Why I Wish I Had a Wife
on our desire for someone to tend to us, the male ability not to see mess, and our hunger for equitable expectations
Sometimes, I wonder what it would be like if I had a wife.
No, I don’t want to enter into a same-sex romantic relationship. I’d like to keep my husband. But I also sometimes dream about having a wife, as well. Someone to share the work load. Someone to take care of all the things I don’t want to have to manage any more.
I remember identifying with the concept of sister wives years ago when I edited a book by a family that practiced polygamy. In fact, I think a lot of women understand the appeal, even as they cannot fathom how they would handle the jealousy stemming from sharing one man. What appeals is the baked in network of support outside of your immediate family. There are other women to lean on for the cooking, the tending of children, and even the care of your husband, now and then. It is the ultimate communal living, recognition of “it-takes-a-village.” You have a built in surrogate at all times. (Consider this recent story about single moms buying a house together).
Now, this post is not about polygamy. But it is an exploration of what might be at the heart of my desire to have a wife.
What is it that makes us say this? I know I’m not alone. It came out of the mouth of a fellow mother writer I was with this past weekend, and we laughed in solidarity. Now, I could also say that I wish I could clone myself. But the truth is, I would rather not be the one always doing the wifely things. I would like to have a go at being more like a husband.
“I’ll give you four good Wife Days a week if you leave me alone the other three and let me do whatever I want,” she says, her voice plain, almost as if she’s discussing a grocery list or necessary car repair….
“What the hell is a Wife Day?” Blake asks.
“A day when I act like your wife. We can have sex and go out to dinner, drink coffee on the porch, see friends. But I can’t do that every day. I need some days for myself. I need days without rules.”
— “Wife Days” by Megan Mayhew Bergman in How Strange a Season
I want to be at the office until 6 or 6:30 with no concern about who is tending to the children. To come home to home-cooked meals, and have no part in their creation, to not even have to ensure the ingredients are in the house. To ignore the school emails that come in at all hours of the day, some important from the teacher, others less so from the PTA. To not be the one responsible if we forget it is spirit day, or class picture day, or book fair day (MOM, you forgot!!!!).
I long to have someone else coordinate the cleaners, someone else to stock the shelves. To have someone else tend to the invisible, which only becomes visible when it is not done. The tidying, the emptying of drawers of clothes that are too small, the shipping of said clothes to relatives or shlepping them to Goodwill, the buying of new clothes, new shoes, new jackets to replace the old.
What I mean when I say I want a wife is I want to feel tended to, cared for, for someone to see and address my needs before I can even identify them. Or at least to do that for my children, so I can increase the amount of space in my head for my own thoughts.
Is there something inherently sexist in my desire for a wife, that I won’t ask my husband to stoop to that level? And yet even as I broach the subject, I falter, knowing he is overworked as it is, overextended, overtasked. He tends to people all day too, but they are his clients. And it is a job for which he is paid.
When I begin to feel overwhelmed by the “crushing responsibility” (thank you, Leda from “The Good Daughter”) of the children and the household, I often hear the suggestion that we hire more help. But what if I don’t want a staff? What if I want the experience of having someone in my family who has chosen to feel that it is their duty to provide this care? That it is their job, part of our terms, at least for a season? That I don’t have to pay them and arrange their hours and outline my expectations but it is all just there, underfoot, like a soft carpet reliably cushioning, the tending and care something I don’t have to imagine or ask into existence, it just appears.
If/when men provide this care they are given gold medals. Efforts that are invisible when done by mothers become Olympic when done by fathers.
When men are not conditioned to see the care of the household as part of their identity or even their responsibility, women get pigeonholed into the role of hapless “nag,” endlessly assigning tasks because it is not on the radar of their husbands. Our desire for a wife means a desire for a family member who would see all that we see, take on all that we take on, that we would not endlessly be having to bring these needs to our family’s attention.
“‘What would your superpower be, Mummy?’ Evangeline trills at me…
‘The male ability not to see mess,’ I reply.”—Clover Stroud, My Wild and Sleepless Nights
(a poem I wrote during quarantine)
Because marriage is inextricably mixed up with a patriarchal history that treated women as property to be traded from one man to another, to become a wife has historically been disempowering. All you were shifting was your allegiance, from your father to your husband. “Right up to the 1970s, when an American woman married, her husband took charge of her sexuality and most of her finances, property and behavior,” historian Stephanie Coontz writes in her fascinating article, “How to Make Your Marriage Gayer.” (It wasn’t until 1974 that a wife could apply for a credit card independent from her husband). Today, while that is no longer the case, our societal traditions have not evolved to reflect our newfound status as worthy in our own right. Even as we’ve made so much progress as women, we still live in a culture that assumes wives will take their husband’s last names. If women decide to keep their ‘maiden’ name (even that word is steeped in patriarchy*), we haven’t yet normalized children taking the mother’s last name, something Aubrey Hirsch explored last month in her article in Time.
