Sunday, August 12, 2007

Wife Envy

My closest woman friend, an expert on environmental risk who recently finished her PhD and consults in the nuclear field, likes to sew couture, bakes excellent chocolate cakes, and grows heritage vegetables in her garden. Like me, she is handy with a hammer and has a sharp but subtle wit and a powerful intellect. And like me, she is married. Like me, she is a wife.

Perhaps it is a quirk of our social milieu, but it seems to me that our marital status elicits an unwarranted amount of attention among certain acquaintances. Two generations ago this attention would have come in the form of virulent disapprobation from chauvinists who believed that married women should not pursue PhDs but instead should remain cloistered in the home and pump out litters like brood sows. A generation ago the original objection would have inverted itself and we might have been criticised instead as traitors to second-wave feminism for choosing men over Ms. These days, however, there is a new twist to the tale.

These days the people who seem most preoccupied with our marital status are certain unmarried women of our age and acquaintance: thirty- and forty-something single women who seem to find our marriages threatening not because we undermine feminist solidarity but because -- by remaining independent and interesting even when partnered up -- we make marriage look like more fun than being single. We seem to be a danger to insecure unmarried women because our marriages throw their own choices and status into doubt. We make the better off single narrative look like a lie.

I was good at being single and did not expect to marry. It wasn't that I was opposed to marriage, but it did not factor into my own plans, and when I dated I looked not for a solitaire but for solidarity. And in its absence I lived by myself and was happy. When I encountered other people's relationships that seemed solid, I was neither envious nor sad but rather celebrated the strength they exuded. When I witnessed or experienced dismal relationships that subsequently broke up, I was grateful for the reminder to never compromise. And I did not console myself by imagining cracks in others' relationships, nor did I pretend that being single was somehow the more principled choice. It was simply a different one.

When I met Peter, I reveled in the solidarity we built upon a foundation of shared principle. It was his idea that we should get married.

When we did, in a private ceremony at City Hall four months after we met, some people were happy for us. My parents (including my father, who at that time had not spoken to me for several years but who rushed an announcement into the local paper nonetheless). Peter's mother, who along with my mother were our chosen witnesses. My best friend Ellen, whose own private wedding a year earlier seemed almost to foretell ours.

And yet, several of our single female acquaintances objected to our marriage. With telling regularity at social events Peter and I attended the subject of wives would be raised -- invariably by an unmarried woman. "I want a wife", one would assert, looking directly at me, the only wife in the room. Despite the garbled attempt to mix irony with insult, perhaps a la Judy Syfers Brady's classic "Why I Want a Wife", these women did more to broadcast their own sense of loss, longing and rage. If I was offensive to these objectors, I was also fascinating, powerful, even dangerous, for having lured Peter into what was understood to be a kind of shackled domesticity. "You live in a decorated house now," one of them told Peter in one attempt to characterize what bothered her most about his marriage, about me, his "convention-enforcing housewife."

I found these caricatures as amusing as I found them perplexing and irksome. Because when I met Peter I was concluding a very public role as a union leader and negotiator, a singular accomplishment in a domain where few women rise to such prominence. I taught Peter how to use power tools. I have three university degrees. I read Heidegger in the bathtub and can curse in Russian. It had never occurred to me that these accomplishments were in any way undone by the fact that I also have an eye for design and collect pretty glassware. It never occurred to me that I needed to choose between being powerful and accomplished and being a wife.

The fortunate thing about caricatures is that they are hard to sustain in the face of experience. And it appears that, over a period of several years, these narratives about me were rewritten. At some point I appear to have become admirable, even enviable, to the same women who once denigrated me for being a wife. But I suspect that if honesty was not such a rare commodity, it might be admitted that my status had been enviable all along. My becoming a wife -- or (dare I speculate) perhaps my becoming Peter's wife -- served merely to focus their fascination.

My dearest friend Ellen has encountered a remarkably similar thing, mainly from women who compliment her cooking or sewing so they do not have to congratulate her on her PhD. Or who comment on all the "spare time" Ellen must have had for graduate work. You know, all that leisure time between hanging curtains and watching General Hospital. Ellen does catch up on the soaps from time to time -- when taking a break from her consulting work as an expert on environmental risk. Her diverse accomplishments create irresolvable cognitive dissonance in those who cannot accept Ellen's arrogance in choosing both marriage and public accomplishment. Who does she think she is, they wonder.

But this very question proposes its own answer and distinguishes us from friends who are single and married alike. It is exactly this unwillingness to settle for half a life that has made both of us such good wife material. Because in truth, the success of our marriages owes much to the reality that we are both accomplished, confident women who have never needed a husband to provide an identity for us. Just as we were good at being single, so too are we good at being wives.

['The Good Wife's Guide' image from Melanie Watts and used here under the aegis of a Creative Commons licence.]

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