My friends think my husband is the perfect man. And, in some ways, they’re not wrong.
“Liz’s husband is the type of man who unloads the dishwasher, unbidden,” my best friend once lauded him. Indeed, he is the sole keeper of the dishwasher, loading and unloading it daily, without complaint. He takes out the recycling and the trash, including emptying the diaper can in our daughter’s nursery and enduring its gag-inducing odor. Sometimes, when I’m watching TV, I hear the dulcet whirr of the vacuum cleaner in the next room. He cleans out the fridge as soon as he notices so much as a speck of mold. He grocery shops and cooks marvelous meals.
Were he a CrossFit enthusiast, he’d be a candidate for the book series “Porn for Women,” which features handsome, muscular men—often shirtless—performing household tasks, accompanied by quotes like, “As soon as I finish the laundry, I’ll do the grocery shopping. And I’ll take the kids with me so you can relax.”
Unlike other wives I know, I never have to nag my husband about household chores. He just does them.
So, I’m the luckiest woman in the world, right? The thing is, sometimes living with this angel of domesticity makes me feel like a big fat failure.
Somewhere deep down, I believe I should be the “housewife.” More specifically, my idea of a good mother is an overburdened housewife. I read so many stories about how mothers still bear the brunt of household chores, even when both spouses are working full-time. Since my husband and I both work, am I getting off easy? I contribute to our household in plenty of ways that don’t involve scrubbing or sauteeing, but somehow I still feel bad.
When I was growing up, I was not neat, and my family did not teach me how to clean. My father collects stuff of all kinds, and he would freak out when housekeepers rearranged his things. So, typically the house was in disarray.
My mother was more interested in her career as a painter and intellectual pursuits than in keeping house. (To her credit, she took care of me and my brother part-time for our entire childhoods.) As a result, mounds of dirty clothes accumulated in the laundry room.
My husband’s family, on the other hand, didn’t order takeout as frequently as we did or have a housekeeper. I’ve never seen my mother-in-law leave dirty dishes in the sink, as my mother frequently did.
Six years ago, for The Christian Science Monitor, I wrote a paean to my mother, praising her for finding time for her own pursuits, even if it meant putting off some household duties. Her behavior was a kind of feminist manifesto, I wrote—not modeling how to be a perfect housewife.
New York had recently run a cover story titled “The Feminist Housewife,” which cited a survey from the Families and Work Institute, in which women said that they detested housework and wished for more free time. Yet, when the women got more free time, they cleaned.
“Psychologists suggest that perhaps American women are heirs and slaves to some atavistic need to prove their worth through domestic perfectionism,” the reporter, Lisa Miller, wrote.
After my daughter was born, I suddenly began to identify with these women who feel guilty for not cooking or cleaning enough—in spite of admiring my mother’s unconventional approach.
I work as a freelance journalist, and I stay home with my daughter part-time. My husband has the same dual setup, and outside of that, we are good at splitting the child care. But, when my daughter was a newborn and I was taking time off of work, I cleaned obsessively during her naptimes and at night. I tried to cook more often. I bragged to my new mom friends about how much laundry I did.
My identity as a writer seemed to disappear. I didn’t give myself so much as a few moments to read or write in my journal.
And, I took for granted my own contributions to our household. Tucked away in my home office, I manage our finances, sort the mail and pay the bills. I buy our health insurance (my husband and I are both self-employed), a daunting task that requires hours of comparing plans. I pay our taxes. I’m the researcher—of travel, child care, you-name-it. Between our wedding and our baby, I’ve written more than 125 thank you notes (I worship at the temple of Emily Post). These are important tasks and things my husband isn’t good at.
There are also some household duties that are my responsibility, including laundry. I grocery shop and cook a couple of nights a week. But, I often fall behind on folding burp cloths and onesies, and I’m typically the one who suggests ordering takeout.
Most of my contributions aren’t things you can see. They don’t involve reaching to the back of the fridge with a soapy sponge, or carrying a heavy trash bag down two flights of stairs. Even though my husband always thanks me for what I do, I know he sometimes resents that he does the physically demanding work. He has joked with my brother that he is the “custodian” of our family (a fancy name for a janitor).
My therapist suggested that I need to accept my “21st century marriage.” Meaning, my husband does more of the cooking and cleaning, and I do the tasks that, in the past, were typically assigned to the man.
She also said, “As a new mom, you have a certain idea about what makes a ‘good mother.’ ”
I need to redefine “good mother” on my own terms, as my mother did. For me, that means working hard on my writing; I want my daughter to be proud of her mother’s professional and creative life. I’ve started using my daughter’s nap times to write, and finding other, less-precious time for laundry.
To accept my modern marriage, and my mothering, I need to stop apologizing for being a sub-par laundress and unreliable cook. I need to start really hearing it when my husband says “thank you” for making sure we pay our taxes on time. I need to remind myself of the unseen ways I contribute.
My new mantra is, “This family could not function without you. You are essential.”
Sure, my husband might sometimes resent that he does his work on his feet and I do my work from a desk. But is any marriage without resentment? (Hopefully, not too much.) I’m a perfectionist. But there’s no such thing as a perfect wife and mother.
So what if my husband is more of the “housewife” or “house-husband”? But, wait. Both of those terms are so terribly sexist. Why do we need to qualify marital roles by attaching one of them to “the house”? Both my husband and I make our household work, in different ways—ways that don’t need to be assigned a gender.