Tuesday, June 07, 2011

the good wife

i don't think this photo has anything to do with this post.
we discussed extensively this past weekend what it is that makes a "good wife."  there was a lot of laughter and sarcasm in our discussion, but i've been thinking about it ever since. about where notions of what makes a good wife come from. and how constricting they are, despite all of women's so-called liberation. and how nobody really talks about them (being too busy (in the blogosphere anyway) talking about what it is to be a good mother). and just generally how much pressure there is on wives to do it all and be awesome.

many of the traditional good wife things, i utterly fail at...keeping the house spotless, doing the dishes immediately after the meal, sweeping the kitchen floor, dusting, getting rid of cobwebs (there are way more spiders than me, so i can't win), cleaning and vacuuming the car. i could go on. and you notice how much it's a list of domestic chores. at the same time, in today's society, i'm expected to work full time at a fulfilling career (because a job just won't do), be a good mom (e.g. drive my child to countless activities and bake her birthday cake) and keep myself looking young, thin and stunning. it's exhausting, if you think about it.

i do some wifely things...i'm generally the main cook in the house and we eat at what could be reasonably called dinnertime, tho' dinner is seldom waiting on the table when husband comes home.  we tend to sit down together and eat, only occasionally in front of the television (generally because i have some project or other taking up the dining table). i'm good at keeping the laundry done around here, tho' i'm less good at putting it away and people sometimes have to paw through baskets, looking for socks and clean underwear and that favorite pink sweatshirt. i bake bread 2-3 times a week. i spend time in the garden (tho' that is again primarily a husband activity) and will be doing lots of canning and preserving as soon as the garden starts to produce.

but how did all of these good wife things remain so domestic, even after the revolution? what about being well-read and interesting, so that your husband can and wants to have an intelligent conversation with you?  what about mutual dreams shared with your husband? that's definitely good wifely-ness. what about still desiring your husband and him desiring you? that's a good trait in a wife. what about knowing when to give space and knowing when you need space? why are all of the things that we're judged by to do with keeping up appearances in some sense?

i think my conclusion on all of the weekend's discussions and my own pondering it since, is that i want to reject all those societal, cultural notions of what it means to be a good wife. and just continue to be one. because i am. even if there is crap all over the kitchen floor and dishes in the sink and dust on the dashboard of the car. i'm a great wife in all of the ways that really matter. so i think i'll stop worrying about it now.


Elizabeth said...


Tracy Golightly-Garcia said...

Hello Julie

I double that "Amen"

Have a good day!

Tracy :)

Molly said...

Did I just lose my comment? Damn, it was a good one...
One definition of good wife is based on the indicators which can be seen by the world at large, the other is based on your & your husband's happiness.
It's a good husband which recognises the most important one.

And in my marriage anything to do with the car is most definitely a husband duty :)

poet said...

Absolutely agree, these ideas are terribly old-fashioned.

I know that I'm pretty good at some of the stereotypical wife things - basically everything that has to do with managing a household (because unlike most people of my generation I received explicit schooling in household chores and management), decorating and crafting (because it's something I just really, really enjoy), and keeping myself pretty (because I'm vain, ha!) .

I know this means that slightly more than 50% of these chores will somewhat naturally fall to me in any cohabitation situation (which sucks from a feminist point of view but is mostly okay from a practical point of view), but I don't see this as what primarily makes me a good partner. I'm not even sure that I am one - I'd absolutely need to get better in giving space and taking space when my partner / I need it, respectively - and also at having interesting conversations where I'm not the overbearingly talkative one :)


Karen thisoldhouse2.com said...

Ditto ditto ditto!!!....

Red Boots said...

I'm with you on this! I am definitely not a good wife (or rather, girlfriend). Boyfriend cooks and vacuums, and changes the bed linen, and does the dishes, and cleans out and feeds our pets. My contributions are limited to cleaning the bathroom and doing the laundry. But in my defense I know how to make him laugh and have good conversations with him, and surely that's more important than washing the dishes and vacuuming every day?!

Anonymous said...

I've never thought about whether I'm a good wife or not. I'd say yes I am.

What I'm lacking in the traditional skills, I make up for in the intellectual equal department-- which seems a whole lot more useful in this world than knowing how to polish the copper bottoms on the pots.

Do you suppose that women still think that they are only as good as their kitchens are clean? Now you've given me something to ponder.

stephanie said...

Hear, hear. To me, being a good wife means that I'm doing what I need to do in order to feel like a good human. Because good human equals good companion equals happy life at home. So for me, making sure the house is clean and my husbands work shirts are pressed makes me feel good, so I do it. Working on projects together, having adventures together, making him smile, those things make me feel good, too...so I do them. Also, being able to do things that I enjoy without feeling guilty, that's a big one, too...even if it sounds selfish.

Man...great post, Julie. My mind is rolling now, and this will be thought about for the next little while. An excellent way to start my day.

will said...

Role playing remains part of most relationships. Value judgments and stereotyping has long been part of marriage and other close relationships.

"He does that, and I do this" are still commonly said, even by young people. Curious how the previous generational values continue to creep forward in time.

In the US, it wasn't that long ago when women were first allowed to vote and in recent history, congress was still all male - and making rules and laws about women's issues. Ditto most religions.

As we witness more rightwingism in government and religion, there's an apparent retreat from the freedoms and parities gained by women during the past 30-40 years.

And all of that plays into the dust swirl circling the thing called marriage.

Sarah said...

Love this post. It's given me a lot to ponder.

In my house, I'm definitely the one who is more focused on certain "wifely" pursuits--mainly I'm thinking about decorating, making the house/table look nice. But I am also a more visual person than my husband is, and more affected mentally by my physical surroundings. (Then again, is what I think of as just a neutral personality trait also informed by gender? Am I affected by my surroundings because I have been trained as a female to notice/evaluate them?)

It's interesting to think about how your definition of "good" would change if you took relationship or gender out of the equation. How does your definition of a "good wife" differ from a "good woman"? And from a "good person"?

I also wonder whether the same sort of thought process can be applied to men. What is a "good husband" and do our contemporary, supposedly-liberated notions of that still fall back on constricting roles? (One would think that "don't Tweet pictures of your underwear" would be a universal constant, but I suppose one can't assume anything nowadays.)

christopher said...

In the same sense that beauty is in the eye of the beholder...'good wife', 'good husband' or 'good partner' is only really defined by what it means to you, the individuals.

And trying to fit into a pre-determined mold doesn't usually work that well anyway.

Gwen said...

although i have no idea at all what you're talking about, i want to recommend the book (no longer new): the erotic silence of the american wife. it talks about how the ideal of Perfect Wife encompasses many more aspects than just good housekeeping. there's a direct correlation in modern western mythology between pleasure and "bad." this, too, plays into the kinds of concessions women make to create this idealized marriage that their social structure promises them will give them the gift of living happily ever after. good stuff. check it out.

Barb said...

I remember not long after I got married my husband and I stumbled across an article from the 50's (or was it a book?) explaining how to be a good wife. I don't remember all of it, but what sticks in my mind was "making sure the kids' faces and clothes were clean" when hubby got home. "changing into a dress" before he got home. "not bothering him with details of your day because he's obviously had a hard day at the office" etc. I feel sad for women whose mothers told them to live this way. I'm with you. I'm a good wife, despite my ...

Book of Ruth said...

I love the fact that you wrapped beyond all of the things and moved into the act of being.

It is strength, intelligence, companionship, the art of conversation, attentiveness and love that make me worth my weight to my spouse. It's me that matters.

Way to hit the nail on the head.