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Are Wives Obsolete?

I am not the world’s best wife.

Sometimes I say this to people, and they titter with discomfort. But they’re probably misinterpreting my self-deprecation. I’m not a failure by my own standards or (last time I checked) my husband’s. I’m a pretty good partner. But the word “wife” means more than that, doesn’t it?

In the very first issue of Ms. Magazine, Judy Syfer defined the traditional role: “I want a wife who will keep my house clean. A wife who will pick up after my children, a wife who will pick up after me. I want a wife who will keep my clothes clean, ironed, mended, replaced when need be, and who will see to it that my personal things are kept in their proper place so that I can find what I need the minute I need it. I want a wife who cooks the meals, a wife who is a good cook. I want a wife who will plan the menus, do the necessary grocery shopping, prepare the meals, serve them pleasantly, and then do the cleaning up …

My God, who wouldn’t want a wife?”

In addition to the basic things that go into a healthy life partnership, the job of “wife” seems to traditionally include the duties of housekeeper, chef, and personal assistant. These roles are separate from the job of “mother,” not to mention any other type of work the woman juggling these roles might be doing. It’s clearly impossible to do all these things without letting something slide. Observing that the wife part of the equation seems to be losing traction among today’s couples, Lisa Belkin, a senior columnist on Life/Work/Family for the Huffington Post, wonders if it’s time we found a new way of referring to the female half of a married couple.

Belkin refers to a discussion on momversation about marriage and motherhood, which shed some light on why women might be less invested in being “a good wife” than “a good mother”.

“Our mothers spent more of their time working on being better wives as opposed to better mothers,” she says. “Whereas, for our generation it seems like it’s kind of the opposite, that we concentrate more on being better mothers than better wives.” We do this, she concluded, because parenting is harder and needs more of our attention.

But Alice Bradley from Finslippy.com found Armstrong’s reasoning to be exactly backward. Motherhood is easier, Bradley said, which is why we give it more attention — it’s so much more rewarding to tackle the challenges you can win.”

I think there might be more to it than that. Many of us were raised in the era of the above Ms. Magazine essay, by mothers who were hopeful that their daughters could do something different than housework. I’d also argue that the diminution of the wife’s role is at least partly about the expansion of the mother’s. We spend way more time actively parenting our children (and worrying about how we’re parenting them, which includes things like reading this website). And, as Belkin points out, today’s families are more likely to have two working parents than ever before. And the refrain “I need a wife” has been written, and probably wailed, by more than a few working (and married) mothers over the years.

So does Syfer’s 1971 description of wifely duties still apply today? No … and yes. In the majority of families, men don’t expect women to do all the housework. Male participation in household chores has vastly increased since the 1970s. But by and large, women still do more. And even when they don’t, there’s sometimes a lingering expectation that they should. This traditional role stuff goes both ways, obviously; it’s not like husbands don’t feel the pressure to provide for the family per generations past. So, Belkin asks, should we scrap the gender-specific stuff and just start referring to each other as “spouse” or “partner” to help shed this baggage?

Belkin’s article on HuffPo has provoked a rash of impassioned comments, mostly cries of political correctness or complaints about the futility, absurdity, or threat of changing the term. I agree with the idea that words can be redefined by the people who use them. But can we ever really escape the shadow of the word’s history? And is that a bad thing? How do traditional roles figure into your family situation?

Read Lisa Belkin’s “Is It Time To Retire The Word ‘Wife’?” on Huffington Post

photo: x-ray delta one/flickr

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