Hello. My name is Anna and I’m a crap wife.
Don’t get me wrong; I’m a pretty good partner to my husband, Sean. I’m mostly cheerful, too easily distracted to moan and too slapdash to nag. I show my devotion by sending Sean links to geeky articles about vertical forests and funny pictures of dogs in scarves. I’m low-maintenance and as contented dining in a so-underground-we-spent- 20-minutes-searching-for-thedoorbell Brixton supperclub as eating rice and soy sauce in front of Game Of Thrones.
I’m far from perfect, but I’m still sure Sean made a pretty smart move in marrying me. Or so I think until I’m reminded what being a ‘good wife’ traditionally means. Compared to the Fifties stereotype, I’m a hopeless failure at being a wife. When I go to the gym before work, I’ll skulk out without saying good morning, let alone making him breakfast.
If he phones at work, I speak in a cold, clipped office voice, sounding like my own PA. Once I even signed off an email ‘Kind Regards’. I dress to impress colleagues, friends and myself, not him. And to be honest, Sean does more cooking and cleaning – because he has a lower tolerance for filth, enjoys cooking and gets home first.
This isn’t unusual: in a survey by the Ideal Home Exhibition, 84% of men said that both sexes should share household chores (65% of women unfairly assumed the average man would say it should be left to women). I regularly fill my weeknights and weekends with the gym, drinks with friends and random errands, then remember that I have a husband to fit into the gaps.
The downside of having a job that I love is that I never say no to a project, even if it eats into time with Sean. I might preface the news with a “Honey, would you mind if…” but let’s be honest: the decision is already made. Our friends and colleagues get the best parts of our week; our partners get the scraps when we’re tired, stressed or hungover.
In moments of guilt, I repeat the lazy woman’s mantra, “He could do a lot worse.” I’m not alone: a recent survey found women consistently scored more highly on a ‘selfishness spectrum’ than men. We’re more likely to make what we want for dinner over what our partner wants (55% versus 45%), more likely to forget a friend or relative’s birthday (50% versus 41%) and less likely to phone or text our friends, family or partner (42% versus 36%). So when I chastise myself for being a bad wife, moreover I mean bad person.
OLD SCHOOL VALUES
Of course, relationships have changed dramatically over the 20th and 21st century. We have equal domestic roles and equal career expectations. The gay marriage bill now only needs to be passed through the House of Lords and many couples, heterosexual or not, are choosing to not marry at all.
Definitions of the word ‘husband’ and ‘wife’ have changed too. Once upon a time, to become a ‘husband’ you just had to marry your girlfriend, becoming a ‘wife’ traditionally came with terms and conditions attached. This was the case throughout history, but the ‘good wife’ as we know her today became a living, breathing influential stereotype in the Fifties, when magazines such as Good Housekeeping and My Home, advertising, Doris Day films and TV shows like Father Knows Best fostered the familiar stereotype of the perfect housewife – the domestic goddess placed on earth to erase the horrors of the Second World War with a sweep of her feather duster.
The expectation was that in marrying a man, you would cook, clean, raise children, laugh at his crap jokes, nod understandingly about his evil boss, throw dinner parties for his chums – and do it all in mascara and a pretty frock so that he still wanted to spend the night with you and not some other lurking, predatory bogey woman. Who, since she is not yet a ‘wife’, has free-time to apply lashings of mascara and slink around in pretty frocks, plus will laugh louder than you at his crap jokes.
High-profile ‘good wives’ like Grace Kelly and Jacqueline Kennedy might not have had to wash and scrub, but their unerring ability to quash their own ambitions, hopes and dreams, and put their husbands first, still made them postergirls for good wifedom. The world nodded in approval when Grace Kelly retired from acting in 1956 upon her marriage to Prince Rainier of Monaco. When my grandmother, Greta, a nurse, married Sammy, an electrician, in the Northern Irish town of Carrickfergus in 1949, she also had to give up her job (it was only in the Fifties that married nurses and schoolteachers were permitted to keep working).
Her new job was to have breakfast ready in the morning, make him his packed lunch, have dinner waiting when he came home and make him a cup of tea and a biscuit before bed. Monday was washday, Tuesday was ironing – each day flavoured with a different chore. It was a new life which women across the country had to adopt and was reflected in the in the Sixties sitcom Marriage Lines where a young Prunella Scales struggled with the same transition to domestic bliss. Yes, Greta and Sammy had fun together – they taught ballroom dancing classes at the local community hall. But my granddad never understood just how much effort went into the business of being a ‘good wife’; or appreciated that while his work finished at 5pm, hers was a 24-hour shift.