“I’ve seen so many variations of people asking, “Why would you give the kids your father’s last name instead of your husband’s?” that, at times, I begun to feel invisible. It’s not just my father’s name. It’s my name. Couldn’t they see that erasing a woman’s ownership of her own name is a symptom of the same disease I’m trying to remedy?”
(*please note the definition of “maiden:” a) an unmarried girl or woman; b) a former Scottish beheading device resembling the guillotine; c) a horse that has never won a race.)
Wife is the thing we are taught to aspire to as girls, and yet, once we arrive, does it lose its allure? What have we done except “locked a man down,” wiled him into a prison? We’ve claimed him as ours and then can announce victory. But whose freedom is truly at stake? The Spanish word for wives, espousas, also means “handcuffs.” Evidently, it is because spondere in Latin means “to bind.”
Etymology of the Word Wife Kate Baer from the Indo-European root, ghwibh, which means pudenda or shame shame from the Old English, scamu, which means modesty or private part private from the Latin word privatus, which means personal or peculiar peculiar from the mid-fifteen-century meaning “belong exclusively to one person” or private property
Is there a way to redeem the word wife? To move beyond the archaic claustrophobia of “honor and obey?” To transcend the role of helpmeet? The idea that a wife is someone who tends? Tends the house, tends the children, tends to everyone but herself. And if tending herself, it is outward focused, her hair, her nails, her appearance, so that she might be pretty and acceptable (i.e. the perfect trophy wife).
I guess what I’m asking is, is the reason I want a wife due to the fact that I no longer want to be one? Do I secretly want to abdicate my responsibilities like so many other creative mothers in the cultural zeitgeist (movies like “The Lost Daughter” & “C’mon C’mon”, novels like Fleishman Is in Trouble & I Love You, But I’ve Chosen Darkness)? To be clear, I enjoy some parts of wifedom, and certainly many parts of motherhood. But there are other aspects that feel smothering. Perhaps if I could just envision a future world in which being a wife was equal to the experience of being a husband, and being a mother was equivalent to being a father, I could keep working to do my own part in my own marriage to level the playing field. Perhaps what I mean when I say I want a wife is that I want husbands to be held to the same standard of partnership and parenthood that mothers are. That I want our world to expect more from men, from husbands and fathers, so that we can finally achieve the equity that we are all so desperate to see realized.
“How to Make Your Marriage Gayer,” Stephanie Coontz, The New York Times, February 13, 2020. This entire article is worth a read. Some gems:
“A 2015 survey found that almost half of dual-earner, same-sex couples shared laundry duties, compared with just under a third of different-sex couples. And a whopping 74 percent of same-sex couples shared routine child care, compared with only 38 percent of straight couples.
An analysis of American Time Use Surveys from 2003 to 2013 found that men with female partners spent the least amount of total time and the lowest proportion of their nonwork time engaged with their children. But men with same-sex partners spent as much time with their children as did the average woman partnered with a man.”
“Men Should Be Forced to Take Parental Leave”, Reshma Saujani, The Cut, March 15, 2022. Also, listen to her conversation with Dr. Becky Kennedy on the Good Inside Podcast, You Shouldn’t Have to Choose Between Work and Motherhood.
“When we as a culture normalize gender neutral parental leave as opposed to just maternity leave, we begin to make the tectonic shift in how we value caregiving.”
I highly recommend following Mother Tongue magazine. They consistently share thought provoking quotes on the language surrounding motherhood.
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Excellent piece! Even though I do not have children nor do I have a husband at the moment, I can still relate.
I learn 8000 things every time I read a piece that you’ve written with such care drawing connections!!! I’d love to know the entomology of husband. Of shepherd. Of nurse. Of doctor. Of dog. Of witch. Of mender. Of listener. Of detach. Of repair. Of better. Of which way did I go? Of when did you see me last? Of did anyone see me? Of I was just here? Of where did I leave me. Of I’ll come back soon. Of I always come back. Of I forgot what I did with me. Of I forgot how to leave. Of come little me. Of they were so wrong. Of I name myself now. Of I start here.