Up Front by Emma Hart


The Missus

I like me a good philosophical debate, I do. Somehow I've managed to pick up some odd ideas, and I only discover how odd they are when I say something I think is obvious and everyone just stares at me. At other times, I'm completely bamboozled by something other people find so straight-forward they don't need to explain it.

Recently, one of my favourite blog-reads, Make Tea Not War, linked to a discussion at a Mom-blog site where women were debating a thorny issue: which is the harder job, being a mother, or being a wife. Even reading their comments, I was conscious of a hole in my knowledge that made me unable to even consider the issue.

I don't know what the 'job of a wife' is.

I know what it used to be. I know there are strong ideas about a married woman's role in other cultures – cultures that aren't mine. Here and now, though, what the hell is the job of a wife?

Whatever the job of a wife is, it must somehow be different from the job of a husband, and different from the 'job' of a single woman. It has to be different from the job of being a mother, because that's apparently what it’s in conflict with.

I know what the job of a parent is, and I can work out how 'mother' is different from 'father', as far as expectations go. I'm supposed to be more nurturing, possibly even a bit smothering. Dads are supposed to be more authoritarian, and also more fun. It doesn't quite work out that way in our house. I'm the disciplinarian, and also the person who says 'okay, off you go, let me know if you need an ambulance'.

Lately I've even become conscious of having a role as a daughter that's different from the role of a son. Last year our family took a trip to Hanmer to celebrate my mother's eightieth birthday. My job consisted of spending hours looking at holiday homes on line, then relaying information to my mother and brother (who live in the same city, not mine), then taking their feedback and starting all over again. It was a while before I realised why I was doing this, and not my brother, which would have shortened the process. In my family, things are always organised by women. That's determined by a simple, and hugely sexist, underlying assumption: men are a bit shit. A man couldn’t organise a lay on a poultry farm. If you want something done properly, you get a woman to do it. First it's the mother's job, then as the family ages it becomes the daughter's.

Being aware of that, I started to get alarmed. The job of a wife is tough enough for some women to say that it's harder than being a mother, and I don't even know what it is. If I don't know what it is, I can't be doing it right. It's probably not 'providing obscenity-laden commentary to the evening news'. Perhaps my partner is secretly thinking, 'well, she's okay, but man I wish I had a proper wife'. What to do?

I asked the internet. Google knows everything; you just have to work out how to get it to tell you. I learned that it used to be the job of a wife to get water from the well in the morning. I found people talking about it without defining it, like this:

The job of a wife and mother is to be a wife and mother.  Anything in addition to that must also be subservient to it.  There is no higher calling.  Moreover, I believe Paul's admonition should lead us to reject any notion of a wife and mother taking on the level of responsibility that Mrs. Palin is seeking. 

So it's obviously very important, and precludes becoming vice-president in a way that being corrupt and bat-fuck crazy seemingly doesn't. Not hugely helpful, though.

Hunter S. Thompson's widow Anita feels that "the job of a wife is to protect your husband when there are dark forces around, or when he is feeling dark and depressed". I'm not entirely sure what that means either, though it could indicate a use for my lightsabre and thigh-boots.

A woman discussing Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary’s Home-Making Major was more explicit:

Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary is a school founded on biblical principles, not the latest bunch of feminist hoo-ha. Titus 2:3-5 says, "Older women likewise are to…train the young women to love their husbands and children, to be self controlled, pure, working at home, kind, and submissive to their own husbands, that the word of God may not be reviled"

I'd never heard of the Book of Titus, but I'm betting it's one of Paul's. While I do work at home, I think the kind submissive self-controlled pure ship has sailed.

It did remind me of a friend of mine who went on a Women's Retreat with her church a couple of years ago. There she was taught that all conflict in a marriage is due to women being too uppity. The model of wifedom preached there was what I like to summarise in terms of Once Were Warriors: you keep your legs open and your mouth shut.

This isn't the tradition I was raised in, though. It's about as relevant to me as traditional Jewish or Muslim ideas of wifedom. It's like getting the water from the well: not something I've ever been expected to do.

I'm a bit dodgy on 'home-making' too. It's not construction, I know that. It sounds like housework. I did housework when I was single. I'm pretty sure the house would still need dusting if I lived alone.

The job of a wife must be something I have to do because I have a partner, that I wouldn't be expected to do if I didn't. I'm about all out of ideas, I just have one more lingering suspicion. And if it is sex? If the job of a wife is to put out? Shucky darn, that’s terrible. Now, what's the job of a husband again?

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