The changing face of wifedom
By the time my mother, Patricia, a doctor, had me in 1979, things had changed. The pill had given women control over their fertility, more women were graduating from university and second-wave feminism was addressing inequalities in the home, in the workplace and in the media.
Germaine Greer published The Female Eunuch in 1970 and hit domestic sitcoms, such as The Good Life and Fawlty Towers, both placed spirited housewives on more of an equal footing with their husbands. Even so, it was unthinkable that my dad, Ian, would be the one to go part-time when my mum had me. Just a decade later, however, social expectations had shifted – at least in pop culture. Films like Look Who’s Talking (1989) and Baby Boom (1987) centred on high-powered ‘career women’ finding a happy ending in a happy family with men whose careers took a backseat.
‘Career woman’ is now a toe-curlingly outdated phrase (I don’t know any woman who isn’t a career woman), but back then it was a useful label for a new breed. Just two decades after Jackie Kennedy had been the nation’s sweetheart, the American First Lady, Nancy Reagan, was labelled a ‘relic’ for her preoccupation with looking immaculate and her unwavering loyalty to her husband. It wasn’t that women cared less about their partner than their mothers did. It’s simply that women now had other things to care about; careers, politics and passions that took them beyond the front door.
My childhood memories in the late Eighties and Nineties are of my parents having a gloriously egalitarian marriage. My mum worked long hours as a consultant ophthalmologist, so my dad, a vicar, picked us up from school and made us all dinner. My mum got home late, so my dad would put five chicken kievs and tinfoiled potatoes in the oven.
My dad has been holding marriage ceremonies since the Seventies, and he welcomes the changes in gender relations. “According to The Bible, the chief purpose of a wife was to be a companion to a husband, and an equal,” he says. “She was never meant to be a servant.” But even though my mum was the main breadwinner, as a vicar’s wife, the spectre of the dutiful wife still loomed over her, and she was regularly reminded by society as a whole that she fell short.
Today’s young, educated professional women might feel so far removed from this loaded definition of a ‘wife’, that the closest we come to her is rewatching season one of Mad Men. That’s wrong. We don’t need to look far to find her. If I return to my hometown of Belfast, she’s in any shopping centre. On holiday in Italy last month she bustled through every grocery store. I could probably find her just a few doors away from where I live in North London. There are still plenty of people who apply the above definition to the word ‘wife’. And that’s their choice.
It is inarguably a positive that women – whether wives or not – no longer live in a state of marital paranoia and drudgery. But the combination of a solid relationship, being a feminist and having a hectic life means I fail at the essence of a loving relationship: namely putting your partner top of your priorities. And surely this is bad news for our relationships, because we don’t have to be poor partners in order to be independent.
“Both men and women are so busy these days that it’s easy to take loving attachment for granted,” says marriage counsellor Andrew G Marshall. “We think that because our partner is an equal, and loves us, that they’ll understand. But if you stop making someone feel like they’re a top priority, love can turn into ‘affectionate disregard’ – that’s when one day you wake up and think ‘I love you, but I’m not in love with you.’”
If I’m honest, I’ve always worn my distaste for housework and inability to cook as a badge of feminist pride.
I would tease friends who bought their boyfriends Valentine’s presents and I’d never have admitted that I was cancelling a plan with friends because I wanted to spend time with a boy. Now I can recognise that what I termed ‘feminism’ was sometimes laziness and thoughtlessness. I’m not about to ditch my morning gym habit so I can bring Sean breakfast in bed, but there’s also no shame in wanting your relationship to be as successful as your career or your friendships.
Modern Marital bliss
Today, relationships are less about being a Fifties-esque ‘good wife’ and more about having a portfolio partnership, where we pick and choose the attributes that really matter to us in a partner. I don’t care that Sean never buys me flowers or presents. I can buy myself presents. But I do want a husband who’ll tell me I’m adorable when I’ve got hangover paranoia and who won’t moan when I work late because he respects the fact that I love my job.
I’m sure Sean would love it if I cooked better puddings and was tidier, but it matters more that his wife doesn’t care what he does for a living as long as he’s happy. I might not pull my weight around the house, but I organise 98% of our social lives and plan amazing holidays. Mostly, it works. Both of us appreciate the work the other is doing elsewhere.
I firmly believe the Fifties vision of the ‘good wife’ didn’t do men any favours, either. For every man ranting on a men’s rights forum about how western women don’t know how to be good wives anymore, there are dozens who’d run a mile from a simpering Fifties housewife. Men have changed too. A recent survey found that a third of women think their other half is the household’s best cook and research at York University even found that, in Western society, men are focusing on ‘intellect and character’ as opposed to looks.
Yep, we could all do better at our relationships, but I don’t miss the good wife at all. And I’m not entirely sure that good husbands miss her either.