give an example or two? They don't have to be real, just something to illustrate what you're getting at.

#Comment made: 2002-02-21 05:34:32+00 by: Dan Lyke

My sister got married in New Zealand for a green card. It didn't work because both his family and my parents, although both had been told it was a marriage for the green card, started treating their relationship as a marriage, doing the "fawn over the new bride" thing, the whole bit. It happened a couple of weeks before my parents went down for a visit, and my dad was all put-out that he "wasn't there for her wedding". My guess is that he had the same experience, but I didn't know him.

I know several other women who've reported similar symptoms, they got married for practical reasons, medical coverage, green card, things like that, but after getting married got a lot of cultural pressure from relatives and friends to conform to some vision of "wife" that they had no intention of doing. When every conversation revolves around "when are you having kids?", and "so are you going to continue working?", and tons of subtler but still conformance-based hints, it's hard to not readjust expectations.

Since men don't generally get asked those two questions, it's probably easier for men to deal with those social pressures. Although as I write this I'm thinking of how much the "aren't children cyooot?" thing dropped off when I started answering with "I've made my decision surgically."

#Comment made: 2002-02-21 05:34:33+00 by: Diane Reese

Dan: When every conversation revolves around "when are you having kids?", and "so are you going to continue working?", and tons of subtler but still conformance-based hints, it's hard to not readjust expectations.

What rock did I crawl out from under? I cannot recall anyone ever saying either of those things to me, ever. (Much less "every conversation" revolving around these topics.) It's hard for me to take some of these concerns seriously: having never experienced any such pressures, I know it's not universal (and I suppose I should be grateful for that). Can one present onesself in a different enough way that no one would bother asking you those questions? Can one become oblivious to the subtle, perhaps, or be determined to ignore it? I am truly confused, I feel as if I'm living in a different world.

#Comment made: 2002-02-21 05:34:33+00 by: Dan Lyke

I wonder if the divide here is one of rural versus metropolitan, if the difference in perceptions of marriage is that I've lived in lots of rural places, the Bay Area is a recent change for me, and I'm dragging a lot of that less avant-garde baggage along.

#Comment made: 2002-01-18 00:42:40+00 by: Shawn [edit history]

Dan; It may very well be the difference between rural/metro, although I think it's also a difference of geography in general. I was born in, and have always lived near (although not in) Seattle. It's been my observation that Seattlites are generally more liberal about things like this (although I've also been told by a great number of people who have lived elsewhere that Seattlites are snobbish in this regard).

When every conversation revolves around "when are you having kids?", and "so are you going to continue working?", and tons of subtler but still conformance-based hints, it's hard to not readjust expectations.

To which my standard reply is; "hogwash". My family's expectations have precious little impact on mine - but then I'm not nearly as close (by my choice) to my family as I understand other people are.

Since men don't generally get asked those two questions,

I get asked the child question all the time - or should I say, "used to get asked". Friends and family eventually got tired of hearing drone on and on about my opinions on child rearing, society and responsibility. I'm also lucky to have parents that are not the meddling kind. My mother is bummed about our decision, but doesn't bring it up any more (it probably helps that she already has two grandchildren - and a third on the way - by my brother and his wife). And it was a bonus to get a supporting vote from my father, who said "I'm happy that you feel secure and comfortable enough in your life to be able to consider it a choice." My wife's father doesn't understand [why I wouldn't want to continue the family name] and my sister in-law absolutely cannot wrap her brain around the concept of a married couple not having children though.

I've never known any woman to be asked whether or not they're going to continue working. The main expectation I observe is that both men and women are expected to keep their jobs. Around my family, we periodically complain (although not in front of her or my brother) about the fact that my sister in-law refuses to go back to work since she started having kids. (We also look askance at how many she appears to be having.) My first wife (who was from Utah) did quit her job not long after we got married though. While she said she wanted to find another job, she never really looked. It turned out to be one of several symptoms of much larger relationship issues/expectations and the marriage eventually ended very badly.

#Comment made: 2002-02-21 05:34:34+00 by: Uncorked

Jeez, I didn't get any fawning. Hmph. But, we'd lived together first, so there was certainly no blushing of any sort that anyone could even pretend to notice. Heh.

Anyway, I'm with Diane, the pressures to have kids and the comments such as "Oh, you'll come around eventually/I used to think like that" are far from universal for us. (Regardless of whether they turn out to be true, the comments are frustrating and I have a hard time always responding politely.) But I haven't gotten any comments about any other kinds of wifely behavior that I'm supposed to conform to. 'Course, hubby works at home and I drive in to the city every day for my job, so we're already breaking the mold. And we met on the 'Net, so maybe people just figure we're hopelessly strange and why bother.

I do think it might be a rural/urban thing -or- a maybe a regional distinction.

Another thought: I lived with someone for five years (not my husband), so I've had the long-term live-in relationship and now the marriage; they do feel distinct, and I need to ponder further how best to articulate the distinction -- e.g., how much of the difference is internally generated and how much is due to the different ways society treats married people.

#Comment made: 2002-02-21 05:34:34+00 by: Diane Reese

Lyn: I've been in a long-term live-in relationship also, and one difference is that I never felt any permanence could be attached to the live-in situation. It could have ended at any time (and did, in fact, when The Guy told me he was tired of living with me and wanted me to move out). As I've hinted before, my marriage has a sense of public commitment that kept us stuck together long enough to fall in love again. That commitment was generated by us, not by something societal. Your mileage may vary.